How to Find (and Keep) the Perfect Bartender

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The holidays are over and your best bar staff came through with flying colors and a little sparkle. Be sure you reward them! Even if you gave out holiday gifts, an extra reward – or some time off with pay – is warranted for your superstars.

Now is also a perfect time to take stock of the entire team and make sure every bartender next season – and all year round – is the perfect bartender.

“It’s all about connection,” said a 35-year veteran of bartending at Eddie V’s when I asked him what makes the perfect bartender. “I connect on some level with every customer and with the people I work with.” I watched as a younger bartender jumped in to help the more experienced staff member dry and stack glasses. “I also set an example for new employees,” the older and wiser bartender added. By the way, while I was interviewing him he made sure that every customer at the bar was being served. His laser focus on the entire bar scene and requests from the wait staff was astounding.

As you look to build the best team in the new year and beyond, think about these tips from managers who have perfected the recipe for hiring and retention.


The Basics & Behaviors

Managers agree that knowing how to mix a terrific drink has become a commodity these days. Says Juan Martinez, regional bar manager and beverage curator for The Madera Group, “Having an extensive knowledge of both wine and spirits is crucial, and classic cocktails are a must in today’s cocktail culture.”

Danny Fink, beverage director at The Depot in Auburn, Alabama, believes that a truly great bartender will “not only provide a guest with what they ask for, but also give a little story with it. For example, a brief history of the drink, or how it has evolved through history.”

But keep in mind that not every customer loves a chatty bartender. Fink continues, “Most people sit at a bar because they enjoy being entertained. To some customers that means watching high-end cocktail techniques and to others that means engaging conversation.” Again, having that connection and knowing your guests is the key. Women eating solo at the bar may just want to people watch and check their emails. Groups out to celebrate a special event want to interact just with each other. Great bartenders will read the situation and respond accordingly.

Multi-tasking is everything,” according to Martinez, “If you can’t stir a Martini, shake a cocktail, and have a conversation with a guest at the same time, you have some training to do!” he asserts.

M. Dana Mule, owner of Hula’s Modern Tiki in Phoenix and Scottsdale, has found that “Truly great bartenders are always seeking to make the guest experience exceptional. They truly take ownership and realize it’s not all about mixology and cocktail creations. It’s about the classic, human aspect of bartending.” He continues, “In today’s social media culture, everyone is craving real, sincere human interaction. Muddling fresh herbs and making your own syrups from scratch is great, but it means nothing compared to spreading a sense of love and inclusion at your bar.”

Jeff Hands, restaurateur and president of Optimum Control (inventory management system for bars and restaurants) stresses the importance of patience under stressful or difficult situations. “It’s easy to get frustrated when business gets busy, but a good bartender needs the patience to ensure that customers are met with a smile and doesn’t worry about the chaos behind the bar.”

So, how do you hire for these skills? Check out The Talent Test for how to separate the rock star bartenders from the people who are just looking to pay the rent. Co-author Jim D’Arcangelo recommends a screening test that gets to the bottom of candidates’ styles and motives.


Hold Tight to the Perfect Bartender...But Not Too Tight

So, you’ve found (and cloned) that perfect bar staff. How to you make sure they stay behind your bar rather than bouncing to another opportunity? According to a recent study by EmployeeChannel, quoted in the Toast blog, only 16% of employees said they felt “connected and engaged” by employers. The blog goes on to suggest 6 ways to boost morale, including engagement in decision making, free food and beverages, and scheduling flexibility.

Fink adds, “The key to keeping good bartenders happy is showing them you care about them personally and letting them be involved in the creative process behind the bar. I’ve found some of the best improvements I’ve made to the bar program started out as ideas from frontline employees. Letting them explore their creative side helps them grow professionally and gives them a sense of achievement.” He encourages the bartenders to come up with the 2-3 featured cocktails on the menu.

Mule adds, “You want your bartenders to know that the bar is their world and the people walking in are their guests.”

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