Your Work Family: The Key to Your Legacy

Image by A.J. Meeker

Update: This article has been updated to include the full video of Jim Meehan's inspiring keynote!

Jim Meehan, entrepreneur, bartender, and the author of James Beard award-winning Meehan’s Bartender Manual, shared his approach to leadership at the 2019 Nightclub & Bar Show in Las Vegas.

During his keynote he pointed out that the business has changed. This isn’t due solely to shifts in consumer behavior, either. The labor force has redefined the employer-employee relationship.

Adapting to the changes—particularly on the employee side—means embracing a new mindset. In part, this comes down to thinking of the business in a new way. For the past several years different experts have tried to explain that owners in this space do more than just sell food and drinks, and Meehan has his own take on this industry.

“We're in the bar business because we're in the drinks business,” he said during his keynote. “But more than that, we're in the people business and the memories business.”


Phrasing Matters

Meehan began his journey into bartending and bar ownership in 1995. He started tending bar in Wisconsin at a venue owned by a husband and wife. This first gig shaped how he saw the bar business. He was family at his first bar gig, a member of a team, not just another expendable employee.

How did that first bartending job shape Meehan’s 20-plus-year career? He learned to “parse the semantics” of the job, for one thing. Bar and restaurant owners have options when it comes to how they refer to the people they employ. They can call them a staff, a team or a family. (I’m going to refer to employees as team members in this article.)

How a business owner views their staff, team or work family can have a greater impact on workplace culture than people realize. The semantics may have been shaped long before someone ever owned a bar or restaurant. Their relationship with their own biological families can have an impact, as can the experience of playing team sports. And, of course, the treatment they received by former employees has a strong influence on their approach to leadership.

This business is dominated by younger people who are gaining experience and learning lessons during their formative adult years. Many owners who worked in bars, restaurants or nightclubs before they opened their own venues decide how—and how not—to treat employees based on how they were treated by past bosses. They’re also shaped by the bonds they formed (or didn’t form) with coworkers.

Read this: Five Questions with PDT's Jim Meehan About Talent, Training and Time

As Meehan explained during his keynote, bar and restaurant teams share unique work experiences. They work when others are playing. They work during holidays. Tip pools require them to rely on and trust one another. Coworkers who feel like they’re part of a team or a family have likely formed stronger bonds with one another.

It’s important today and moving into the future that owners foster a sense of family in the workplace. Teams are great—families are stronger.

Hire for EQ

Everyone’s journey to bar or restaurant ownership is different. Meehan, however, had this to say about when a bartender may want to consider opening their own place:

“You'll know it's time to open your own bar when your regulars ask you when you're going to open your own bar.”

Developing regulars, creating a following that benefits the bartender, guests and owner, is heavily reliant upon quality of service. Top-tier service is reliant on hiring, training and passion. And hiring, that’s a two-way street, as Meehan said. Owners would do well to remember that when they’re checking references and interviewing potential hires, those candidates have likely asked around about them and their venue. They’re also feeling out potential bosses while they’re being interviewed.

Meehan prefers to hire a diverse staff inclusive of gender, race and age. He may have personal and political reasons for this approach to hiring, but he kept those to himself during his keynote speech. As far as business is concerned, he wants to capture the most guests.

“Your bar is a mousetrap and your staff is the cheese,” said Meehan.

In other words, your staff is the bait for who you want to bring in, and Meehan wants to staff his bars so they’ll appeal to the most people possible. He also places value on hiring people with whom he’d like to spend 40 to 60 percent of his time. For him, hiring for emotional intelligence rather than expertise is crucial. Skills can be trained. EQ—the invaluable ability to relate to others—and passion are much more difficult for an owner to develop in a new hire.

Read this: Don’t Lead a Horse to Water, Make it Thirsty

Owners should stop hiring just to fill a position and truly consider whether a candidate is a good fit for the family or team. Rather than run the risk of needing to fight with someone to do their job, hire the person eager to learn the job and improve their skills.

Training Means Nurturing

In Meehan’s opinion, an owner’s role in hiring, training, development and employment is one of nurturing. He stated during his keynote that curiosity, integrity, work ethic and respect are nurtured, not nature.

While nurturing those characteristics is important, Meehan doesn’t recommend hovering over new hires and other employees. He endorses a management style that leans more toward chaos theory than helicopter management. Meehan values team members’ independence, problem-solving skills, and self-motivation.

Read this: How to Herd Cats: 7 Secrets to Getting the Bar or Restaurant You Want

An owner who’s constantly hovering isn’t nurturing, they’re smothering. Ours is an industry that requires not just technical know-how but life skills. Communication, relating to others, mentorship, hospitality… Those are life skills. Meehan believes that owners are preparing team members for more than just a job—he’s helping them prepare for life and their future.

When it comes to training, new hires go through one year of learning. They then go through one year of putting what they’ve learned into action. He calls this process his “tour of duty.”

Great Owners are Mentors

Just as every owner has walked their own path to ownership, every owner is going to lead differently. It’s up to an owner to decide if they’re being the best leader they can be, along with what kind of leader they wish to be.

It’s safe to say that Meehan believes a great owner is someone committed to mentoring their team members. Mentorship is different than the standard employer-employee relationship. When an owner is mentoring a team member, the relationship is mentor-protégé.

Read this: Are You an Obsessed Operator? You'd Better Be!

Such a professional relationship demands vulnerability, trust and patience from both parties and is like the coach-player or even parent-child dynamic. It’s a lot of work, it’s a deep commitment, but it’s worth it.

An owner recognized as a mentor will have an easier time recruiting and retaining exceptional talent. It’s that level of talent helps grow an owner’s business.

Walk the Talk

It should—should—go without saying that great bar and restaurant owners lead by example. If they want to be true leaders, everything starts with them.

Leadership requires walking the talk, as Meehan said. And that’s just where an owner needs to start if they want to become the leader their team needs. Today, Meehan also believes they need to shake up the traditional hierarchical leadership structure.

Read this: Achieving a Healthy, Long-term Career in the Bar Business

That doesn’t mean letting anarchy reign supreme in the workplace. Rather, it means showing the team that even the owner is accountable for mistakes and acknowledges when they make one. It’s excellence, said Meehan, not perfection that compels great leaders and teams to recover and learn from mistakes.

Meehan also cautioned owners to compliment more often than they criticize, and to do so both publicly and privately.

The Payoff

Being told what they should do isn’t always easy for bar, restaurant or nightclub owners. Many of them own their own businesses to avoid just that.

However, Meehan’s results are difficult to deny. His retention is so strong that he said he probably only hires one new person per year. His hiring, training, mentoring and walking the talk has transformed his employees into work family members.

This transformation begins immediately on hiring. Meehan asks new hires for feedback because after running his own bar for 12 years, he doesn’t see it the same way a fresh pair of eyes can. That openness as an owner to listen to and consider what even a new employee has to say resonates.

Read this: Profits, Meet Practicality

Meehan conducts exit interviews, which helps him evolve as a leader. Illustrating his point that turning employees into a work family is invaluable, Meehan has had employees not only give 6 to 12 months’ notice before leaving, they’ve helped find their replacements.

That’s leadership—and legacy—at the highest level.

Suggested Articles

Learn how to convert interested leads into faithful followers and, eventually, booked clients.

Research from the latest National Restaurant Association and Yelp Show the Latest Rate in Closures

Six-month sales, education and networking virtual event series offers a brand-new approach for the industry to connect with owners, operators and supp