While standing on the guest side of the bar, as the cocktails flow and everyone looks like they are having a great time, it can be easy to forget that a disciplined team effort goes into making the show run smoothly—and that it demands a lot of people of varying personalities to find a way of working together in a setting that is likely adrenaline-fueled (and certainly alcohol-influenced).
Under this kind of pressure, just how do bar managers keep their each member of staff happy and make sure team morale stays high? And how do they avoid the whole thing exploding when a shift reaches boiling point? We spoke to four managers – who, all together, oversee more than 40 people – to suss out their best advice for ensuring a healthy, happy, collaborative culture in the workplace.
Eric Lincoln (General Manager, Employees Only, New York City): “To keep them happy, you need a place that delivers on all the needs of your bar team. Those needs can vary from night to night, bar to bar, team to team: specific glassware, basic bar tools, refrigeration, clean uniforms (our team wears bar jackets), lights, POS system, etc. Nothing sours a staff’s spirits more than walking into a workspace that is not firing on all cylinders. I want them to be able to walk in and worry about nothing other than having a great night and making great drinks.”
Mike Shain (General Manager, Porchlight, New York City): “The moment you close yourself up is the moment you begin to lose trust and your team won’t follow your lead. While we have very specific expectations, they are made clear and feedback is always welcome. I admit that I don’t have all the answers, and soliciting feedback is extremely important. It also makes for a team that is trusting and feels great about the place they work.”
Brad Smith (Bar Manager, Latitude 29, New Orleans): “We have cultivated an excellent staff through clear expectation and training. When it comes to challenges, the pre-emptive strike is king.”
Mike Shain: “We have been pretty lucky to have a very solid and professional group working behind our bar. I have had issues in the past with bartenders. Those issues typically revolve around change, and when there is change at work, it is often tough to handle. That can be true with any career, so it is important to make changes properly. For instance, when new cocktails come on, it is extremely important that the entire team know about them weeks ahead of time. Starting with the bar team, we workshop new ideas as a group before we decide they will be put on the menu. Then we tell the rest of the team about them so they aren’t caught off-guard by a menu change. Change handled appropriately can be great; however, if it is not handled properly, it can be disastrous and oftentimes hard to clean up after.”
Mike Shain: “I find the best way to keep the bar team happy is by getting them involved. We are lucky to have an extremely talented team and most of them are creative types outside of Porchlight. Some are musicians, artists, writers and performers, and bartending is another creative outlet for them. Giving them creative freedom and liberties while here not only gets them involved, but it gives them a sense of ownership over the program and is a way to show their talents. We have two happy hour cocktails that change daily. It is up to the lunch bartenders that day to come up with them. We have yet to repeat one and they are always a hit!”
Michael Neff (Beverage Director, Holiday Cocktail Lounge, New York City): “I try to provide what I always wanted when I worked as a bartender – creative freedom and autonomy. When people come into the bar, I don’t want them walking out saying, “Michael Neff makes great cocktails,” I want them to say the bartender who served them makes great cocktails. Our staff are all experienced professionals, so instead of setting a lot of specific policies on how to do the job, we generally start with “Be a great bartender,” try to define what that means, then walk it back from there.”
Michael Neff: “Bar teams are composed of people, and people don’t always get along. They are fragile — sometimes physically and sometimes emotionally. They have bad days, and sometimes make bad choices. People are people, and we try to be as compassionate as we can to what’s going on in their professional and personal lives while maintaining an appropriate level of professionalism.
“We, as leaders of the team, are even more subject to those same pitfalls, but our mistakes are amplified because they sometimes go unchecked, and our choices affect the team as a whole. Honest communication is the best way to deal with all of these things, but it’s not easy. At least it’s something I always try to work on, with varying degrees of success.”
Brad Smith: “The work at Latitude 29 is the most demanding bartending you will find. Each cocktail requires an enormous amount of work and we maintain an expectation of precision and speed. This has potential to make things pretty intense if we don’t keep it lighthearted.”
Brad Smith: “Be knowledgeable, curious and humble. Speak plainly. Remember that putting booze in a cup is only a fraction of your reality as a bar. The crux is hospitality. Healthy, happy collaboration naturally grows in this environment.”
Eric Lincoln: “We are a family, such a overused statement used today, but we really are and obviously family members are going to have different opinions and personalities. To keep things from escalating there has to be mutual respect for each other, this usually leads to cool heads prevailing. We have multiple cultures in our family and everyone learns from each other and bonds from that.”
Eric Lincoln: “Staff drinks. But in all seriousness, there has to be respect on every level. Everyone needs to appreciate what the other brings to the table.”