Behind the Bar

​How to Get Your Bar Team on Board

Three bar directors share how they went above and beyond to get their teams excited, invested, and eager to execute their visions.

Cocktails at The Continental. Cocktails at The Continental, the first craft-driven spot in a market full of flavored rums, pineapple juice and Blue Curacao.

Whether you're building a bar concept from scratch, instituting a new menu, or maintaining a successful spirits program, having a bar team that's on board with the vision can be the difference between a packed bar or a conversation about reconcepting. Here, three bar directors share how they went above and beyond photocopies and quick pre-shift meetings to get their teams excited, invested, and eager to execute their visions.

Jim McCourt of Prohibition.

When Prohibition opened in 2013, the Charleston establishment took over the existing nightclub Mercury Bar and inherited the staff. “It was all good, passionate bartenders, but they were used to making cosmos and vodka martinis, and we were going for a Prohibition-themed bar from the 1920s,” says beverage director Jim McCourt [pictured left]. After several weeks of training, McCourt decided to change it up. “I thought, let's inject some life into this, get them excited for the theme we're going for.” He brought in a Charleston tour guide for a two-hour session on the history of Prohibition and the 1920s — and capped it off with a team lesson on swing dance and dancing the Charleston, courtesy of a local dance teacher.

“We had done intense training, which is good, but it can kind of get stale and boring. Injecting that little bit of fun and positivity got them excited,” McCourt says. When Prohibition opened a week later, the team had fun using 20s-era slang, and educating customers on the history of that time period. “Customers would come in and they would get immersed in that era,” he says.

The tiki-themed Three Dots and a Dash in Chicago serves over 260 different kinds of rum. Rather than bartenders studying on their own, beverage director Kevin Beary developed an 11-week program — open to both front of house and back of house staff — on all things rum. “We got feedback that [continuing education] was a component that was missing,” Beary says. “So we wanted to change that culture.”

Kevin Beary of Three Dots and a Dash. Kevin Beary of Three Dots and a Dash.

Each week, staff are given 25 pages to read, a combination of photos and texts from rum books and other resources, designed to be less than an hour of reading. Lessons are broken up by country, and cover history, production methods, and styles. The staff meets for an hour or so per week to taste the region's rums and talk traditional cocktails — and if a distiller happens to be in Chicago, they'll drop by to visit with the team.

“The key is not to put the burden of amassing all this info on the beverage director, because we have bars to run,” Beary says. “So it's better to guide the staff and use resources that are available elsewhere.” Beary notes that he's fortunate to work with a very engaged bar staff that is eager to learn, but acknowledges that the rest is on the leaders. “It's creating that culture, that expectation that we expect you to have this baseline of knowledge.”

The main bar at Three Dots and a Dash. The main bar at Three Dots and a Dash.

The extra education is paying off. “You can see someone's eyes light up when someone asks for a recommendation,” he says. “They're comfortable describing the rums, and they make better cocktails. When you can make better decisions about the drinks you're making, it's better for everyone.”

Summer cocktails at Three Dots and a Dash. Summer cocktails at Three Dots and a Dash.

Sometimes, you just need to see things in action. In 2014, Ross Kupitz [pictured below], beverage director for D'Amico & Partners restaurant group, was tasked with creating a craft cocktail program for The Continental, a steakhouse-inspired restaurant in Naples, Florida. It would be the first craft-driven spot in market full of flavored rums, pineapple juice, and Blue Curacao. When interviewing potential bar manager and industry staple Barry Larkin, Kupitz explained his idea. “He said, 'this is never going to work,'” Kupitz says. “Because he understood the market, the seasonality of southwest Florida, the disparity between high season and summertime. How can we do this for 500 covers on a Saturday night?”

Ross Kupitz of The Continental

Kupitz spent a few days making drinks with Larkin and detailing his plan, then capped off the interview process by taking Larkin and two other managers on a three-day trip to Chicago, a location he chose based on the variety of steakhouses, his own connections, and the city's successful craft bars.

“It helps to see an example of a high-functioning program in what you want to do,” Kupitz says. “It's not going to be exactly the same, but it gives you ideas, gives you confidence. [You understand] the process, the order of operations, the systems. It gives you more clarity.”

They visited Sable Kitchen & Bar, Bavette's Bar & Boeuf, Three Dots and a Dash, and Purple Pig, among other places. But it was the Violet Hour that had the biggest impact.

“When we left Violet Hour to head to dinner, Barry turned to me and said, 'I get it now. I can envision it,'” Kupitz says, adding that the trip was as much about getting Larkin on board as it was ensuring they were hiring someone who had bought in, and not going to leave after two months because it wasn't the right fit. The day after returning from Chicago, Larkin signed the paperwork. He's been there ever since.

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