Ah, New Year’s Eve: a chance to celebrate the year that’s been, to toast to the year ahead, to… have your bar stampeded by hoards of enthusiastic revelers with a thirst that can only be quenched with buckets of champagne. The night of the 31st can be equal parts stressful, exhilarating, hilarious, lucrative and infuriating for anyone slinging drinks, and while it might be a cash cow for tips, it’s also not for the faint of heart. Especially if you don’t prepare accordingly.
While no amount of planning can prepare you for the truly unexpected, it never hurts to strategize, whether that means stocking up on extra toilet paper or finally figuring out that delicious crowd-pleasing punch that’s actually a snap to batch ahead. To get an idea, we asked a handful of bartenders, owners and managers around the country for their game plan, wisdom and survival tips for making it out of the busiest night of the year with your bar, staff, customer safety and personal sanity intact:
Gates Otsuji, The Standard Grill (New York)
“High-volume is our specialty at The Standard, and the secret is all in the preparations. We gather our staff together hours in advance, to ensure that we’re not racing to the finish line and starting our night in a panic. From there, it’s divide & conquer: A couple people focus on glassware, some work on garnishes, others on pre-chilling wine & beer, others on the mise en place at the bar stations, etc. Then, before service, we take a break, let the room rest, and return to begin the night fresh.
We look at our steps of service, and break some of them down into smaller segments, adding people to the line, so that each staff member can concentrate on delivery, but still share the vibe of the evening with focused attention on the guests in front of them. There’s a notion that too many people working on a busy night will dilute the tip pool, but nothing kills business like a frazzled, short-staffed team that’s not having any fun. Even though it’s the busiest night of the year, we still think it’s most important to have a connection with the person you’re serving, and why would you want to start or end your year on anything but a positive note?
As for words of wisdom… I know how hard it is to let it all roll off your back, to move on from those moments like nothing happened, but we’re fortunate to work in the business of hospitality, and it helps to focus on the celebratory aspects of what we do. And if you’re feeling stressed by an unreasonable guest, take a breath, and remember that it’s just booze!”
Eric “ET” Tecosky, Jones Hollywood (Los Angeles)
“Years ago, a friend’s dad sat us down as we were getting ready for New Year’s Eve. He said, ‘Treat tonight as if you were going out any other night. There is no reason to go any crazier tonight than a different night.’ I tell the staff the same thing. Your goal is make the guest leave here feeling better than when they came in — just like yesterday and every day.
Don’t let the adrenaline of New Year’s Eve cause you to forget to go over your checklists.
Just because we are business as usual behind the bar, doesn’t mean our guests have the same game plan. I let people know to be a bit more aware of someone who is close to turning a corner. Let management know as soon as you can so we can make sure all guests finish the night strong and wake up and don’t have to think, ‘Shit, why did I do that’?”
Some things I will change for New Year’s Eve: hats and noisemakers to hand out at midnight. Cases of cheap bubbly for a midnight toast, and I will make a punch. I choose to make a punch for two reasons: 1), we offer it as a special and because it is at a discount it is ordered often. It takes 2 seconds to get someone a drink which helps the flow at the bar. And 2), by the end of the year we have at least one bottle of something we over ordered or got as a sample and a punch is a great way to ‘move’ slower moving items.”
Brian Means, Michael Mina Restaurant Group (San Francisco)
“New Year’s is always a busy night, especially in a city like San Francisco. Our bars are prepping ahead of time do deal with the large volume of guests we are expecting. We are offering our normal cocktails, but specialty punches as well. The great thing about punches is that they’re easy to batch and prep ahead of time, and are extremely easy to execute. We will usually offer 2-3 punches and since they’re all ready batched out, we can ladle out some cups and cut down on ticket times and get drinks in people’s hands, which they greatly appreciate on such a busy night.
Paul Sanguinetti of The Edmon (Los Angeles)
“Fortunately we have a pretty veteran staff who have worked many a New Year’s and know what to expect and how to prepare for it. The best thing to do really is make sure you are well staffed, well prepped and well stocked for the evening and have a proper pre-shift meeting to address any needs or changes from the usual programming. That and maybe have a small pre-shift toast before the madness thanking everyone for a good year and a good year to come.
As far as prepping, that’s the easy part really. If you know your business and your numbers, it’s math really. Bring on your best available staff, schedule earlier call times, prep extra garnishes, juice accordingly and pre-batch your delicious punch!”
Christy Pope, Midnight Rambler (Dallas, TX)
“At our bar, we make sure that we have ‘all hands on deck,’ staffing appropriately for the influx of festive patrons. We pre-batch some of our most popular cocktails to expedite execution during service. As well, we have large format punch bowls available for large groups. We bring in an extra selection of bubbly for patrons to buy by the bottle.
For our staff, we keep food on hand to make sure that everyone is properly sated for the night. We make sure that everyone is mindful of serving waters with drinks to insure the patrons keep hydrated. Both bartenders and servers are to be diligent about making sure the patrons are not over-served. We keep extra security on hand for New Year’s Eve for everyone’s protection, should it be needed. Lastly, we ask all of our employees to have a good time… rolling with the night in a calm and easy manor will translate to the guests…. and of course we make sure our staff gets a glass of Champagne to ring in the New Year!
There are three tips I can give to how I always prepare my bar for any special occasion:
- Always be over-prepared, because the last thing you want to deal with on a busy night is to run out of something, whether it’s citrus, garnish, or liquor.
- Train your staff properly, because when you have a well trained staff, you are ready for any busy night.
- Have fun! The reason why I love what I do is because I really enjoy making cocktails, and I also want people to feel the same way when they come to my bar.
As for drunk customers, they are just inevitable on a night like New Year’s Eve, even in the most upscale neighborhoods. But we work in the hospitality industry, so we have to use our wits to tell them it is time for them for to go home, without getting too offensive or nasty. (It can be verbal or nonverbal cues.)
Jay Schroeder, Partner and Head Bartender at Mezcaleria Las Flores (Chicago)
“New Year’s Eve is a holiday that requires an extreme amount of Zen from any staff. A solid pre-shift meeting is a must. For many restaurants who wrangle guests into pricey prix fixe menus, everyone has to get to know what is being served for the night. Table turns are always tight and planning for a leisurely turn around is well-advised.
For cocktail spots, everybody wants bubbles on New Year’s Eve. This is a medical fact. It has been programmed into our DNA since time immemorial. This year we’ll be running a cocktail special for the night featuring some bubbly and mezcal deliciousness.
The biggest hurdle for staff is getting over the mental hump that you’re on lock until at least 3 a.m. It’s the life we chose, and the lucky ones among us have people in our lives who either understand that or suffer the same fate. Let’s face it: when is the last time in your civilian life that you went to a New Year’s Eve party that was actually fun? We have the awesome opportunity to make some sweet cash and try to deliver to our guests that superlative experience that everyone wants on a special night.”
Hemant Pathak, Junoon (New York)
“Working in New York is very different from many other cities around the holidays. I have always been very aware that many of the people visiting us and New York City for the holidays are from other cities around the US and the world. You kind of take a deep breath and remember bars are supposed to fun! I also know that it could be a once in a lifetime trip, so I want to add to their experience by giving them the best service possible, and that is feasible to have an excellent planning beforehand. You have to be patient and avoid assuming the guests have experience in cocktail bars or fine dining. In fun environment, the key is to make the guest feel at ease.”
Jess Lambert, Head Bartender at Boleo (Chicago)
“Some of our New Year’s preparations will include stretching! I always encourage the staff to stretch pre- and post-bar shift. New Year’s Eve is no different. It prepares your body for your shift, and can cut down on inflammation the next day. We are athletes, and I encourage my team to treat their bodies in such a way. Also, matcha shots. We shake matcha tea into a non-alcoholic matcha shot with a little fresh lime juice, passionfruit, and cinnamon. Matcha is really good for you, and caffeinated to keep the energy up. The caffeine high provides great mental focus and clarity without the jitters or crash of coffee. We keep matcha regularly stocked behind the bar.
Another way to prepare our bars for success for a crazy busy night such as New Year’s, is batching and pre-prepping garnish. It takes a lot of time pre-service, but is worth it in the long run. We crank out beautifully garnished and delicious cocktails in minutes.”
Chris Sinclair, Red Rabbit Bar (Sacramento, CA)
“When it comes to getting prepared for a big night like New Year’s Eve I like to make sure that I’m in the proper headspace. That means personally I will show up to work way before I have to just so I can spend some time in the quiet before it gets crazy. And I usually encourage my team to do the same.
Prep goes a long way for nights like this. So making sure all my “i’s” are dotted and “t’s” are crossed really helps alleviate any possible stressors and what could already be a stressful night. Using years of experience to remind the younger staff members to keep extra supplies handy, like towels, sanitizing spray, and straws.
I find that as long as the staff is in a good mood and well prepared, we can handle anything that gets thrown our way. So words of encouragement help keep morale where it should be.”
Jason Huffman, Coin-Op (San Francisco)
“Success in managing a high volume cocktail relies heavily on proper set up and batching. Batching allows better consistency for cocktail recipes and faster production with your bar team. Faster cocktail production means higher drink sales for the bar and more tips for the bar team. You don’t have to sacrifice quality of the cocktail for speed any more. Imagine five bartenders each using three different bottles with three different ounce measurements, or five bartenders each using one bottle with one measurement. Which set of bartenders do you think will have a more consistent cocktail and have more time to focus on hospitality?”