Making the Most of the Space in Your Place

Maximizing efficiency in a bar's well starts with getting everything organized.
The bar at Cure in New Orleans is designed to maximize the efficiency of those working behind it.
The bar at Cure in New Orleans is designed to maximize the efficiency of those working behind it. (Photo: Cure)

The way you set up behind the bar can be quite personal. You have your methods and you don’t really love the idea of someone else telling you that there’s a better way. That being said … well, there might be a better way. Many bars set up wells according to certain standards or patterns. Liquor bottles, bitters, syrups, herbs, garnishes; each and every drink component has to be close enough for bartenders to grab smack dab in the middle of the busiest weekend shift. If you’re looking for ways to increase bartender productivity and efficiency, organizing your wells (and adequately communicating your strategies and any changes you’re making to your staff) may be a good place to start.

“Our whole aim is to eliminate ambiguity. There should never be confusion,” says Erick Castro, bartender and proprietor at Polite Provisions in San Diego. “We train our staff to bartend blindfolded. And by that I mean, you should never, ever, ever have to be like, ‘Wait, is this Angostura or is this black walnut bitters?’ You should just know that nothing will ever be mixed up or put in the wrong place.”

If you’re guessing which bottle is the one you’re looking for or guessing which garnish is the right one to finish off that drink you’re working on, you’re simply less efficient.

“It’s like, ‘Basil’s on the left, mint is on the right,’ and I just know that is a fact and my barbacks know it and everyone here knows it, because when you’re cranking out drinks on Friday night at 10:30 pm, you don’t have time to double check,” Castro adds. “And if anyone ever mixes them up, they’re going to hear about it.”

Ryan Gannon, the bar manager at Cure in New Orleans, says the way you set up your wells should minimize how much you have to move, improving your efficiency. Whether it’s searching for the one bottle of raspberry syrup in January that wasn’t put back in its place or trying to locate another bottle after polishing one off mid-shift, too much walking around slows down each drink and really adds up over the course of the night.

“One thing we do at The Whistler is we have all the bottles that are in our well and in our speed rails backed up on a curb directly below those bottles, so if you finish off a bottle mid-shift, there's no searching around for the replacement,” said Billy Helmkamp, co-owner of The Whistler in Chicago. “It's right there directly below the bottle you need to replace. I know it sounds pretty basic, but most bars don't do this simple thing.”

Some ingredients for more popular drinks are batched ahead of time at the Revival Cafe-Bar in Chicago. Some ingredients for more popular drinks are batched ahead of time at the Revival Cafe-Bar in Chicago. (Photo: Revival Cafe-Bar)

Space-saving strategies also come in handy. At the Revival Cafe-Bar inside the Revival Food Hall in downtown Chicago, base spirits for the most popular cocktails, as well as any that require three or more spirits, are batched ahead of time, according to beverage director Michael Huebner, and stored together to eliminate the need for so many bottles in the wells. Given that the bar often pulls in so much business, strategies that save both time and space are extremely important.

In addition to the typical offerings found at the bar, Revival Cafe-Bar also has a cafe, which serves coffee and tea drinks. “We've set up our POS ordering software so that we can take coffee/tea orders at the bar and vice versa and the orders will print out to the service well printer in each department,” Huber said. “Completed orders are placed on a stainless steel pass counter that serves as a divider between the cafe and bar areas, which are then handed to the corresponding guest.” This eliminates unnecessary movement for baristas and bartenders alike. Given that the bar, bakery and cafe all share a dishwasher, there’s a lot going on back there. Any way to minimize chaos and keep things running smoothly helps everyone out.

Principles of well design aren’t set in stone. What works at one establishment may or may not work at another. As bar spaces are redesigned, it can be useful to take into account your bartenders experiences of working in the space. “When we did the expansion project at Cúrate we thought we'd like more room for more bottles and a bigger bottle rail, so we added on a double rail which was more than what we have at Nightbell currently,” said chef and owner Katie Button. “It sounded like a good idea in principal, but when the bartenders started working that area they realized their knees kept bumping up against it making it uncomfortable for working. So we had to cut it off and finish the stainless steel down. One more lesson learned …”

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