Behind the Bar

7 Ways to Strengthen Your Bar Team

Bar team hanging out at a barbecue
The Sassafras team, pictured at their monthly barbecue. Photo courtesy of Chris Whelan.

There’s no one tried-and-true method for building rapport with the team who makes your bar successful, but there are several things different bar managers and owners have in common to accomplish this. We spoke to Jack McGarry, co-owner of The Dead Rabbit Grocery and Grog in New York, and Chris Whelan, general manager at Sassafras Saloon in Hollywood, about what has made their bar teams tick.

1. Training

The key to a well-oiled bar machine is having well-prepared bartenders. Sure, the individual bartender or barback is ultimately responsible for learning, but management is responsible for making information and training readily accessible. When your bartenders know their stuff, they’re more confident, and the work is more enjoyable for everyone involved.

McGarry says they check in with their employees frequently. “We do one-on-ones with employees who feel their technique isn’t 100%,” he says. “We also do spot tastings and spot checks and give feedback based on those. The staff is supportive of the checks. The whole aim is not about ego, it’s about making sure the drinks are up to point. It’s not always the bartenders making mistakes, sometimes recipes need to be modified. So, we’re not just checking them, but checking the system that we’ve got them in.”

The Dead Rabbit also works on a bi-monthly training schedule, in addition to doing research and development (more on R&D to come) for making the menu. “We have a strong training infrastructure,” says McGarry.

On the opposite coast, Whelan trains his bar staff a little differently. “New bartenders come in during the day and do prep and production so they understand how much work it is. We have a giant commissary next door — we make everything. We have them shadow bar backs, too. We want them to know exactly what’s going on in case they have to step in. Every three months, we do a secondary drink training to go over things on the menu, have people try cocktails. We also have a lot of brands come in and do trainings for us so that everyone’s knowledge is growing.”

2. R&D

Akin to training your team is conducting research and development with them. Bartenders who are involved in making the menu at your establishment will be much more invested in the product.

“We have a strong research and development process when it comes to making the menu,” says McGarry. “The staff is heard. They’re part of every drink that goes on the menu. Right now we’re working on volume five of our menu, so we’ll be doing R&D for the next six weeks, also within the regular trainings.”

3. Travel

Alain de Botton wrote “journeys are the midwives of thought. Few places are more conducive to internal conversations than a moving plane, ship or train. There is an almost quaint correlation between what is in front of our eyes and the thoughts we are able to have in our heads: large thoughts at times requiring large views, new thoughts, new places.” What better way to inspire your team than with travel? For this reason, both The Dead Rabbit and Sassafras try to make travel possible for their employees.

This summer, The Dead Rabbit is sending its bartenders to London to work stints in a bar there, and their restaurant group is funding the trip. “This is a great result of the bartenders’ work,” says McGarry. “They were invited.” Other bartenders at The Dead Rabbit are supported by the company to travel and talk about their area of expertise.

“We’ve taken trips in the past,” says Whelan. “There are a few of us here very heavily into competitions. Hopefully this year we get to travel for that. We’re also supportive of our bar staff by helping to pay for travel because they’re out representing us. We definitely encourage our staff to do that.”

A group of people dressed nicely and holding an award. The team at The Dead Rabbit attributes much of their success to the feelings of closeness they have with one another. Photo courtesy of The Dead Rabbit.

4. Outings

Bonding happens naturally through working closely and continually with a group of people. While bonding outside of work takes a little bit more time and effort, it’s worth the end-result: a group of people who not only work well together, but who like being around each other.

“About once a month, especially heading into spring and summer, we’ll have staff barbecues, or we’ll go to Dave & Buster’s and play arcade games, or we’ll go bowling. Besides being co-workers, we try to be friends. That’s what has made us successful — connecting beyond work.”

At the The Dead Rabbit, McGarry also thinks bonding outside of work is important. “We take them out every three months to blow off steam and bond in a different setting, outside of the bar. We’ll sometimes get staff from other bars to come in and cover so that everyone can come out, because we never close the bar. This gets our heads out of The Dead Rabbit for a moment. It’s an intense place to work. You have to offset that with good ol’ plain fun.”

5. Communication

Obviously, good communication improves any relationship. Communication within a bar team is extremely important and multifaceted. Aside from giving feedback on work, McGarry suggests that your team must know the core philosophy, or aim, of the establishment. “Every detail, even the type of soap we have in the bathroom — every decision is geared to how the guest is going to perceive and interact with it … We want to ensure the staff identifies with what we’re trying to achieve at The Dead Rabbit."

6. Supportive of life outside the bar

You might be a great team leader or member, but you have to remember that real support is holistic, and your bar team has a life outside of your bar. That might mean they’re a working parent, or a musician, or have other preoccupations. Show your support for the other facets of their life, to help ensure participation in this one.

“I think the biggest reason why our team is strong is because we do so many things outside of the bar together,” says Whelan. “A lot of us are actors or musicians, so we’ll go see their plays or shows. This kind of support also means that people are quick to cover for you.”

“We’re there for the staff on a human basis,” says McGarry. “If they break their leg, we’ll lend them money. They’re on the front line, so we try our best to be there for them as much as we can be.”

7. Promote from within

It isn’t everyone’s dream to be a career barback or bartender. Talk to your team members and see what their individual goals are. Promoting from within, from barback to bartender and bartender to bar manager, fosters a sense of trust among your employees that they will be rewarded for their hard work and improvement.

“The mindset at Dead Rabbit is that the employees have to invest their time,” says McGarry. “But, they get so much training .. [and] we promote staff to management. We’re all about upward mobility,” he says. “You have to take care of your people, and in turn for that, they’ll take care of the people who come to your bar.”

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