Behind the Bar

Considering the Shift Drink Debate

People cheersing shots of whiskey.
Do shift drinks build camaraderie or disrupt healthy habits? (Photo: Izusek/iStock)

Lately, one of the more controversial debates around the industry has to do with what happens sometimes during, but more frequently at the end of a shift. Called a reward for hard work, a liability, a training tool, a distraction or a team builder, depending on who’s doing the talking, shift drinks can be something really great, a way to up a bar team’s sense of camaraderie or complete anathema, never allowed regardless of circumstances.

Some in the industry are fans of the shift drink tradition. Some are vocal opponents. Almost all have some sort of opinion. At Chicago’s 16” on Center, which includes properties such as Longman & Eagle, Dusek’s Board and Beer, MONEYGUN and more, owner Bruce Finkelman uses the concept of shift drinks after shifts are completed to let his employees explore new or new-to-them products in an effort to broaden their spirits knowledge in a way that can’t be done in formal tastings.

“We are huge fans of product knowledge. It’s something that’s so important to us and each of our different businesses, be it whiskey and bourbon at Longman, beer at Dusek’s or cocktails at MONEYGUN, it’s so important, and I think that the utilization of shift drinks can be a way to get that product knowledge or get people to be able to expand their product knowledge even further,” says Finkelman. “[W]hen people do tastings to try to introduce a new product into their menus or into their product mix, it’s a very calculated move from the beverage director of getting that product knowledge out to people, but I think the shift drinks are a way for people to kind of explore on their own. And, I think that it’s a really valuable tool to put out there.”

If employees are able to taste and experiment with a product firsthand, Finkelman figures that there’s a greater chance that they’ll be able to have more authentic product knowledge interactions with guests, something he really values. They won’t have to rely on tasting notes from someone else, and they can make recommendations based on their sincere and honest opinion. Finkelman and his team use shift drinks as a way to accomplish this goal.

He also sees shift drinks as an excuse for employees to hang out and spend time at the bar.

“[I]n all my ventures, the core business model is to create a place that you like and you would hang out at, with the hopes that there are a few other people out there that feel the same. So the people that work for us are really the people that we want to hang out there as well,” Finkelman says.

In San Diego, URBN Restaurants beverage director Michele Willard treats the possibility or potential of shift drinks with a rule of thumb: ask a manager if a shot’s okay, make sure it’s a special occasion, do it sparingly and ask yourself if it’s really necessary.

“[M]y whole thing is, you never have a cocktail behind the bar, you are there to work, you are there to show somebody an experience, and if you can’t show somebody an experience because you’re intoxicated, then you’re not doing your job,” says Willard. “So, although I want everyone to have a good time at work and enjoy work, maybe you’re in the wrong line of business if you’re doing that work because you want to get drunk at work.”

For Willard, there is typically an element of reward or bonding tied in. If she catches the eye of an employee who has been working insanely hard for the past several hours, stressed out with a couple more hours to go, sometimes, she’ll offer that they do a shot together. The person is, of course, always allowed to turn the offer down, but the offer, the fact that she noticed and acknowledged the work being done, as well as the effort behind it, is what matters. It helps members of the team feel seen.

At 312 Chicago, one of Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants’ properties, company policy prohibits employees from drinking on-site. For Jenn Knott, head bartender at 312 Chicago, it simplifies things.

“I’ve been working a long time and I absolutely love what I do, and I just feel pretty strongly about it, [especially] now that I work at a place where it’s just absolutely not allowed," says Knott. "I like the atmosphere that we have."

While it can be difficult to transition from shift drinks to no drinking at all whatsoever initially, as Knott had to experience in a former position, clear-cut policies and a mutual respect among a bar team can make being dry easier. When shots and shift drinks aren’t on the table, managers and beverage directors looking to reward staff for a job well done or build a stronger and more cohesive team have to get a little more creative. Local USBG groups and other industry groups can help facilitate that.

“This past summer, things were offered like paddle boarding, it wasn’t [about] intaking of any alcohol, but you’re still getting together with all of your industry friends, still meeting people, still getting to connect and make those connections within your industry, without having it to be surrounded by drinking,” Knott says. “They did different types of exercising classes, from yoga to kettlebell things and whatnot and I think that’s really cool too, trying to keep ourselves as balanced as we can.”

Additionally, Willard suggested hikes, surfing and hunting for botanicals that match the flavor profiles of certain spirits (like absinthe) that can be found locally. These activities are still work-related but can be more balanced than focusing only on tastings and drinking. Another argument for maintaining a completely dry workplace is keeping things as professional as possible.

“I do a lot of travel for my company and I always have to be aware that no matter what I’m doing, I’m sort of always representing them. And at these industry events, I’m representing whatever company or restaurant or group that I might be working for, so I kind of try to keep that in mind as well, I don’t want to make a fool of myself. But, you know, I think that if we’re smart about it, we can have a nice balance of how much we do and do not consume,” says Knott. “But, I know, it’s a hard thing, it’s a hard thing in this industry. I don’t want to see people abusing alcohol because I love it so much, it’s an amazing thing, but I just think we need to find balance by not consuming as much.”

Tales of the Cocktail Intership
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