Behind the Bar
The 5 Qualities of a Great Bar Manager
There are as many theories about what makes a good bar manager as there are about what makes a good bar. They run the gamut from understanding business principles and drink cost, to being a control freak about garnishes, to knowing the history of each classic cocktail you serve. We spoke to Dan Hart, owner of Interurban in Portland, Oregon, and Terry Williams, general manager of Anvil Bar & Refuge in Houston, Texas, to get an idea of what both owners and managers can do to ensure management runs at its best.
Trust may be the foremost quality crucial to successful management, though not exactly how you might think. From the owner’s perspective, says Hart, you’ve got to see that the manager’s excitement carries into the day-to-day business of the bar. “I have to trust that the manager has integrity about accomplishing what we’re trying to accomplish, ensuring our vision is executed on a daily basis. I want patrons to think he’s the owner because he takes that much pride in the concept of what we want to achieve.” For Interurban, that’s a watering hole where bartenders spend time with the guests, not lost in “mixology,” but chatting and visiting while executing excellent cocktails.
Over at Anvil, general manager Williams says that trust is a two-way street. “I trust the orders I’m given because I know the owner has been in my shoes, behind the bar, working. And when I’m given a task, or my staff is given a task, and it’s executed well, details aren’t harped upon and we move onto other things. We get a little more slack whenever we do something well. That makes for a great work environment.” Williams then transfers that treatment to his staff. The key here is not micro-managing, but moving forward together based on previous progress.
Both Hart and Williams agree that passion is key. “The best hires we’ve made have been bar regulars,” says Williams. “I drank at Anvil every Monday night for three months and spent that time asking the bartenders a lot of questions.” Passion is obvious, and it dovetails with trust: it’s contagious, and it lets you know a person is willing to help. “The manager is the smartest person in the room, in a way,” says Hart. “But he or she should also be approachable—happy to help, happy to go talk to a table, and happy to educate everyone else.”
Interurban’s manager, Hart is proud to say, is knowledgeable not just about ingredients, but also the stories of the cocktails. “It’s better to be able to tell a story than just know a recipe, and our manager Jeff exemplifies that. We all look to him a resource because he’s invested in what he does.”
Managers are in an in-between position: between the owner and staff, and between the staff and patrons. As an extension of the owner, managers must understand and embrace the concept of the bar and then transfer the owner’s energy and excitement to both the staff and to the customers. Between the staff and patrons, the manager is responsible for being a liaison, ready and willing to smooth out details, give a history (of place or drink), as well as act enthusiastically as support to staff.
Some managers are autocratic and make unilateral decisions, others are democratic and ask their employees to help in the decision-making process. Some take into account how the decisions will affect the staff and the business, while others make decisions and then try to persuade their staff why that decision is best.
According to Williams, everyone on your staff needs a different kind of manager. “If you let what you want dictate your management style, you will alienate people. Some people need love, some people need tough love. Pay attention to what your individual staff members need and help them accordingly.”
Flexibility also applies to hiring and training. “In Houston,” says Williams, “we’re faced with tons of new places opening up. The need for experienced staff spreads talent thin.” So, hiring means being able to balance the experienced with the inexperienced and form a cohesive unit with both.” Although someone may need a more time being trained, they can still be a positive and contributing member to the team.
While teamwork might seem like a tired choice for “important qualities of a manager,” it’s still as important as the first time it was put down in a manager’s how-to manual.
And, for managers, teamwork is two-fold. On the one hand, you must be willing to participate in the day-to-day activities of the bar. “Don’t ask people to do things you wouldn’t be willing to do yourself,” says Williams. “I would never ask a staff member to clean the area around the trash dumpster if I wasn’t willing to or hadn’t done it, too.”
On the other hand, managers are in a unique position to help shape the team of the bar. Williams finds this particularly rewarding as a manager. “I really enjoy the growth of the staff. It’s great to see them grow in their own separate ways. Some who are really experienced learn and grow in small ways, and the twenty-two year-old kid grows over the course of a year in exponential ways.”
Being part of a team at the same time as building it is a unique position to be in. Not many football coaches are passing touchdowns to their players, but in the bar that’s a possibility.
5. Continuing Education
Last but not least, bar managers, like their bartenders, ought to be moving forward—and part of that is continuously learning about the craft of bartending and managing. Hart finds this quality especially important. “Bartending is a profession in which we’re always learning. We don’t sit back and say ‘this is what we’re going to do forever.’ I look for people who want to stay active and involved.”
On the owner’s end, they can help their managers by providing excellent training and communicating a clear vision of what they want their bar to be. Williams says he was lucky enough to have four mentors who trained him to be bar manager. “I had never had to lead people before,” he says. “I had fantastic training from the people who hired me, the previous general manager, and the owner.” Anvil’s owner, Bobby Heugel, has also taken Williams traveling to visit other bars and see how they function. Looking at a bar through a manager’s eye, he says, is really like looking at it through three eyes: “the manager’s eye, a bartender’s eye, and the owner’s eye.”
Interested in reading more? Williams recommends “Emotional Intelligence” by Daniel Goleman for tips on how to improve upon or create successful working relationships, and other professional bartenders reference these essential bartending books as a way to hone your craft.
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