Behind the Bar
How to Cope with a Mid-Shift Crisis
It’s smack dab in the middle of a very long shift, and as you swiftly cut up some more lime wedges to refill the now nearly half-depleted jar, the knife slips just barely. Uh oh. Did you catch your finger? Is there blood? How deep is the cut? Stitches or no? The bar is slammed — who will cover?
“I remember one time being the only bartender working a long shift for a special event and cutting my finger pretty bad right before it started," says Erick Castro, head bartender at Polite Provisions in San Diego. "Some knucklehead decided to open the doors early, so the room was packed before set-up was ready. I didn't even have to find a band-aid, I just put a piece of tissue and duct tape around my finger and got my ass kicked for a solid hour before I caught up."
Cuts aren’t always entirely preventable — mistakes and accidents can and do still happen — and, overall, they’re pretty common over the course of a career in the kitchen or behind the bar. Mid-shift crises can come in forms large or small, whether it’s the aforementioned cut due to a slip of a knife or broken glass, running out of an ingredient, a blackout, flood or an urgent health crisis.
"First off, taking a step back and looking at the situation, in a busy or loud environment, I feel like a lot of people want to just jump right in and don’t take the short moment to actually assess the situation. It’s important that that’s done,” says Billy Helmkamp, co-owner of The Whistler in Chicago. “Doing that will allow you to react to a situation with a level head. That’s first and foremost, assessing the situation. Secondly is, know what you can do and, by extension, delegate to others as needed … step back, assess, know what your responsibilities are, delegate to everyone else and proceed from there.”
Essentially, a quick triage is key to addressing any problem or issue of any kind that could crop up in the middle of a shift. Determining what can be done and what needs to be done are the first steps. Helmkamp estimated that The Whistler has flooded five or six times since it opened in 2008. He says that figuring out whether the flood is a, “well, we can throw some cardboard down and we’ll be okay, we can get through it” or a “hey, there’s three feet of water in the basement and the power outlets are 18 inches off the floor and they’re under water — don’t step into the water, you will get electrocuted” is vital. Once you know how bad the situation is, you can respond.
Addressing problems calmly and efficiently makes things easier on everyone — staff and guests. Communication is also very important, again, for guests as well as staff.
“The big thing is just having a plan and then just communicating that to the staff and to the guest. It normally seems like, once people know what’s going on, even if it’s not the news they want to hear, at least they’re being talked to, they kind of relax a little,” says Robert Locke, general manager at Highland Avenue in Hickory, N.C.
“Get by with humor. Be chill. Don’t get stressed out,” advises George Abou-Daoud, owner/operator and chef at Bowery Street Enterprises in L.A.
Really though, one of the best ways to address a mid-shift crisis is to prepare for as much as possible before the worst happens. Castro tells his staff to “think about tomorrow.”
“We always say, ‘think about tomorrow, think about tomorrow’ because that pipe that sprung a leak on a Friday night might just be because on Monday night, you didn’t feel like dealing with it,” says Castro. “So if there’s an emergency on a Saturday night, the first thing I’d do is talk to our leads and our managers and be like, ‘how long did you know this was a problem? and why did we wait until Saturday night to address it?’”
Locke makes sure that the basics are covered: First aid kits, robbery plans, fire plans and anything that federal, state or local regulations require. He says it’s important to him that his staff know not to resist in case of a robbery.
“I say it jokingly, but, if someone wants to rob us, I’ll help them get the keg in the car,” says Locke.
Castro ensures that there are always a few more bodies than necessary on staff in case anything happens and you need someone to cover. He once had a bartender who got into an accident on the way to work and suffer a broken collarbone. Because he plans for extra staff and because he makes sure the managers can bartend in a pinch, everything worked out all right.
Developing — and implementing — plans for all the potential foreseeables can help relieve stress and anxiety when something does happen. According to Castro, one fairly easy solution for a potentially preventable crisis is ensuring that your establishment has a crash kit, which allows your staff to continue to accept and process credit cards if your computers, WiFi or electricity go out. Another is to draft an inclement weather plan, like they have at Highland Avenue. Snow removal, social media updates and the like are all thought out and taken care of.
Not everything can be planned for, though, try as we all might. Accidents happen, mistakes happen, weather happens — things happen. In fact, usually actual crises are those events that can’t truly be prepared for.
“I think probably the number one thing, especially for ownership and management, is having the right people in place. People who you trust, people who are properly trained, resourceful, someone who has common sense, someone who you’ve been to battle with behind the bar and you’ve seen that they can keep calm when everything seems to be crumbling around them, that’s the kind of person that you want to leave in charge when you’re not there. You know, that’s the kind of person that you can be certain that, when that situation that you would never in a million years anticipate happening actually happens, they’ll figure it out,” says Helmkamp.
Creating thoughtful plans for preventable crises and surrounding yourself with a hard working, dependable, level-headed and resourceful team covers all your bases. You’re prepared for both the expected as well as the entirely unexpected and when an issue comes up and throws a wrench in things, you know your team can band together and do the work.