Behind the Bar

When Your Bartenders Should Wait Tables

A woman taking orders in a restaurant.
To best serve your teammates, you've got to understand their role. And in the case of bartenders, it never hurts to know how to hit the floor as a server. (Photo: andresr/iStock)

With all the attention paid to labor costs, some bar training programs focus their efforts behind the bar. But cross-training bartenders in other roles can help with morale, flexibility, level of service and provide resiliency against employee turnover.

When Shelby Allison and her husband Paul McGee visited the cocktail lounge at Zetter Townhouse on a trip to London, they were a bit disappointed that they couldn't land seats at the bar. That changed when they learned that their server was also the head bartender. “It was a great reminder,” Allison says, “that the same level of expertise and service can be transferred to a table.” They decided to cross-train bar staff at their Logan Square tiki bar Lost Lake in Chicago, inspired by the 1930's original Don’s Beachcomber Cafe.

The benefits were immediately apparent. Allison explains that cross-training provides flexibility with scheduling and makes it easy to juggle roles when someone is traveling, sick, has a family emergency or is injured. It provides a welcome break physically from bartending and an opportunity to interact and build camaraderie with other staff. With 300 rums on the menu, guests benefit from the knowledge of a bartender working table service.

“It helps people to be able to have their life,” says Meaghan Dorman, beverage director at four intimate bars in New York City. Each of the separate ventures employ cross-training. Staff have “more empathy” for each other when they're familiar with each other's checklists, she notes: “When bartenders are hosting at the door, they see how busy it is. They see things from the other side: the floor, if people are happy or waiting too long, regulars.”

Dorman also sees it as a path for promotion. People who are new to cocktails can get a foot in the door by working as a barback, server or host. Staff have clear expectations and an opportunity to learn.

In a business that changes quickly, dedicating time and resources to training is also a contingency plan. Before, Dorman notes, so much of training was verbal, and staff move on, the team grows bigger, or there's a lack of available talent. Cross-training provides a way to “let people in and let them succeed,” but it also helps the bars “keep their DNA and the knowledge of the group.” She sees it as a long-term plan and investment in the team and brand.

Clarke Anderson, a beverage manager with Ford Fry's restaurant group in Atlanta, explains that they “hire for personality and train for technique.” Ford Fry's 11 restaurants each have their own concept, with local and responsible sourcing, and a craft beverage program. While bartenders don't regularly pull shifts in other roles, every bartender goes through server training.

Not surprisingly, bartenders are reluctant to work shifts in roles that earn less money. Staff might work an extra shift in a position they're cross-trained in; Anderson points out that taking that initiative and being helpful doesn't go “unnoticed or unrewarded.”

One of the first things a new hire — from dishwashers to bartenders — experiences at their restaurants is a “guest experience analysis.” Anderson explains that they go through the steps of service to understand how to “serve the guest in all aspects.” Intensive server training also gives bartenders insight into other roles and responsibilities. It provides a trial period where new bartenders can familiarize themselves with the restaurant and its staff, he says: “it gets the butterflies out of the way, they feel comfortable earlier.”

Anderson observes that the restaurant group saves on training costs and can nimbly transfer or promote people to vacancies at other properties. A training series of beverage modules is open to all staff, whether they're simply curious or interested in career advancement. Level one discusses wine, beer, coffee and tea; level two explains spirits, how to build classic cocktails and balance a menu; and level three trains on beverage accounting for those interested in moving into management. Anderson enjoys seeing someone who is new to the industry come and learn. “They're shocked by the complexity,” he remarks, “it energizes me.”

Ultimately, cross-training gives bartenders an opportunity to think beyond their station. It helps ensure quality service and consistency, improves teamwork, provides paths for growth, and, as Allison noted, may help with some of that “ego involved in bartending.”

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