Behind the Bar

Making a Case for Slowing Service Down

A person garnishing a cocktail.
Crafting a meaningful cocktail experience requires keen attention to detail, both in terms of the drink itself and the guest in front of you. (Photo: MaximFesenko)

At fast-paced, high-volume bars, things move at dizzying speeds. Guests arrive, order, receive their drink, pay and move along; there’s often not a ton of time to chat and catch up with whoever is behind the bar. And when they know they’re going to a quick-moving joint, they often don’t expect much more than that. They can tell just by looking around at the hordes of people that it’s not exactly a slow night, but in the quest for speed and efficiency, the desire (and need) to make as many drinks, open as many beers or pour as many glasses of wine or spirits as possible, are there any parts of the guest experience that fall by the wayside as collateral damage? Is the need for speed all it’s been made out to be?

According to Michael Barton, the general manager at newly-opened Addendum in D.C., there are just some bars that guests go to specifically for the interaction and experience. “We’re not stopping off at Cocktail McDonald’s and ordering a #6 and getting our thing and going,” Barton says.

Collin Moody, the general manager at Income Tax in Chicago, used to work in coffee and likened being a barista with being a bartender — especially when things get a little crazy.

“[T]he longer I worked in coffee, you hit a point where you can certainly be better and you’re always working to be better, but you’re somewhat comfortable. And what I realized is when I stopped focusing so much on what I was doing behind the bar, like looking at my hands, and looking up, it was that our guest was not very impressed by how hard I was working and how fast I was working, necessarily,” Moody says. “Because we’re talking about minutiae of seconds and that’s obviously important to an extent to guest experience, but that eyes-up mentality of workflow, looking people in the eye, thanking them for coming in, remembering who they are, saying hi to them... all these kinds of things where in an extremely busy coffee bar or cocktail bar, you only have a few seconds with someone, but you have an ability to translate a warmth and a sense of welcoming to them in those few seconds that really do change the emotional experience.”

It’s easy to let go of those typical habits — smiling, saying hello, glancing their way — when you are six people deep at your bar, and for some spots, it can sometimes be nearly a necessity. Lukas B. Smith, a consultant at Addendum, also has another D.C.-based project that functions far more like a high-volume bar than Addendum does. And that is the experience there. But at Addendum, the entire experience has been designed to facilitate, encourage, even perhaps demand, that guests and bartenders have a good chat.

“[T]he idea would be because it’s a bitters bar, you basically have to sit and talk with the bartender about every single drink and every bartender has to talk to every guest about everything to make sure that we’re not booby trapping anybody and that we’re really explaining the concept, so that we’re not surprising people in a bad way and that we’re opening people up to new things,” says Smith. “But most importantly, we’re providing the best hospitality that we can and we’re not allowing ourselves to be blown off with a simple highball order, but we’re not bailing out on the guest and allowing them to just like randomly point at the menu, because these things are fairly challenging for some people.”

At Income Tax, the staff really makes an effort to keep guest experience at the forefront, even when the space is packed, with Moody coming out from behind the bar to greet, take orders and serve drinks to those waiting for a barstool to open up in the crowded bar space or a table in the dining room.

At restaurant bars, such as Income Tax, cocktails often act as the first impression for the establishment, just as they do at cocktail bars. For Alex Berlingeri, corporate beverage director at New York-based SA Hospitality Group, that’s seriously important.

“I want it to be sort of an experience in itself, I don’t want it to be something we just slung together because we needed to go fast,” says Berlingeri. “But, it’s a fine line, because on the other end of it, that guest sitting at that table, he doesn’t want to wait 30 minutes for that cocktail to show up, because at that point it’s past the experience point. It starts aggravating them and now it becomes negative.”

Of course, no one working in the hospitality industry is actively looking to make the guest experience anything but positive. Besides the obvious community building and interpersonal relationships that form as a result of bartenders and managers taking their time, if necessary, slowing things down can actually eventually contribute to speeding things up. Arguably its own very important part of the guest experience.

According to Michael Huebner, bar manager at Revival Bar in Chicago, it can be beneficial for bartenders — even fairly experienced bartenders — to slow things down whenever they’re learning the ins and outs of a new menu or technique. Additionally, taking your time and thinking through things can help bartenders think critically through mini-crises as they come up, but faster, if they’ve practiced that skill.

“[I]f your fruit juice one day is more astringent than it was the previous day, you’re kind of correcting for that as you’re going, and in order to kind of get to that mainframe, you have to really practice it at a slow place,” Huebner says. “[B]ut once you train yourself to think in that sort of hyper-awareness, it translates really easily into a volume environment where you’re just kind of considering all these factors at once, kind of built into your psyche as a bartender.”

While some bars are clearly built for speed and efficiency, there’s much to be gained from slowing things down and taking your time. Slowing down builds community and makes guests feel welcomed, seen and heard. After all, isn’t that a large part of what hospitality itself is all about?

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