Behind the Bar

Sharing with Those Who Are Next: Notes on Mentoring

Two young men looking to an older man who is speaking to them behind a bar.
Dale DeGroff values sharing his passion for the craft of bartending and inspiring others to achieve their goals. The Bar 5 Day is just one place he's able to meet up-and-coming bartenders and catalyze their upward trajectory. Photo by Daniel Silbert.

When I wrapped up my conversation with Steve Olson about mentoring bartenders, I said, “geez, this could be a book.” He had just rattled off dozens of names of bars and bartenders that had grown from mentorship. Olson laughed and then paused. “It should be a book,” he said.

While I can’t give you a book today, I can give you insight from three cocktail culture giants on what it means to be a mentor — and a mentee.

Steven Olson, on sharing the craft:

To me, mentoring is more of an attitude, it’s a philosophical way of looking at this business. One of the things that makes our craft so unique and special is that it’s still a craft. In spite of there being bartending schools, it’s one of the few professions left where you have to apprentice and learn it from people in the business. You can learn all the recipes, but you have to learn to do it from people who do it.

Most of the people in our business were educated to do something else but chose hospitality or, rather, it chose them. And there’s something about being a bartender that comes from the inside. You have to like being the guy or girl in charge of the party. This danger is stronger than ever right now: there are a lot of people coming into bartending today that don’t understand the part about being conversational and energetic, about leading and showing.

So, hire for heart. I’d rather have a bartender who’s never done it before but wants to learn and has a good heart. I can teach the recipes and history, categories and brands within categories, but I can’t teach how to be nice. A lot of people can make good drinks — that doesn’t make them a good bartender. They’re not in charge of the stage, they’re not leading at the bar or engaging the person across from them.

When you find someone who deserves it, and wants it — they’ll show themselves, they find you. They come to you to learn, so be an open book. What makes this profession really special is that it is about sharing. I don’t have any secrets, I’ll share it all. We share our techniques, ideas, attitudes, love of the craft — and it’s contagious. And you share literally by opening the door and letting them tap into whatever they’re capable of tapping.

No matter how good you get at bartending, it’s about sharing with the people who are next.

I have so many people who started off with me as barbacks or bus boys that now are famous, that have their owns careers as consultants and leaders in the community. That’s one of the things I’m most proud of: all of these amazing human beings who’ve grabbed onto this and become part of it with me. They have the same attitude: to share, and that’s why we are where we are in the cocktail world today.

Dale DeGroff, on having a vision:

From my experience, there is no formula. People are successful for different reasons.

When I went beyond normal bartending and to another level it was because of a guy named Joe Baum. He was my senior and had a significant impact on the restaurant, wine and cocktail businesses. He was in an era right after the Second World War called “the era of the bland” — it was meat and potatoes dinners and number 10-size cans of vegetables used in “fine dining.” [Baum] wanted us to go back to real food. He was interested in fine dining American cuisine, which didn’t exist, and real cocktail culture with a style of bartending that had been gone since before Prohibition. Joe was dedicated to creating that. He was an innovator and a visionary.

I went to work for the guy in 1984 at the Aurora restaurant in New York. He wanted a classic cocktail program that used no mixes. He wanted me to find real recipes, and that’s how I started — to help realize his vision of serving real 19th century cocktails. Joe had also gotten the contract from the Rockefeller Center to restore the Rainbow Room. I watched that happen and then focused my efforts on getting that job. Eventually, I did.

Joe wasn’t your average mentor. He wasn’t cuddly or soft. His methodology was pretty much: you have a job to do and if you can’t do it I’ll find someone who can. He had a genius though — he could bring teams of people together who worked well together and who shared his vision. That’s massively important.

But he was a difficult person. Mentoring is not always what you think it is. You think it’s very caring and nurturing, but it’s not always that way. It can be, and it’s lovely when it is. The way it was with Joe — if you didn’t hear from him it was good news. So, I also learned from Joe what not to do.

To me, like my partner Steven Olson and others, we have the gift of sharing our passion in a proactive way. When they take our Bar Smarts or BAR Five Day course, it changes a lot of lives. That’s another way of mentoring — sharing the passion so that when someone walks away, they have a vision and direction and goal of their own that they can realize better than if they'd not crossed paths with us. When someone says yes, there is a career path for me here and I can clearly see it now — that’s mentoring at its very essence.

You expose people to material. The way you expose them to it — that info, that peek into another world, the enthusiasm with which you do it — that is what they’re attracted to. It’s not the information at that moment. There’s a way of communicating this information, or way of life, or vision, that suddenly becomes meaningful.

Jim Meehan, on being humbled and being a motivator

Throughout my career, I’ve made point of learning something from everyone I’ve worked with. To point to one mentor in particular — that would be Audrey Saunders who mentored me at the Pegu Club. But, I’ve learned from everyone I’ve worked with and that’s advice I’d give to any young bartender. Everyone has something to teach you. Much of being able to receive that knowledge from someone is opening yourself to the fact that everyone has something to show you. So much of mentorship is a two-way street. You can’t mentor someone who doesn’t want to be mentored.

Mentoring is something that I take more seriously than any other opportunity I have in this industry. I’ll meet bartenders all over the world who come up to me and say they read my book or saw me on a video and that impacted their life and career. I’m in a very fortunate position to have played an impact in people’s lives who I haven’t met before.

It was a very humbling and sometimes painful transition from managing my bar as a bartender to managing my bar as a manager who didn’t bartend. After 15 years of bartending, maybe you assume you’re going to be a great manager, but in reality you start as a newbie manager. The skill set of management is a completely different — they’re not mutually exclusive, but it requires a different way of doing business.

Mentoring is not a light responsibility, because a lot of it has to do with being a role model, which is not like clocking in and out of work. It’s something you have to do all day, when people are looking and are not looking.

And, it is about allowing people to realize their potential. It’s important to take into consideration what everyone’s potential is when you begin. The worst thing you can do as a mentor is to push someone beyond their potential or comfort level, beyond their boundary of capability, and put their own limitations in their face.

My primary role as a mentor is that of a motivator. When I’m not motivating someone, I’m not doing my job.

Ultimately, mentors influence the future of bartending culture

Steven Olson also made sure to note that there are plenty of bartenders who are mentors, but aren’t famous or receiving awards for it: “They’re out there, and they’re doing good work and influencing the the culture.” Cheers to you all!

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