Behind the Bar

How to Convince Management to Upgrade Your Bar Program

Tinctures and bitters and syrups in vintage glasses on top of a bar.
Sometimes, upgrading the quality of service at your bar is as simple as demanding better, housemade ingredients rather than cheap substitutes. Photo via iStock/Kondor 83.

There are no perfect bars, and there are no perfect jobs. Even if you’ve dreamed for years about working at a certain bar, fantasizing about how amazing things will be once you step behind the stick, it's guaranteed that small and big parts of the job will disappoint you. Maybe your manager changes shifts around needlessly. Or maybe your collection of bar tools is embarrassingly old. Perhaps your manager thinks that all vodka is the same swill and only stocks Popov to cut costs.

It’s easy to see these annoyances as a fundamental part of the job, something you silently resent but begrudgingly put up with. But there’s a solution: you can talk to management and try to make a change. No, you won’t get fired, and your boss won’t hate you. Instead, you’ll probably feel happier, more valued and more confident at your job, which can have a significant impact on your mental health. Just ask bartender Travis Sanders. For five years, he begged and pleaded with his bosses at the Carousel Bar inside New Orleans’ Hotel Monteleone to get rid of their powdered sour mix and replace it with homemade. They finally made the switch this summer. So, we asked Sanders to share his tips on how complaining — respectfully and consistently — can help you improve your bar.

Sanders started his career in a mall daiquiri shop. After that, he did a little bit of everything: bartending, security and managing a Coyote Ugly. He eventually decided to go back to bartending school to polish his skills. There, his instructors taught him how the craft cocktail revival was changing bartending standards, and emphasized the importance of fresh, quality ingredients. In 2011, Sanders started working at Hotel Monteleone. He loved it. There was one problem, though, and it came in a metallic yellow package: Franco’s Lemon Bar Mix.

The hotel had been using the powdered mix in their citrus and sour cocktails, and Sanders was horrified: how could a bar as storied and important to the cocktail world as the Carousel Bar use a mix in their drinks? They already used juices in other cocktails: why not simply mix some of those together instead of relying on a pre-made product, and save some money in the process? He immediately went to his boss: “I begin complaining: ‘Hey, why do we have this mix? This is shit!’” Sanders recalls. “I kept asking, why do we have this [mix] if we have these other things that are so much better?”

Nothing changed. The Franco’s remained, taunting Sanders from the fridge. He started throwing packages of the mix away, and dumping jugs of it down the drain. “I was contributing to the problem, because management must have thought ‘Well, they’re using it, so we’ll keep buying it,’” he says. “We weren’t using it. I was just throwing it away.” At every chance he got, he complained, working his way through the bar’s management team. Other parts of the Carousel Bar changed — the bar was renovated in 2011, and the bar took the opportunity to upgrade their speed rack to better quality spirits — but the Franco’s remained. As time went on, the bar hired barbacks, who trained under Sanders. They quickly learned not to include sour mix at his station, and when they were promoted to bartender, they made their drinks the way he taught them: with a makeshift homemade sour mix, not the Franco’s.

Recently, Sanders made a Facebook post about his sour mix odyssey. It had been five years since he started working at the hotel, and he was frustrated. “It’s a pride thing. How can we be the home base for Tales of the Cocktail with sour mix? It’s ridiculous!” he says with a laugh. “This should be the crown jewel of the bartending community and we’re using crap. We’re not serving diamonds, we’re serving cubic zirconia. And I can’t get down with that.” Unlike the diplomatic tone he used when talking to management, his Facebook post was different. It was a little salty, a little irritable. It may have even implied that the hotel’s management team didn’t know what they were doing.

Someone showed the Facebook post to the person in charge of everything food and booze related at Hotel Monteleone: the food and beverage director. He set up a meeting with Sanders, who was worried he would get fired. The director asked him: did Sanders make the post to get his attention? “I was like, ‘No, I did it because I was f—ing pissed off,’” Sanders says. “But now that I have your attention, let’s talk about some things.’” Since their meeting, where Sanders once again made his case that it would be cheaper and better to use housemade mix, the bar finally got rid of the Franco’s. There have been other changes, too. The bar whittled the sprawling cocktail menu from 47 drinks to 12, started incorporating fresh herbs like basil and sage into their drinks and debuted Vacu Vin pumps to store their wine.

If you’re in a similar situation — whether you’re trying to convince your boss to shell out for better training, or higher-quality ingredients — model Sanders’ strategies. Be polite and respectful: your manager probably has a million things on their plate at once, so cover your issue quickly, simply and calmly. Be persistent. Work with your coworkers to do as much as you can on your own, and present a united front when talking to management. Don’t make your argument about you — show your boss why your changes can help them. Most of all, Sanders says, bring it back to the bottom line, like he did when he showed management how much they could save by swapping the Franco’s with a sour mix made from juices they already had. “Make it about dollars and cents,” he says. “Whatever changes you want to implement, put it in terms of, ‘This is what you’re spending, this is what you could be saving. If we made this change, we could increase the prices and make so much more money.’”

It can be hard to raise a fuss at work. But if you do it for the right reasons, and in the right way, it can make a big difference in the quality of your bar, your relationship with your boss, and in your job satisfaction — all things worth advocating for.

“If I’m rocking the boat to be a dick, I should be concerned. But I’m trying to change the status quo, for the betterment of the hotel’s reputation,” Sanders says. “On top of that, I’m trying to change the reputation of my profession. I don’t want my grandmother, ever again, to ask me when am I going to get a real job. And she’s stopped. She stopped because she realized that I don’t have a job, I have a profession, and I feel the need to be professional about it.”

Shelby Pope is a writer in Berkeley.

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