Behind the Bar

What It Takes to Be America’s Best Bar Team

The ABV team celebrating their 2015 Spirited Award
ABV pictured at last year's Spirited Awards after taking home the top honors for Best New American Cocktail Bar. Photo by Doron Gild, courtesy of Chivas.

There’s always at least one member of ABV’s team who makes the trek from San Francisco to New Orleans for Tales of the Cocktail. Except this year. Any other year, someone would have been there in person to hear them named Best American Bar Team at the Spirited Awards. This year, however, when they took home the award after being nominated last year (the 2015 award went to Employees Only), everyone was back in San Francisco and it was business as usual at ABV.

“Everybody had stuff going on, but somehow we all just sort of wound up at ABV when we knew the Spirited Awards were being live-broadcast on the Internet and one of the bartenders had set up a little phone out back with the live feed streaming and then the owners were upstairs in the office,” says John Gertsen, bartender at ABV. “I was at a table taking an order and mid-way through the table ... and I was going around to each person and I heard a bunch of ruckus and I knew exactly what had happened and I had to excuse myself, I said to the table, ‘you know, there’s an emergency that I need to go take care of, I’ll be back in just about a few minutes.’ And they looked at me, so I went over to the computer and I put in the order for the five or six mains that I had already taken and then I ran upstairs.

“[T]hen when I went back downstairs to take the rest of the order, of course, the table was curious, they said, ‘well, what was the emergency?’ I was like, ‘well, truth be told it wasn’t really an emergency, I just had to go celebrate with my peers.’ I told them the story and they were so excited we all wound up doing shots together. But it was a moment of great surprise because I think of the incredible competition that we were up against. You know, all final four nominees for that award deserved the award, I think. So we were blown away, it was really wonderful. The feeling in the room at ABV that night was really fantastic,” Gertsen says.

ABV’s fearless leaders, Ryan Fitzgerald, Todd Smith and Erik Reichborn-Kjennerud, made plans for the bar when each were working elsewhere — Fitzgerald at Beretta, Smith and Reichborn-Kjennerud opening The Hideout within Reichborn-Kjennerud’s Dalva.

“I would go there after working at Beretta and hang out and we would talk and eventually I could tell they were planning on opening a bar and I had money … I basically convinced them to let me be a part of it,” said Fitzgerald.

After that, they assembled their crack team using their deep connections in San Francisco’s hospitality industry, mostly asking friends they’d worked with and admired and acquaintances they’d been served by before to join them.

Below, a few keys to their success.

1. Every employee is a bartender.

This is huge for the team at ABV. Since everyone is a bartender, they can seamlessly grab the reins behind the bar for a fellow team member who needs to take a break (California has a mandatory break regulation) or otherwise pick up the slack. Beyond that, they can walk guests through different cocktails and spirits like a bartender, because they are one.

“[T]he other night, one of the bartenders went on a break for 30 minutes and it wasn’t really busy, but of course it got really busy, like, 15 minutes after he left," says Fitzgerald. "We’ve got a guy on the floor and there’s only two bartenders working and I’m hanging out managing, and then this bartender’s like, ‘man, these drinks are taking forever’ and I’m like, ‘you’re a bartender, there’s an extra well, go back and make drinks, I can work the floor,’ you know? Like, just go back there and do it. And it worked,” he says.

Also, staff members can ask any other bar staff to cover shifts for them, whether a shift on the floor or behind the bar, because they’re all able to do the same things. This means major scheduling issues don’t crop up all that often.

2. They pool their tips.

Since everyone’s doing the same things, just on different days or at different times, pooling tips simplifies things for the ABV team.

“[T]hat makes it really nice. It means that the bartenders behind the bar are making the same exact amount of money on a drink they put across the bar as they are putting a drink through the service well, which definitely isn’t the case when you’ve got servers tipping you out,” Fitzgerald says.

3. They hire great people.

This one’s kind of a no-brainer, but surrounding yourself with good people makes the whole team stronger.

“[W]e’ve got people on our staff that I’ve worked with at seven different restaurants in the past, you know, just keep bringing them along, trying to bring them to other places because they’re such good friends and such solid workers,” says Fitzgerald.

4. Above all, they take care of those great people once they've been hired.

ABV’s found that working collaboratively and giving everyone a voice helps pull everyone together. People take a sort of ownership over their work and they’re happy about that.

“We take great care of them, we make sure they’re happy, we take them on field trips and pay for them to go out to do things," says Fitzgerald. "And, on top of that, the one most important thing, our favorite time of the week, we have a weekly bar meeting that’s not mandatory at all, but mostly everyone comes. It’s basically just an hour, hour and a half of time for you to taste something completely new, maybe blind taste a spirit and watch some of our veteran bartenders sort of pick this spirit apart and try to figure out what it is and how their whole method is of doing that kind of thing. It’s a great weekly opportunity to get just sort of crazy training that you can’t even buy anywhere, you could never get.”

“We put a really strong emphasis on education and, you know, in the end, it’s a really tough, tough, tough business to keep people in and it’s really tough to run a solid bar when you have turnover. So, acknowledging that from the very beginning was what sort of made this whole concept come together.”

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