How Bars Celebrate Their Staff During the Holidays

Stockings hung around a fireplace
At Bar Tonique in New Orleans, bartenders' stockings are hung by the fireplace with care, in hopes that a staff holiday party soon will be there.

If working in the service industry was about being constantly recognized and appreciated, maybe everyone would do it. Instead, the work can be thankless, the hours long and the atmosphere draining. Particularly during the holiday season, bartenders are asked to spend precious time away from their own family and friends to serve the masses.

Now, more than ever, it’s important for bar leadership to give their team a moment of pause and much-due demonstrations of gratitude. Around the world, bar owners and managers have myriad ways of showing appreciation in the season of giving.

“The holidays will always create an environment for ‘togetherness’ and ‘gratitude,’ so of course we always want to do something special,” says Lauren Mote, co-proprietor of Bittered Sling. “Whether an orphan's holiday gathering, a simple coffee date or an extra day off — all gestures, whether big or small — mean something.”

Of course, not all of Bittered Sling’s celebrations have been what you’d call “simple.”

Last year, the Bittered Sling team took a trip to France for an educational opportunity they dubbed “Le Grand Sling.” In partnership with Grand Marnier and House Lapostolle, they took 17 bartenders on a management retreat and immersion program that spanned Champagne, Paris and Cognac.

The impact of such an elaborate trip has been significant.

“It joined old friends from across our massive country, and forged new relationships — all around a brilliant trip that we are still celebrating today with the launch of new products and programming that our team has been working on together,” Mote says.

A team trip to France is presumably out of range for most bar programs, but it’s the sentiment that counts. Much more manageable and affordable celebrations still make a meaningful impression on your staff.

Brian Nelson, chef and owner of Keg Cowboy in Lexington, South Carolina, has taken his team bowling for the last several holiday parties.

“We sometimes do a little front of the house versus back of the house, but then I have to be removed from the mix,” says Nelson, who talks a big game about his bowling skills. “The bar picks up the first $250 of the tab, as well as the bowling and usually a solid chunk of the food, if we haven’t worked out something with the bowling alley.”

He and the management staff give out gifts, poking lighthearted fun at the staff. “Usually, the ‘gift’ from us is usually sort of a joke. Things like pens (to the ones who never have them), big toy clocks (to the ones who are habitually 10 minutes late), things like that,” he says.

Putting thought behind a gift for staff members is a way of reminding them that you’re equally invested in them as they are in your bar. This year, Mark Schettler, GM and bartender at Bar Tonique in New Orleans is hooking his staff up with an important read. “I'm being a nerd and buying my whole staff a copy of Sasha Petraske's book ‘Regarding Cocktails.’ Our bar opened in 2008 with the goal of emulating what Sasha was doing at Milk + Honey, and while anyone who's been to both can see that we clearly went down a different road, so much of what's in the book is exactly what we've always tried to instill in our staff,” he says.

At Seabear Oyster Bar in Athens, Georgia, the focus is on giving everyone the space to get to let loose and bond. “This year we're going ice skating, having family style Korean BBQ, then hitting the karaoke room with Secret Santa. I think the idea is to give people the opportunity to be as ridiculous as possible,” says bar manager Hunt Revell. “It at least lets everybody get out of the office and into a different location. Free food and drink is always good, right? I think it at least gives everyone an opportunity to get to know each other a little better.”

The staff of Proof in Charleston, South Carolina is taking the idea of getting “out of the office” a step further and heading out to sea. “We are chartering a fishing boat and captain to take us offshore in January,” says Craig Nelson, owner of Proof. “I wanted to do something that didn't center around alcohol or the typical party environment. I am hoping that this will be more of a team building time and a chance for us to spend a day together (we will close for the trip).”

Of course, celebrating the season can be extended to full bartending communities. The New Orleans USBG chapter takes this charge seriously. They host a party at a bar called Shamrock, where the floor is decked out with pool tables, dart boards, air hockey, skee ball — the works, “sort of the original bar/game room concept that's being recreated for hipsters all across America these days,” says Schettler. “The place is huge, and a few years ago we drank them out of Smirnoff Ice. And of course there's the annual Steve Yamada-Chris Hannah, selective memory doubles beer pong tournament, whereby they forget that they've definitely been beat at beer pong before.”

Holiday parties are more than a wild time or an opportunity to load your staff down with gifts — it’s about letting them know a year of hard work has been recognized and appreciated.

“It's important to never look off an opportunity to show your team that you appreciate them and the contributions they're making as your business partners,” Schettler says. “Part of good leadership is extending every hospitality you want for your guests to your team members as well. We love the people we work with a lot and the opportunity to do something kind for them is a privilege.”

And here’s an argument even Ebenezer Scrooge couldn’t deny, “I think that any honest show of love and appreciation to the staff will invariably be passed on to our guests and to each other,” Schettler says. “Reasonable people don't wake up with the goal of being an asshole, bartenders certainly ought not to, ours absolutely do not, and so when you foster an environment that values kindness it'll end up suffusing everything that happens within your business.”

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