How to Develop Your Team’s Behind-the-Bar Style
Like a signature cocktail menu, bartender style is a matter totally unique to each institution.
When it comes to a memorable bar experience, the best bar teams know that offering expertly made cocktails is only a fraction of the equation: no matter how brilliant your drinks are, a huge part of the guest’s experience has nothing to do with what’s inside the glass. From the music playing overhead to the type of lighting hanging above the bar to the way you present your guests’ checks, each and every detail is an opportunity to build and convey an atmosphere. A vibe. That goes for what your bartenders are wearing, too.
Like a signature cocktail menu, bartender style is a matter totally unique to each institution: some have dress codes, some have uniforms, some have a free-for-all. Some ask their staff to dress in accordance with a theme; others simply let their team’s personal style rule. As for which path is right for your bar? It all comes down to the kind of vibe you’re going for.
If style is going to play a role in your overall bar experience, then the first step is determining what that experience needs to be. Chicago’s Lost Lake Tiki is a tiki bar, but not just any tiki bar: the bar’s aesthetic leans more contemporary escapist than retro kitsch. In order to nail the look, partner Shelby Allison developed a Pinterest board of inspiration to share with her team, and shepherded staff more toward “flora and fauna” (think palm fronds, parrots and leopard print) than old-school, pseudo-Polynesian. You’ll spot bartenders there rocking patterns like palm print and banana leaf, but you won’t see Moai motifs: Allison says it was important that Lost Lake offered a more modern interpretation of what tiki can mean in 2017.
Meanwhile, at New York’s Slowly Shirley, “We wanted to create a style that was a throwback to the golden era of Hollywood hotel bars and yet not at all stuffy,” says partner Jon Neidich. “We went with a classic burgundy dinner jacket, but with an open tux shirt, no tie.”
Across the pond, London Cocktail Club’s bartenders don’t wear a uniform; founder JJ Goodman describes the look as “laidback, cool, easy-going,” with traditional butcher-style bib aprons Goodman encountered while working in Michelin-starred kitchens. The aprons, combined with the bartenders’ individual style, has become a trademark look of the LCC.
At The Longboard, a coastal cantina in St. John, a laid-back surfer style is communicated through the iconography of surfboards, boardshorts, wax combs, and maps of St. John. “Our current bartender shirts are an updated look to a button-down short sleeve shirt in a nice, tropical woven cotton,” says owner Clint Gaskins. “They include branding and patches that are ever-present throughout the look of The Longboard, as well as the merchandise, evoking the overall island feel and demonstrating cohesion of the brand as a whole.” He describes the look as fresh and fun, but a slightly more modern take on often-generic “Caribbean style” (think more surfer streetwear, less Tommy Bahama). “It creates a continuity of the vibe we’re putting out in the space: surf videos on the TVs, reggae and beach tunes playing, bright tropical colors, and Caribbean-inspired food and cocktails.”
Whether you’re working with a uniform, a dress code, a mood board, or just a short list of things to steer clear of, communicating your expectations to staff is crucial to ensuring a cohesive look that harmonizes with the vibe of your bar. At Slowly Shirley, Neidich says, “We make sure their burgundy tuxedo jackets are dry-cleaned and pressed for each shift.”
At Lost Lake, a communal stash of tropical accessories is kept on-site in case a bartender needs a little more panache. And at London Cocktail Club, the team isn’t afraid to be candid with each other about the quality of their ensembles. “If you don't look cool, you get told,” says Goodman. “It is constantly discussed and addressed as soon as necessary. We’ve been holding weekly group-wide training sessions for years, so naturally, uniform is something that comes up regularly.”
And even when working within the structures of a uniform, it’s possible — and often preferable — to let employees’ personal style shine through. “We supply the the base uniforms, but do encourage individuality,” says Gaskins. “For example, one of our bartenders has a mohawk. He's damn good at his job and is ever-inspiring to the other staff.”
For Slowly Shirley, that kind of individuality is just as important as the uniform itself: “The uniforms evoke the era and tie in with the rest of the bar’s character,” says Neidich. “The individual playfulness lets the guest know that we take the cocktails and service seriously, not ourselves.” The team achieves this by encouraging bartenders “to add personal touches to an otherwise more formal outfit. We've had bolo ties, head scarves, and numerous lapel pins,” says Neidich (he adds that everyone on staff gets a penguin lapel pin, and “the rest is up to them”).
For London Cocktail Club, personal style is “what we’re about,” says Goodman. “A bartender who feels comfortable at work will deliver a better show. When you’re relaxed in your own clothes, you become more confident, and that transfers directly to the customer.”
Of course, while dress codes and uniforms have their place, it’s important to trust your employees on matters of style, too, says Goodman. “My bartenders understand what's cool more than I do these days.”