Techniques

8 Tips Every Bartender Can Use to Work Cleaner

A man wiping off a bar.
The key to keeping your bar immaculate is simple — clean as you go. Photo via iStock/DragonImages.

You’re kind of hoping that any place you stop in to eat or drink in is at least basic-level clean, right? Besides, you know, cleanliness, messy, dirty establishments don’t exactly scream “we’ve got this!” And no one wants to stay at work all night cleaning up after an already long day. The solution? Surprise, surprise — clean as you go. But that’s not the only trick of the trade that can help you work more cleanly behind the bar. A clean place for guests to eat, drink and hang out and ways to get you out the door quicker at the end of the night? It’s a win-win. Here, five pros break it down for us.

1. It all starts with the set-up

Borrow from the kitchen — the concept of mise en place, that is. “[Y]ou know the little phrase, ‘a place for everything, everything in its place’? That is so crucial behind the bar,” says Julia Momose, head bartender at GreenRiver in Chicago. Set-up is important, so make sure you’re good to go before you start working so that you’re all ready for success, not a night more difficult than it has to be. Organize not only your tools and equipment, but also things like garnishes, which will allow you to work more quickly, as well. “Lemon, lime, orange, grapefruit is our [organization]. Every time — lemon, lime, orange, grapefruit. So if I open it up and I see a gap, you know, second from the left, I know that the lime expressions are missing and that we need to make more. It’s as easy as that and it makes us more efficient, too,” Momose says.

2. Clean as you go

Yes, we already said that, but it bears repeating. Not only washing out shakers and cleaning tools, but also wiping down and putting bottles back where they go, otherwise you can get yourself into trouble in a hurry. “[I]f you grab a bottle and use it and you set it behind you on the back bar, but then you do it again and you do it again, then before you know it, you’ve got this entire messy thing behind you and then you actually can’t find what you’re looking for the next time," says Luke Andrews, co-beverage director and bartender at The Whistler in Chicago. "So it’s always quicker to take two seconds to put something back than to skip it and then within an hour you’re just knee-deep in stuff and you can’t find what you’re looking for." And if you have to leave a few bottles out, at least do it neatly, says Dan Smith of Chicago's Queen Mary Tavern. "Face the labels out and arrange them neatly in a line, so the backbar doesn't look cluttered to the eye," he says, "and wipe down backbar bottles any time they feel sticky."

The rinsing of tins and tools is important too, though. Dustin Drankiewicz, beverage director of Chicago-based hospitality group 16” on Center (Moneygun, Longman & Eagle, etc) breaks his bartenders’ bad habits by hopping in as their bar back and washing the glasses they toss in the sink — and then putting them right in front of them: “If you think about it, it’s gross to have all that shit just sitting in your sink … most of the time you dump dirty shit in there, you know? So yeah, that’s what you’ve got to do: Get in your bartender’s way with the next drink by putting all this clean shit in front of them,” says Drankiewicz. “It works.”

3. “No bananas behind the bar, ever!”

Battle fruit flies by trying to stay ahead of them. “No bananas behind the bar, ever. Absolutely no bananas behind the bar," says Demi Stevens, owner of Los Angeles’ Ortega 120 and Hey 19 Public House. "If you do have to have bananas behind the bar, then put them in the refrigerator, don’t put them on the counter. Even in states where they don’t require you to cover your fruit, you need to do it.” Beyond keeping fruit covered and out of the way, use fans, drain screens, enzymes, ice or a trusty exterminator to keep those little buggers at bay. “If flies can’t land, they can’t lay eggs,” says Andrews, which will take care of your problem.

Of course, cleanliness begets cleanliness — especially when it comes to critters. "Don't leave any sugar or food residue on any surface overnight," says Smith. "Don't just wipe down and disinfect the most obvious surfaces: hit everything that might have been splattered during service. Don't leave any food or drink garbage, like the empty can from your shift drink, behind in the garbage bin -- make sure to take everything out."

It happens to the best of us, so play it safe by having a good exterminator on-call. If they can’t keep the flies away on their own, Drankiewicz and the team at 16” on Center rely on the man they call “The Fruit Fly Whisperer.”

4. Don’t move too quickly

Slowing down can actually make you more efficient with time. “[I]f you can slow down to the point where you are, like, every action has a purpose as opposed to just kind of flailing around and it’s just like, sometimes you look like you’re moving quickly, but you’re just running in circles, you’re not really doing anything. So if every movement has a purpose, you can move very short and really get things done efficiently and cleanly,” says Andrews.

Paying close attention to your movements can help, too, says Smith. "Does the bottle dribble as you finish pouring? Do you spill on the outside of the tin? After a few rounds, small messes like this turn your whole station into a sticky disaster. Pay constant attention to every movement you make, watch where the mess comes from, learn how to eliminate the mess, and soon enough it'll become an unthinking habit."

5. Contain your messes

“When it comes to kind of like those sticky, messy ingredients, like egg whites or cream or cheese... sometimes what we do on really busy nights is we’ll designate those to a certain station, a station that’s a little bit slower than service bar,” Momose says. Assigning drinks that might make a bigger mess to a slower part of bar ensures that tools and equipment get washed up right away.

Contain everyone else’s messes too. If someone spills something, clean it up right away. “It’s almost like on an airplane, like hitting the ‘ding!’ If you really want my attention, knock your drink over,” Andrews says. Beyond good, professional customer service, it’s a nice thing to do. No one wants to sit in front of (or in) a puddle.

6. Find spare minutes to multitask

Everyone has a checklist for the end of the night, but not every single thing on that list has to wait until the last guest has walked out the door. Start checking things off the list if there’s a bit of downtime, you’ll be glad you did. “[T]here’s, you know, that silly little phrase, if ‘you’ve got time to lean, you’ve got time to clean,’ right? So what I always did, because I talk, I polished my glassware, I cleaned my bottles, I did all of that stuff while I was talking to people,” says Stevens. “[I]f you’re paying attention to all of this stuff, now you’re getting out of there at 3 o’clock in the morning instead of 4 o’clock in the morning.”

7. Fight clutter with the ultimate tools: labels and storage containers

Smith emphasizes the importance of labels and containers for everything. "In the cabinets behind the bar, everything has an appropriately sized container (plastic 1/3 pans are a favorite) with a P-touch label indicating what should go in the container," he says. "For backup liquor storage behind the bar, I even indicate how many of each bottle should go in a certain spot, so the cabinets don't get overstocked. A good label saves you the trouble of passing a message around to the whole staff."

8. Keep your shake under control

One last bonus tip for preventing messes: "Always shake parallel to the bar," says Smith. "If you drop it, or if it breaks open, or if any liquid escapes and goes flying during the shake, it will land on the floor behind the bar, or at worst on your co-workers, rather than on a guest. I'm surprised how often I see bartenders shaking directly at the guest sitting in front of them! Of course you never plan on letting the tin slip out of your hands, or having the seal break mid-shake, and with enough practice that shouldn't happen very often, but there's every reason to work in such a way as to minimize the damage when it does happen."

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