Hi! Welcome! Please sit down and get comfortable. If you need, grab yourself a beverage of your choosing, a notebook and perhaps a dictionary. I’ve never been great at preamble but I do like to talk and I like to write even more. What follows, I hope, will be an informative, occasionally irreverent, certainly garrulous guide to the style of bartending I have found myself developing towards for over a decade. It may at times seem self-contradictory and to the rote practitioner it will be. My hope is that is not you because you will find that bartending, like any discipline is a partnership between yourself, your environment and your subject, in this case a role that will be played by the diverse cast of characters that make up your customers, and in this discipline there is little room for absolutists. And with no time wasted this is where we will make our first philosophical digression and it will come in a simple choice of words, customer versus guest, and will color everything we talk about from this point onward.
Danny Meyer, in his lauded book, Setting the Table, advocates for exchanging the term “customer” for “guest”. In many ways I think this is a great practice and Mr. Meyer has made use of it to achieve a level of success both financially and in professional excellence that most of us will only ever fantasize about. Certainly some of the best people I have ever worked for, some of whom found their early successes within his Union Square Hospitality Group held very firmly to this discipline and heaven help you if you tried to go your own way on their watch. But in life I have always been an advocate of understanding, of analysis and of staying as clear of euphemisms as possible except around small children and your parents. And though subtle, calling a customer a guest is a euphemism, and anyone who insists that you do so is to some degree asking that you manipulate the fundamental nature of your interactions at work. After all, I do not charge guests in my home for the food or alcohol they consume. I do not expect that there will be any form of compensation for their visit except the good company they provide. And if at any point, through drink or simply poor behavior I find myself objecting to their words or actions, I might ask that they leave and am unlikely to be bothered if they do not ever return.
So why would I call a restaurant or bar patron a guest? In the argument for the practice, it is a sort of mental exercise that prepares you to approach the day as though the people entering your place of business were instead entering your home, and despite my previous argument that’s often not too far from the emotional truth. Certainly for the first eight or so years of my career it felt as though I spent at least as much time and often more at my jobs or work related pursuits than I did at the place where I went to sleep (home remained a somewhat nebulous concept). Calling my customers guests also gave me a sense of ownership of my environment. This was my bar. This was my home. But it wasn’t. And if we’re going to get to the truth of what we do for a living, not only do we have to acknowledge that, but it has to be okay. To take a page from Mr. Meyer: Who says we can’t want to treat customers as well as people we invite into our living rooms? And if we’re really engaging the truth here, let’s go whole hog: you’ll put up with a lot more shit from your customers than you will your houseguests. Because your customers pay, in part, for your tolerance.
Which leads us to Hospitality. Hospitality is a word you will hear applied to the practice of bartending, serving and the general management of the customer experience in nearly any transaction these days where one person seeks the product another provides, and the other person seeks to make the experience of acquiring it as positive as possible. Doctors study it in medical school, hoteliers have crafted it into the architecture of their establishments, and even online stores are perpetually challenging their web designers to code a hospitable experience into the fabric of their websites. Hospitality and seeking dynamic ways to express it has become something of a bull market. And it makes sense. In the modern era nearly everything about our lives has been commoditized in one form or another but none recently so much as time. And so in a world where you can almost always find whatever you need online, a place where people actually spend the currency of time better be able to beat out those websites. And I’m telling you, some of those web designers are the modern PT Barnum’s of the world, making folks feel engaged in ways they never knew they could. Don’t believe me? YouTube.
Obviously then, hospitality should be the central purview of the bartender. Making your customers feel welcome, wanted and cared for in ways that will surprise and delight them is not only a fun way to get through a shift, it is also good business for yourself and your establishment. So why am I dragging this out? Because simply put, for the bartender the process of what we have deigned to call hospitality is a great deal more complicated than our industry’s culture often acknowledges when invoking the term and it is my hope and intention to inoculate at least to some degree against the rather incredible levels of bullshit you will be sold, cajoled or otherwise exposed to as you embark on this journey of a career. Which is why, having established what we mean when we are talking about “hospitality”, I encourage you, like with “guest” to take that word and put it away for a while. Think a great deal less about how to succinctly define an overarching concept; that is a practice for boardrooms and smartly written business books, and a great deal more about everything you must do, and not do, achieve it.
With this being our foundation, let us begin.