Princess Power

by Francine Cohen

Somewhere between trumpets heralding Princess Catherine's arrival, Norm's welcome on Cheers, and the agony felt by Mr. Cellophane (the insipid cuckolded husband in Chicago who always feels overlooked) is the sweet spot that marks the proper approach to welcoming guests to your bar.

I'm guessing that of all the people reading this at least 50% of you have made me a drink at one time or another; either at an event or across your bar.  And I want to thank you for both the delicious cocktails and the welcoming greeting I received as I sat across from you.  Each time we engage over a drink I am fortunate to be treated so well; greeted with smiles and hugs, time dedicated to conversation and little tastes of your favorite concoctions proffered.  Your gracious ways make me feel even more special than just a regular; you've made sure I leave feeling like I was treated like a princess.  And, as you can imagine, I like that.

So why can’t this always be the case?  Even when I walk into a bar where I'm not known.

Okay, okay, I'll be realistic and mature about this and acknowledge that I understand it’s unreasonable to always expect princess treatment, but somewhere in between "Yay, you're here!" and the utter dismissiveness of a "Yeah, wadda ya want?" attitude would be a nice balance.

As I’ve discovered recently, that possibility isn’t always the case with some bartenders.  It’s been my misfortune to encounter a few unfamiliar bartenders who are seemingly not interested in having my business.  And that's not right.

Now don't get me wrong, I understand that bars get busy and one may be in the weeds and a lengthy conversation isn't always possible.  But there’s no excuse when the bar is empty.  There is never a time when some common courtesy and consideration for that stranger (who, admittedly, may not be a supermodel or a guy with an obvious expense account) wouldn’t go a long way to making a customer a) willing to wait patiently b) tip thoughtfully/generously c) want to return and spread the word that your bar is worth visiting.  All it takes is a minute effort.  So spread the word to your colleagues!

A kind word or two should be easy to muster up according to Patrick Maguire, founder and editor of www.servernotservant.com.  But he also recognizes there are challenges and realities to balancing your attention.  He advises, "You need to be careful of devoting an inordinate amount of time to regulars at the expense of service to folks visiting for the first time.  It’s easy to fall into the pattern of falling into conversation with those who are friendly, and fun, and you know and tips you well.  It can be a challenge for some bartenders to be as welcoming and warm and inclusive of customers they encounter for the first time, but it is really important to make sure you are sharing the love with your regulars (who are the bread and butter and can make a five degree night in February a decent night, rather than a no business night) and newcomers.”

He continues, "Some bartenders do have a tendency to alienate first timers by devoting too much time to the regulars and then those folks don’t feel like they are in the club.  Doing a great job means being aware of everyone at your bar.  Not just your regulars."

Wisely, seasoned bartender Michael Neff of Ward III (www.ward3tribeca.com) and The Rum House (www.edisonrumhouse.com) notes, “Membership has its privileges and it always will.  That’s what being a regular at a bar is, and it’s about quality.  Guests will think ‘I want to be a regular.’”

Some nights both regular guests and first timers need to wait their turn.  And that can be handled well, or not well at all.  Neff comments, “The hard thing for us is that we have a sea of faces in front of us and though you want to treat everyone the same, you can’t.  I’ve often been working and someone will really want my attention and I don’t have any attention.  I have to spread myself between you and those other people.  If we’re talking Wednesday at 5:00, well then, I can do all sorts of stuff for you.  That’s where I think the proof is in the pudding.  If I’m getting ignored and there’s nobody around then you’re not doing your job.”

Franky Marshall, bartender at Monkey Bar (www.monkeybarnewyork.com) and The Tippler (www.thetippler.com) has a thoughtful approach to interacting with her guests no matter how many times they’ve stood before her bar.  And, having seen it at work first hand one night when she masterfully balanced a flock of regulars on the left and slightly arrogant and entitled newbies on the right, I must confirm there’s some wisdom to be gleaned from her management style and shared with those bartenders who need a little help with the royal treatment for everyone concept.  Marshall explains, “When a guest comes in for the first time, I always try to be extra welcoming. I may go out of my way to be a little more attentive, offer help, answer their questions, and be more available.  I want them to know I appreciate them coming into where I work, and not going to the place next door.  With regulars, generally, less guidance is required.  They know how things work and there's a mutual understanding of what the expectations are on both sides.”

She concludes, “The regular is like a boyfriend, while the first timer is like the guy you're trying to get to call you for a second date.”

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