by Francine Cohen

Over the past 12 months I’ve traveled the world, raising a glass with bartenders, bar owners, bar managers, sommeliers, brand ambassadors, chefs, f&b directors, hotel general managers, restaurateurs, line cooks, lawyers who protect them, and the people who love them.  Tough job, I know, but somebody had to do it.  How else to take the pulse of what’s going on in this nation? 

What got revealed?  Not only were election hot buttons and the fiscal cliff driving this nation to drink but so were guests.  And colleagues.

Oh, the agony of keeping the persnickety guest happy while making sure the happy ones stayed evenly keeled.  But let’s not forget about all the jockeying for position that was going on behind the scenes; folks looking for high visibility in the drinks community and rewards for their cocktail creations, good works, and sometimes just angling for sheer ego stroking. 

Ugh! Give us another shot of Fernet or Ilegal to clear the mind of this posturing.  What is it that Lucy Liu playing Joan Watson said on “Elementary” the other night?  Oh right, “I can’t possibly unsee that.”  But I wish we could.  Instead, I just listened to all you had to say, and commiserated.  And let me tell you that late at night, when it’s just the two of us with a couple of glasses between us and maybe some truffled egg toast too, the truth comes out.

Here’s what I heard is on your mind about how the industry is functioning and what you’d like to change in the new year.  No names.  We want to protect the innocent… 

  1. Please people, stop with the drinks on tap.  If you know what you’re doing behind the bar you can make a drink fast enough to keep your guests happy and can offer them something fresh and a la minute.  This “on-tap” thing is a gimmick for the lazy and unskilled.  Discuss.
  2. Just because you’ve bartended a year or two does NOT mean you should hang out a shingle proclaiming yourself as an event coordinator/bar booker.  Who the heck do you think you are and how have you proven yourself able to execute a full scale event smoothly?  You haven’t.  Sometimes you’ve bungled execution and dropped the ball and others had to swoop in to pick up the pieces and save the day. So stop it.
  3. Ditto on the cocktail menu creation.  Really?  Just because you’ve landed a couple of recipes on your bar’s menu as it has changed seasonally doesn’t mean you’re qualified to go out and tell some unsuspecting restaurateur how to craft his menu.  Especially if you know little to nothing about cooking.
  4. And, further to this point, don’t so drastically undercut the competition on pricing.  While there’s nothing wrong with healthy capitalism, there is some truth to the old adage “you get what you pay for.” How this plays out in the bidding for bartending jobs arena is that people with little experience who are offering to do jobs for a pittance are going to be a) possibly disappointing the client and b) setting up low expectations for both quality and payment standards.
  5. What’s the solution to this?  How about a standardized hourly rate range that’s agreeable?
  6. Tips.  Everyone wants to see guests tip better across the board.  Sure, the industry friends and family who stop in to your bar tip generously but will my 30% tip always balance out that customer who tipped just $1 a drink on four cocktails that were labor intensive?  Nope.  And, while we won’t get into the whole political conversation about the place that tips have in the hospitality business versus paying a living wage, we will say that collectively the industry is still a little baffled as to how best to bring more guests up to speed on how to tip better short of yet another article on how to tip your bartender.  Recommendations welcome.
  7. Brand loyalty with blinders on.  There are a bunch of gins out there.  Most of them really good.  But you’ll only serve one because they took you on a trip to their distillery once and you tell your customers that the rest are garbage?  That’s neither professional, nor honest.  Wouldn’t you rather be thought of as both, instead of being known as a shill?  Or worse, a cheap brand whore?
  8. Know what you’re talking about.  And acknowledge what you don’t.  It’s okay if you don’t know everything about a subject, but for goodness sakes people, ask some questions.  Dig deeper.  Find out more.  Do your research.  Or, keep your mouth shut.

I think the common thread heard all year long, and continue to hear, is that hospitality, truth, and enlightenment matter.  Fortunately we’re light years beyond the place we were three or four years ago when I had the pleasure of clambering onto a soapbox with Sean Kenyon and Danny Valdez for a few hours, talking about the absence of bartenders actually tending to the bar.  They were some of the first people in the industry I encountered who were focused as much on the guest experience as they were focused on the drinks passed across the bar. 

Valdez and Kenyon are champions for bartending before mixology and thankfully the industry seems to have put some of its precious ways behind it as the drinks world becomes more democratic.  Still, we’re apparently going through some growing pains.  It’s evident in your Facebook posts and the whispers of cliques forming (or strengthening) that are becoming more frequently heard. 

And so, as the industry becomes more and more popular as a viable career path and something worth paying attention to in the media, it’s evident that some civility and more professionalism is in order.

And that’s coming from you.  Do with that what you will in 2013. 

***Credit for the headline is due to Mark Drew of Brown-Forman’s Herradura.   

Read more from Editorial.