Hospitality Reigns King

by Sara Gorelick

Sitting at Bellocq in New Orleans this past July watching Tad Carducci, who is one of my favorite barmen, create what I would consider a perfectly balanced cocktail, I realized that everything about the drink was that much better because of the hospitality poured into it. He had greeted me with a warm smile, provided ample time to consider the drink menu and chatted with me while the drink was being made.  Though it was a busy bar, I felt like the only customer there -- or the only one that mattered at that moment anyway.

Coupled with a delicious drink, that's the experience every customer should have. The word hospitality gets used all the time within this fabulous food and beverage world, but what does it mean to everyone else? While I know what I'm looking for, how does this translate outside our cocktail bubble? Are the rest of this country's drinkers looking for this same experience?

They are. In their own unique way. And, while so often on ShakeStir we write about great drinks, great history, the greatness of each other -- we don't often ask ourselves about what the customer thinks. And so we did, with a small survey that proved to be fairly universal.

My drinking universe is informed by my unique perspective as a publicist with spirits clients and a freelance spirits writer; which means that my work frequently takes place in front a computer screen or across the bar from many of you. But this hybrid role also means I have judged competitions, reviewed cocktails, worked events (serving from small dinner parties to the behemoth that is South Beach Food & Wine), and thanks to all of this I am always aware of the guest experience. My serving style may not be as conventional but my top priority is the same as yours - make the customer happy.

In an effort to determine how we are succeeding, I polled a few friends outside of the bar world in their mid 20s to early 30s, those who have gotten past the novelty of drinking in bars and finally have the money to do it right. I asked what they are looking for - including 'What makes up that perfect evening, and how do those serving them play into it?' 'What makes a customer stay, and more importantly, come back?'

Here are some insights:

Greg works and lives in New York City. He likes non-discriminative places with lots of choices of booze – not quite dives but not upscale either. Greg is a great customer – knowledgeable and understanding of the business as he worked in the restaurant business for years himself. (Plus, he’ll order an average of 5-7 drinks a night and doesn’t flinch at paying $14 for an Old Fashioned). To him, a good bartender is attentive, affable, speedy and has knowledge of the drinks. Greg says a great bartender is a serious bonus to the evening because if he’s spending his hard-earned money, he wants to feel good about doing so.

Great bartenders factor into the equation across the country too where, in Seattle, whiskey loving Melanie likes a place where she’s a regular. The personalities of the staff will make it or break it for her and she takes care to understand the dynamic of those that work at the bar. “I’m not going to spend my time or money at a place where the staff is rude,” she says.  Melanie adds that even if the drinks are great, she may not be inclined to go back to a bar if she doesn’t feel comfortable. But if she feels welcome and safe, she will be a customer for life.

Moving south to San Diego Tiffany frequents wine bars, funky craft beers and on any given night out, enjoys splitting a bottle of wine or a few mixed drinks, with an affinity for martinis and margaritas. Tiffany just needs a fun bartender who is knowledgeable about their bar selection, thinks the customer is always right, and creates a fun atmosphere.

It's not just big city drinkers who have high standards for their bartenders.  Hospitality and a positive value for quality cocktails and experience equation are just as important in smaller markets.

Brett is a good example. He generally hangs out in Southeastern Pennsylvania and most enjoys bars in the summer where he can sit outside with live music. In the winter, he can be found at sports bars or places with games.  He will pay $4 for a beer, and $5-$6 for a mixed drink – but anything beyond that he will stick to beer. Whether the bartender is pulling a beer or mixing up a drink, acknowledging Brett and being polite even when in the weeds scores points. And a bigger tip.

The bars in Rochester that Alaina frequent seem to have a similar price structure to those in Southeastern Pennsylvania. And, like her fellow drinkers around the country she classifies a great bartender as someone who checks in often, but is not obnoxious or pushy. “The worst quality would be someone who never checks on you or ignores you standing at the bar or ignores your table,” she adds.

So, there you have it folks. The big message from a bunch of 26-31 year old drinkers is that they want to feel good about buying drinks from you. From New York to the Northwest, it’s evident that service with a smile goes miles in the way of tipping, and that making your customer feel good (along with knowing how to mix a drink) is what they need in a night.  So often guests go out to have a good time and leave their baggage at home, and that’s what they want in their bartender, too.

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