Frederic Yarm is a Boston bartender and Secretary of the Boston USBG Chapter.
Fred started writing about cocktails and drink culture in 2006, and this led him to give up his day job and become a professional bartender in 2013 shortly after publishing his first book, Drink & Tell: A Boston Cocktail Book.
In this blog, Fred candidly discusses the importance of teamwork, how an open mind can maximize productivity, and his experiences both in front of the bar and behind it.
Recently, a bartender who I have known for years from an establishment across town was sitting at our bar, and he asked me if I was a bartender apprentice. He explained that he saw me waiting on tables in the lounge and that I did not have my own dedicated well to work out of, and that his bar has similar apprentices. Then he pointed out the fact that I was refilling the service bartender’s ginger beer iSi dispenser with ginger syrup and water just like an apprentice. I was quite taken aback by the comment, but I explained that I did not care where I worked whether it was the service bar or point, and tonight I opted to be the floater and took the lounge tables as well as bar guests. I also pointed out that the most important thing at the bar is that the service bartender making drinks for our large restaurant is assisted in any way possible, and this was rather doable at the moment for my tables did not need anything right now. While I could have left the refill job for our barback to do, my taking a spare moment to remake the ginger beer freed up both the service bartender and the barback to attend to other duties. Oddly, I did not inform him that the lounge tables were spending several times more per seat than the actual bar guests; since some of these groups were dining in the lounge because the restaurant’s tables were full at that hour, so I was financially doing more to add to the team than the other bartenders.
I once heard that an employee is only as useful as the number of jobs that they can do and will do. While a bartender who can fill in for the sommelier is a great thing, I have been more impressed when a restaurant owner or the head chef hops into the dish pit to keep the night going. Similarly, a general manager who can change a keg or will prepare a quart of lime juice in a pinch has shown their value to the team an order of magnitude more than someone who sticks to the letter of what is their job and not much more. In my mind, there ought not be any job below oneself; true, there are plenty of times that those tasks should be left for team members better suited for the function so other higher order functions can be attended to by those more qualified -But when one part of the team is getting weighed upon, pitching in if you can is imperative even if the need is not dire. During a working interview I once had, the bartenders did not clean their own shaking tins even though they were not busy doing other responsibilities (or they could have multi-tasked while chatting with guests). The barback was the busiest of the crew scurrying back and forth cleaning up after the bartenders; I felt such pity for that barback, and I found that so offensive that I crossed the bar off as an option during my job search.
My co-worker Adam declared that many of the younger bartenders these days are slow to do the various chores like washing glassware and restocking. Adam explained colorfully, “The non-sexy things won’t get you laid,” which is perhaps why they opt out of it for the more glamorous aspects like serving the guests and making drinks. Laziness or lack of motivation is definitely also a factor, but that lacks the pizzazz and impact of Adam’s declaration. Running out of clean coupes, having a large pile of dirty glassware, or seeing a dirty bar top are the non-sexy things that will most certainly besmirch a night though. Leaving it for the overworked barback will also impede other of their functions from getting done, and those will often add up to a later closing time.
Barbacks in the past have humorously declared me (as a bartender) the best barback in the place. I make it a point to help them with the task or to take it over if I have the time. I think of it as lightening their burden so that they will be more mobile to make the bar run smoothly. Moreover, it gains their respect such that when I ask for any bit of help, they are eager to return the favor for they know that I generally only ask out of essential need. And assistance does not just stop there. I frequently will pass by the service bartender and help with either pouring beers or prepping the intricate garnishes for the cocktails to save them time and help them get through the service tickets. For other bartenders, greeting their guests, doing bar top maintenance, washing their tins, and the like can make for a happier room and a bigger tip pool at the end. There is always something to do. And in that, it fosters teamwork that makes others more likely to help you and the rest of the bar staff in general.
In the end, we should be looking out, not just for the guests’ well-being, but for the whole bar team’s benefit as well. These two are not separate entities but intricately related aspects that go into generating a successful evening. Hospitality is not something that is only transferred over the bar top but begins and co-exists on the same side of the bar as yourself. Think about your coworkers too before touting that you are a hospitalitarian – keeping a happy, positive, and motivated team ought to be everyone’s responsibility. Happy teams make happy guests. And humility is the guiding light.