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@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 shares smart strategies to help manage a busy bar and provide excellent service without getting overwhelmed.
Calmness in the Storm
On Reddit about a month ago, a bartender forum user asked “How do you deal with the drown?” They meant, how should one handle the rush where one can neither breathe nor provide good service as well as handle the existential dread and/or panic attack. If we have been making money, we’ve all been there before perhaps once or more per week. Although with some pooled house restaurant situations, a bartender can still make a solid living without seeing this level of post-capacity demand, but even then, it still can occur. Frequently, in a busy drinks-forward establishment, this is a regular fear that needs to be quelled.
I offered up two suggestions. My first was, “Look at your watch and get a reality check of ‘two more hours until it slows down and three more until last call’.” Knowing the time frame of how bad things will be, put the mind at ease that it will not be an indeterminate period of torture. At my current place, our kitchen closes earlier than it used to pre-Covid, so that major rush often has me thinking that it will be 90 minutes until things slow down, and that is easy to process. Assessments can be made of what tasks can be skipped and saved until it slows down or the bar closes. Glassware, for example, can pile up a bit but not too much if supplies start running low. At more drinks-forward bars and at later night restaurants, often this window can be 2-3 hours, and knowing that and counting down provided a sense of hope.
The other aspect is mental once you have established the time frame. My second suggestion was, “Get yourself in a zen mode early with ‘I will move efficiently and serve as many people as possible, but when it gets busy, folks will have to wait.’ It’s a point of reality and not one to panic over.” Another user agreed. They replied, “Think about volunteers that feed starving children, of course they want to feed as many children as possible, but if they don’t feed themselves, they can’t help anyone. But in our line of work, it’s not life or death. If someone has to wait a few minutes for their drinks, so be it. Don’t stress it. Your guest aren’t waiting for you, they are waiting for the guests in front of them in the line.” It was very well stated, although the part about the guests might be inaccurate when viewed through their eyes.
What I did not cover in my comments in that thread is to anticipate the rush that night. Come in expecting it. Stay hydrated knowing that there will be a point in the night where one can no longer take a moment for oneself. That can be expanded to coming into the shift well fed and taking bathroom and snack breaks before this rush occurs. Remember to make sure one’s shoes are tied tight: my definition of being weeded is when one’s shoes are untied, it is noticed, but the time is not there to remedy that.
Sometimes one faces these shifts solo, but often it’s a team. If one has confidence in the team, live up to the others’ expectations and they will do so in return. If there is a weak link, this can be an issue. It has become all too common with this job market that managers will bring in inexperienced folks to work the shift. This can double one’s work as there is a need to make up for their inefficiency and slothfulness by taking additional orders as well as taking time to bail them out of problems like them not knowing how to make a basic drink. If there is a sign of improvement, continue to take the time to improve them and hope for the best. With a recent hire at my job where they claimed to have been a bartender for years, speak to the manager about how toxic it is to the team to have someone on a busy night claiming to be experienced but incapable of handling anything faster than a lunch shift. One day, we will return to moments where my coworkers declare that the Saturday night crew is the “dream team,” but that seems to be a rare phenomenon now according to bartenders here around town. Relatively, we all have a dream team given the best of our staffing resources. Not looking back to how things were in the past seems to be important; however, the guests are coming in expecting service the way they remembered before the pandemic.
There are other things that can be fixed if the problem persists. Things like streamlining the menu, simplifying the cocktails, batching drinks, rearranging the well, and the like can lead to more happy guests and staff. All too often, menus end up cocktails that one dreads making at those times like the egg white drink with the pretty stencil that is a great treat to offer folks on a Tuesday but not so much on a Saturday. Eliminating those menu items or reducing their availability to only certain nights of the week can help.
In the end, the best service is often provided by a bartender exuding a smile and a sense of calm no matter how busy things can get. Efficiency of movement will provide better results than frantic actions that can lead to mistakes, breaks, and mis-pours. Getting agitated and absorbing the adrenaline rush heads one towards that frantic zone. So, taking a deep breath, looking at the watch, and making sure the bar and oneself are set up for success before that moment arrives, and calmness even in the storm is possible.
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