Keeping Tabs, How to be a Bartender- 01.25.2013: Short Posts About Things I’ve Learned

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Before I inevitably forget, here are a few things that I want to remember:

  • The only people who really truly care about the crazy shit you’re doing are people who do what you do. With very few exception, your colleagues are not the ones who pay your bills. Your customer however, does.
  • Squirrel sucks. Their customer service sucks. MicrOS sucks. Their customer service is good. For the best of both worlds, get a business internet line and run DinerWare.
  • At its faintest, bleach smells of cleanliness. Why doesn’t your bar smell of cleanliness at the beginning of service?
  • Water glass bare minimum level is at the bottom third of the glass. Water your bar. If nothing else, be a prolific water pourer.
  • Empty cocktail glass? Keep offering a drink until they tap out, then remove said glass.
  • Never underestimate the value of a good, simple, well-made drink.
  • Be a gracious host. If problems arise, do everything you can do to fix it. Then do one more awesome thing to sell it.
  • Talk to your team constantly. If you go silent during service, you miss crucial details and will end up making more work for yourself.
  • Face your goddamn bills.
  • Drinks excepted, nothing smaller than a plate gets carried to a table without being cradled in a serviette.
  • Don’t stomp around like a baby elephant behind the bar. Move like a ballerina, strong and graceful, poised. No pointing. Have you ever seen a ballerina move her hand? Do that.
  • I can’t stress enough the importance of practicing the Tao of Handshakefulness.
  • Everyone drinks. Just because they don’t drink what you drink doesn’t give you license to get all huffy.
  • Vermouth is good for your pour cost.

That’s all I got for now. Cheers.

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Keeping Tabs: Short Posts About Things I’ve Learned

“Our hood is broken and our kitchen is closed. Sorry for any inconvenience. See you tomorrow” roughly translated means, “We found the line cook shooting up in the bathroom so we fired his sketchy ass. Sorry for any inconvenience. See you tomorrow.”

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If I knew then what I know now- a rant.

I wish someone would have pulled me aside on my first day and told me this:

Egg Frother, huh? Cool story bro. Now make ten of our most popular egg drinks under saturday night conditions when your batteries run out or the motor breaks. Now I want a hundred more, and I want them exactly like those first ten. I don’t care how great your Ramos Gin Fizz is. I care if you can make a hundred just like it and under the worst possible conditions.

 

Okay, new guy- you can store your shit in that cabinet. Don’t even bother unpacking your tool kit. I used to be just like you: elegant mixing glasses and bell jiggers. That’s all fine. Keep it at home. Every piece of kit laid out on the bar is there for one reason: it works. All of those sturdy pieces function effectively and will continue to function long after your arms have given out or you are bleeding into a bed of cocktail napkins after you stabbed your hand on the trident end of your comically long bar spoon. 

 

It’s time to stop worrying about your tools and start worrying about how you are going to change how you do things. How are you going to take your ten-minute drink ticket time down to two minutes? How are you going to balance speed and economy of movement with quality and consistency? How long are you going to let that couple sit there without menus and water? How, logistically speaking, are you going to handle eleven seats, twelve tables and the service well?

 

You have an encyclopedic knowledge of cocktails and amari? Great. You can start by bussing and spec-ing your section and then scrubbing the underside of the well to remind you that the drinks comprise about fifteen percent of this job.The rest is service and learning never to undervalue your support staff. Gross down there, huh? Still want to tend bar?

 

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On Mondays and Why I Love Them

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I love Fridays and Saturdays, just like anyone else. Some love them because it marks the end of a long work week and a time when you can cut loose. Others, like me love the weekend because it means you might be able to walk out that night with enough to pay rent. It means cash in hand.

 

Since I started earning a wage, every job I’ve had has involved legal addictive stimulants. Healthcare: legal addictive stimulants. Barista: legal addictive stimulants. Bartender: legal addictive stimulants. Admittedly, not a long and exhaustive list, but in any case, you get to know your regulars. Fridays and Saturdays are for making the monies. Earlier days in the week are for creating and sustaining that rapport and those relationships which help us keep our sanity (and theirs) later in the week.

 

Bartenders and bariste have this strange and yet wonderful societal expectation of knowing our regulars names, having a double Beefeater and tonic, no ice- poured and at their usual position at the bar as soon as they pass the window. Either by necessity or by the popularity of a certain television sitcom which rhymes with “beers” we are in a unique situation where we are neither expected to judge nor care about individual flaws, and are yet trusted with certain details which require discretion.

 

Case in point: a regular, who you know to be in a committed relationship, enters the bar and spends the evening drinking with a gorgeous young woman unfamiliar to you. What do you do? Keep your fucking mouth shut. The very fact that 1500 bar stools opened up in Seattle last year alone and they chose to sit at your bar says something. That something is: for one reason or another, this person made a deliberate decision to spend money at this bar, your bar. Any one of those reasons is as good as any other. Besides, you know squat about their situation and that could be his cousin… or something.

 

Mondays are a time to reconnect, to scrub clean both our dump sinks and our tired, booze-riddled skulls. It is a slow time where, at the expense of- well expenses, we have the time to explore new spirits with our clients, catch up on how their new baby is doing, how their new tattoo is healing, how funeral arrangements are going. We are privy to some of the most intriguing aspects of human life, and are paid well to do it. 

 

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What Bartenders Keep in Their Pants

Like waitrons, bartenders are constantly on the move. In order to avoid fatigue and keep ourselves from shedding bar tools all over the floor, we try to keep carry weight to a minimum, ensuring that we are light and fast. This is what I carry up to the bar from the basement after ditching my pack and my jacket:

The items in the back of the image with the exception of the thin purple notebook remain by the register in a mule mug or julep cup for quick access:

iPod: In case internet service cuts out and the Pandora station fails to load. Also mostly useful as a calculator for splitting checks five ways, summoning an Uber/Taxi, settling bar bets, quickly finding the proportions to an obscure cocktail. While some may balk at having to look up recipes, it is simply best practice to choose ensuring order accuracy over pride.

Thin Notebook: I have the memory of a drug-addled old man selling socks on the side of the road. I still have to write some things down.

Planner (indicated with sewn red rectangle): I work two jobs and have been working every day for the last 25 days. I would rather not confuse the two or have shifts overlap. Handy for remembering anniversaries/dates where you should take your girlfriend’s new dress out for dinner.

Cocktail Quick Reference (Indicated with sewn gold star): Used for keeping track of any cocktail menu add-ons, client favorites or menu items which I have shamelessly stolen from my friends.

-All remaining items are carried on my person-

In the Vest: Vests are a personal choice, just like plaid is a personal choice. I choose to wear a vest not only because I believe that it adds to the service experience, but because practically it is a piece of load bearing equipment (LBE) which allows me to evenly distribute the weight of my tools and carry more items. What lives in my vest lives there because there is no room for it in the pockets of my famously tight pants.

Pens: One Scotch Malt Whisky Society pen for myself and one I could give a shit about, so yes, of course you can borrow it to finish your sudoku.

Flammables: Lighter for flamed zests and candle lighting, backup lighter, matches to loan out which have usually been taken from either Quinn’s or Smith.

In the Trousers:

Wine Key: I don’t need to shell out $1500 for a wine key and neither do you. If someone asks you, “hey, can I borrow your wine key?” what they are really asking you is: “Hey, do you have a wine key that you never want to see again?” These basic five-dollar wonders are built to take a beating, work flawlessly and need less maintenance than a Glock. One respected older gentleman (and I use that term loosely) bartender I used to work with doesn’t carry a wine key, bottle opener or pocket knife. All he carries during service is a Swiss Army Knife and a pen. And his reading glasses when he’s writing out tabs.

Bottle Opener (with can punch): when I worked in much seedier places, the can punch was…handy. Now that I work in a place where I can wear a tie bar, the can punch has finally been used for its intended purpose, and frequently so. I don’t like unnecessary trips to and from the kitchen, so I don’t even have to make the hike to ask for a can opener to bust open the giant can of tomato juice used for our Sriracha-laced Bloody Mary Mix. The bottle opener is handy because I don’t like using the wall-mounted one. It is an unnecessary trip and too often leads to my face being sprayed with beer, and not in the good way.

Uncle Mike’s Pocket Holster: Compact holster for carrying all the above-listed tools. Once I ditch my pack and jacket, all I have to do is grab my holster out of the pack and walk upstairs.

 

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You’re a Bartender. Polish your shoes.

Shine them or have someone do it for you.

As I left my bar the other night, I was reminded by another bartender that we can make the best drinks with the freshest ingredients, but none of it would mean anything if we didn’t take pride in serving our guests. Being attentive, with your head on a swivel and eyes on the room is and will always remain the hallmark of a great waitron, and is something that I’m continually learning. To quote him, “If you can handle a line three deep while managing the dining room, processing tickets *and* you can bus tables *and* keep everything clean while doing all that, people will respect the shit out of you.”

That said, you are as much a part of the room as the bartop itself. Just like this guy said, the little clean things matter: clean and trim your fingernails. Don’t use an inverted Boston glass to strain your drink, unless it is for yourself and for some unexplainable reason you don’t give a damn, and polish your shoes.

To be rough, many of our guests consider bartenders to be the harbinger of all classy things and of manly diversions. For some strange reason, when I’m scoping out a place, the cocktail list is not at the top of my list of things I look for. The cocktail list is actually somewhere near the middle. The top of the list is how hospitable the staff is to the guests, then I glance at their fingernails and then their shoes, then the state of the washrooms, the dining room floor, etc.

If you find yourself reading this, keep in mind that many of these posts are simply my own rambling and helps me remember all those little things I learn on the job. Thanks for coming along for the ride.

When was the last time you engaged in the manly art of polishing one’s shoes?

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Hey look, I found a sweet bar cart for free.


Sure it used to be a baby changing table, but I could not help but admire the rich mahogany and smooth casters that someone had all but abandoned on Capitol Hill at the corner of E John and Broadway. Tighten up some screws, remove a rail and a cushion, add some glassware, tools and bottles, and what once represented many sleepless nights and cleanup, well… I guess it pretty much represents the same thing, doesn’t it?

Now taking bets on how long Kate will let me keep it in our small apartment.

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