Having bartender woes? Put those days behind you

by Robert Plotkin

Bartenders are key employees. They serve your clientele, dole out your inventory, and have their hands in the till. Amassing and maintaining a qualified bartending staff requires time and a great deal of effort. Selecting the right person for the job the first time around requires preparation and the ability to learn a lot about a person in a very short period of time.

One of the attributes effective interviewers have in common is being good listeners. It’s extremely difficult to learn anything about a prospective employee if you’re doing most of the talking. Watch the person’s facial expressions and body language. Use every valid impression you can to help you make the right choice the first time.

The costs of hiring the wrong bartender can be staggering. It’s better to operate short-handed for a period of time and rely on your existing staff to cover the bar than hiring someone unqualified or inappropriate for the establishment. It will be more advantageous in the long run to delay hiring another bartender until the right candidate can be found.

Here are some tips on how to make the process reap better results.

Note how the application looks – The appearance of a person’s application for employment often reveals as much about his or her level of professionalism and attention to detail as does the written information it contains. Its neatness, correctness, and presentation reflects much about the author. Make note of how the document looks and any impression it might give you about the person.

Screen for scheduling limitations – When you’re handed a completed application, ask the individual a few screening questions, such as how many hours a week he or she needs to work, and how much money the person needs to earn a week. Also, find out if the applicant has reliable transportation, and if there are any scheduling conflicts you should be aware of. A few initial probing questions can often save you from making a poor hiring decision later on.

Check all listed references – Prospective bartenders should be asked to supply three or four professional references, people who can testify directly about the individual’s abilities, character, and work ethic. If after the initial interview the applicant seems like a contender, take the time to contact the person’s references. Failing to do so may expose you to charges of negligence. Contact references in the reverse order the prospective employee list them on the application. People will typically list references in the order they want them contacted.

Stated work experience – Even if an applicant provides you with an accurate accounting of his or her work experience, it may portray an incomplete picture of his or her competency. Experience is an intangible commodity. It’s important in an interview to determine how the applicant’s work experience qualifies the person for the position.

Don’t oversell the job – It’s best to give a realistic estimate of how many hours a week a prospective employee might work, and how much the person can expect to earn. Likewise, don’t give the applicant an overly optimistic impression of his or her advancement prospects within the company. The person could become disillusioned and resentful as the reality of the situation sets in.

Note your thoughts during the interview – Develop a form to help you record your impressions and observations during an interview. It should contain a list of interview questions, and a section for rating the interviewee on the various sought-after qualities and attributes. Use of a standardized form will make the interviewing process more uniform, and will more likely achieve a beneficial result.

Eye contact – When conducting an interview, it’s advisable to maintain steady eye contact with the applicant. The eyes often hint at the person’s level of confidence, truthfulness, and character. If the person has difficulty maintaining your eye contact, it may provide some insight into his or her personality.

Ask open-ended questions – One key to conducting an effective interview is to ask questions that are challenging and difficult to answer without a lengthy response. Probe for the person’s limitations. Ask questions that require an individual to address his or her professional strengths and weaknesses. Essentially, the more penetrating the question, the tougher it is to answer, the more you’ll learn by asking it. Consider the following examples:

  1. What is the worst thing your former employer could say about you? What is the best thing?
  2. What would you do if you caught a fellow employee stealing from our business?
  3. What are your major job-related weaknesses? Strengths?
  4. What do you like most about bartending? What do you like least?
  5. If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
  6. If you could change one thing about your former manager, what would it be?

Personal stability – Considering the high cost of employee turnover, assessing a prospective bartender’s personal circumstances and stability is advisable. For instance, some might consider an applicant who is married less of an employment risk than someone who is single. People who tend to stay at their job for more than a year exhibit more stability than those who move from one place to another after only a few months.

Conduct two interviews – The hiring process is too crucial to rely on only one interview, or one set of impressions to make the hiring decision. It is optimum to have another person conduct a second interview, after which you’ll have someone to compare notes with.

Testing professional aptitude – before the second interview, test the applicant’s knowledge of bartending. Include questions about mixology, products, and alcohol-awareness. The results of the test will give you a better idea of the person’s level of expertise and, to a degree, the validity of his or her stated work experience.

Personality and demeanor – Not everyone has the personality to be a bartender. Likewise, not everyone is compatible with the existing staff. It’s important to determine whether the person will fit in with your clientele, fellow-employees, and management team. The capacity to remain calm, composed, and emotionally in control is another important bartending attribute to assess.<

Ability to learn and adapt – No matter how experienced a bartender is, there will still be aspects of the employment that require the person to adapt to a new way of doing things. While you’re interviewing prospective bartenders, assess how flexible and willing to learn the individual appears to be. Avoid hiring bartenders who think their learning days are behind them.

Bartending mistakes winners don’t make

Few have become consummate professionals without making every mistake in the book at least once. It certainly holds true for bartenders. Making mistakes goes with the territory. The key is to learn from the mistakes and accept constructive criticism as a necessary part of the leaning process.

Bartending can be extremely challenging, and when someone does it really well, it’s a sight to behold. Getting to that point, however, requires humility and a resolve to excel.

No one is immune to making mistakes behind a bar. In such a detail-oriented occupation and with so much human interaction, people are bound to make mistakes. Among the mistakes bartenders often make is not enjoying what they’re doing. Bartending should be fun. People who bartend and just like it aren’t giving enough of themselves. As entertainers, that’s what bartenders do.

Even when not completely psyched about coming into work, great bartenders don their “game faces” and do their level best to give bar guests a worthy performance.

Mentors are few and far between, and tuition at the school of “hard knocks” is outrageously expensive. In hopes of flattening out the learning curve a bit, here’s a list of mistakes committed all too frequently behind bars.

Maintaining a “Me First” perspective -Success in the bar business requires a pervasive team attitude and looking out for the house’s best interests. That entails a cooperative effort: people helping each other to accomplish the stated objective, even when there may be no direct financial compensation pending. Prima donnas should pick another trade.

Disregarding specified serving portions – The misconception that “heavy” gratuities result from pouring “heavy” drinks is a costly one. Over-portioning liquor jacks up costs, swells alcohol potency, and increases liability. Pouring heavy shots undermines the business, and the other bartenders on the staff who pour according to the rules end up losing out. Their drinks will suffer by comparison.

Letting the professional demeanor slip – Crank up the pressure and even common courtesy quickly disappears. Regardless, bartenders must maintain their composure and remain in control of their emotions. Stress and frustration must be internalized, not vented onto the clientele or co-workers.

Serving an inferior product – Whatever the reason, if a drink is not up to quality standards, don’t serve it. Make sure mixes are well prepared, and juices taste fresh. Fruit garnishes should be cut daily and be used only in good condition. When it comes to the business’s product, don’t take short cuts.

Improprieties handling cash – Running an honest till is a conscious commitment. Depositing all of the bar’s cash proceeds should be done without hesitation. Theft undermines trust and staff morale. Running an honest till is the only financially and ethically sound course of action.

Being an order taker – Don’t be complacent just filling orders; make things happen. Suggest new drinks and new products, and energize your guests. There is no more effective form of marketing than the enthusiastic efforts of servers at the point of sale.

Fixating on gratuities – Making a decent living behind a bar is best achieved through rendering prompt, competent service. Concentrating on tips during a shift diverts your concentration from the job at-hand. Take care of your guests and the tips will take care of themselves.

Inadequate short-term memory – Fault lies in the undeveloped ability to recall customers’ names and what they’re drinking. Although people appreciate bartenders remembering their names, they fully expect bartenders to remember what they’re drinking.

Scattered priorities – Working a high-volume bar requires the ability to “take care of first things first,” such as waiting on bar customers before washing glasses, or preparing drink orders for servers before finishing a conversation with a regular. Prioritizing tasks according to their highest and best use of time is a proven method of wrenching order out of chaos.

Preferential treatment – While it’s natural to prefer serving some people over others, it’s a fundamental mistake to act upon those sentiments. Treating select customers like second-class citizens is not part of the job description. Your attitude and demeanor can betray how you feel as clearly as inattentive service.

Robert Plotkin is the author of 12 books about the beverage industry. He has 32 years of experience in the industry and is a leading voice on mixology and bar operations. Reprinted courtesy of Restaurant Startup & GrowthT magazine. ©2004 RS&G, LLC. All rights reserved. For more information visit www.RestaurantOwner.com.

Contact: Dave Grimm
(720) 881-5477