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When bartenders talk about their coworkers, the word “family” often comes into play—and rightfully so. When you work behind the stick, the hours are long and quarters are close, making the workplace a kind of home away from home.
But with more bars opening daily, it’s becoming common for bartenders to have multiple gigs, working part the week at one bar, then the remainder at another. Bartenders that stay at one spot often get lured away to new spots, or often they travel the world on brand-funded trips and competitions.
As a bar owner, the question becomes, How do you keep your staff? “It’s a challenge,” says Stuart King, the owner of Cincinnati’s Comfort Station and Sundry and Vice. “It’s so easy to get caught up in the excitement of the shiny new objects. Staff retention is a genuine concern.”
Angie Fetherston, the CEO of Drink Company in Washington, D.C., recommends creating jobs that bartenders can be proud of. “Pay people well and provide them with health care options and paid leave,” she says. But there are steps one can take to keep turnover low and morale high. These are four tips for retaining your bar staff.
1. Hire Right
“Keeping staff starts with hiring the right people,” says King. He looks for personality traits that will fit with the cadence of the staff. “For us, an engaging personality, a natural empathy for others, and an eagerness to learn trumps everything, including technical skills. These traits are the key to creating and fostering a true work family.”
Once a staff is in place, keep them close. For Gabriel Orta, of Broken Shaker (with locations in Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami and New York), hiring comes from within, which promotes better performances from the team. “Most of our managers were once barbacks or waiters. In one case, a manager ascended to business partner.” In fact, Gabriel and his partner Elad Zvi started as dishwashers long ago. “We want to give our staff the same opportunities and show them that if you take extra steps with your work, anything is possible, regardless if you want to stay with us or move on.”
2. Train Well
In an industry fueled by creativity, education is key. The Dead Rabbit‘s training program is so rigorous that having it on your resume can open doors. The bartenders who make it to the end of the three-tier education gamut often go on to open their own award-winning spots, in turn strengthening the pedigree of the bar’s brand.
King says that when you invest in your staff, you invest in your business. “We’ve had master distillers from around the globe come to talk to our staff about whiskey, rum, mezcal—you name it,” he says. “We send staff to Portland Cocktail Week, Tales of the Cocktail and Paris of the Plains. This month, Death & Co is coming in for a takeover, and David Kaplan spoke to our staff about entrepreneurship.”
Dennis Gobis and Justin Lavenue of Austin’s Roosevelt Room cover education expenses, including Bar 5-Day and somm courses, and put all trainees through one-on-one training. Education doesn’t have to be in the form of courses, either. When they learned that two of their bartenders were fascinated with Asian spirits, Gobis and Lavenue let them lead a Chinese-influenced bar pop-up within the bar.
Broken Shaker allows staff to drive their own education. “We support our staff by letting them take ownership,” says Orta. “Bartenders come up with the cocktail programs on their own. We give them guidelines and direction, but it’s up to them to put creativity in the menu. This way, they feel more connected and accomplished.”
This also extends to competitions. “We always want to support all the competitions and guest shifts,” says Orta. “The competitors represent the bar, and it gives barbacks-in-training a space to step up. When they’re competing, we use those extra shifts to give other people new opportunities.”
3. Keep the Family Close
When building your bar family, it’s important to keep the family mentality in mind. “Our staff works so hard, and we show our love and appreciation in any way we can,” says King. “We’ll travel as a group to bourbon country for a day of distillery education followed by a group dinner at a local restaurant.”
Fetherston seconds this. “We try to create opportunities for team bonding, like field trips and outings,” she says. “We always include our staff in our best moments. When we won the 2017 Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Award for Best American Cocktail Bar, we had 14 team members in the ballroom to accept the award. After, we threw a fantastic party to celebrate. It included a thousand friends, family and most beloved regulars.”
The support goes beyond professional. “We support each other in everything,” says King. “If an employee is competing in a cocktail competition or graduating from college, we’ll be there to cheer them on.” It’s the family mentality that bonds staff. Orta agrees: “Whether our staff are artists, photographers or designers, we hire internally to create content, support them and be part of the creative process.”
4. Learn to Say Goodbye
In the end, staff will leave, whether you want them to or not. “The key is to empower them by teaching them the business,” says Orta. “The ones that stick around are the ones who will be loyal to the brand.”
Often, moving on is the best step for a bartender’s career. “Whether it’s opening their own place or working for a brand they love, we count people who have helped us build our dream as our family,” says Fetherston. “We celebrate every one of their successes.”