I remember my first opportunity to recognize the difference between the styles and habits of bartenders. Like most Seattle bartenders, that lesson was (unintentionally) at the hands of storied bartender Murray Stenson at Zig Zag. Where most bartenders are looking forward to the next tip, where most bars are transitory hubs for the staff as they move on to other careers, Murray was just present.
Murray was one of those people that, when he spent time with you, he was there. I’ve observed bartenders though the filter of that experience ever since. The memory of his incredible level of service, recognition of the customer’s needs, and dedication to his craft are to this day a constant reminder of what we can be as bartenders.
As I travel around the country and go to America’s “best” bars or read or hear of experiences at these bars and their storied bartenders, each tale – for good or ill – reinforces for me the importance of that day at Zig Zag. No longer will PR replace reality, and never will fame excuse bad behavior. The reality is that as service professionals, we are in service to each other and to and for our customers.
To the new bartenders, I always say that, in my opinion – and, it’s just my opinion – a great bartender is one who recognizes the sublimation of the ego. I point out that we should ignore any personal pet peeves, we should not react when someone behaves in a way that bothers us, and, in fact, we should challenge ourselves to pay attention to those moments and then practice calm restraint.
I also warn of the easy path of the humble-brag, a form of self-aggrandizement and ego in and of itself. There’s a Daoist proverb that so cleverly states, “To be too humble is half proud.” The ego is what we as bartenders need to eschew in order to achieve these goals of unsurpassed quality of service, recognizing instead the customer’s needs and to become sensitive to what this changing need may be, from moment to moment.
Picture the seats in front of the bar that you work behind. That first person maybe is sampling some great mezcal. Perhaps the couple next to them are celebrating an anniversary. That next person obviously had a bad day, while the next after that is a regular, watching the show. Each of those people needs a different form of attention, and it’s our job to learn to recognize this, to communicate this with our co-workers, and to provide for that customer exactly the kind of experience they are seeking.
That’s my challenge for all of us. Let us constantly pay attention to how we appear behind our bars, and let that appearance be one of seamless service. In the end, the customers’ experience should be something that we each and every time learn to recognize as their experience, not one of our likes and dislikes forced upon our customers.
Don’t give in to the peer pressure of your environment if that entails anything that finds fault with the customer. Please don’t speak ill of or casually insult vodka drinkers because someone who you looked up to as a leader at some point misled you into thinking that it’s okay to insult those customers. And, for lordy sake, don’t agree to drink a Smirnoff Ice because of peer pressure.
In short: become your own person. “Murray wouldn’t do that” is a quiet Seattle refrain, a genuine and meaningful motto. Find your own and always lead from example.
Read more advice for bartenders from the experts.