We ask a crowd of the world’s chattiest bartenders for the key to bar-side communication. By Colin Peebles Christensen.
1 Break the ice
Acknowledging the guest with a hello should be the first step, says Ezra Star, manager of Drink, a bartender’s choice bar in Boston. “A simple greeting breaks any sense of fear and allows the guest to relax into the experience. From there it is just about listening to what the guest is trying to say.” The drinks are a good place to start, says Lauren Scott, bar manager of Angel Face in Portland, another no-menu bar where conversation is central: “Do you know what you’d like to drink, or do you perhaps need some help figuring it out?”
2 Eye contact is key
“I always begin by looking at them in the eye, saying hello and asking how they’re doing,” Joaquin Simo, owner of Pouring Ribbons in New York, tells us. “Eye contact is particularly crucial, as it emphasises that you are truly acknowledging them and not simply following a standard script as you do other things.”Agung Prabowo, bar manager at Lobster Bar and Grill in Hong Kong, reckons first impressions matter most. “If greeted with a smile, eye contact or a nod regardless of how busy you are, guests will remember it.”
3 Read the cues.
“I always look for a smile. I always send one out first too,” Scott says. “If I ask a question and don’t get eye contact or a response, I will confirm that they need more time and excuse myself with the promise of checking back on them in a few minutes.” Seating is also a giveaway, Elliot Ball, co-owner of London’s Cocktail Trading Company advises: “Out on the floor suggests they’re meeting someone. At the bar, posture says a lot – chin up, back straight, facing the bar, or casting an eye over the bottles in an inquisitive way usually provokes discussion.” Wareewan Yodkamol, bar manager of Vesper in Bangkok, agrees. “If they are looking at you or the bottles behind you, you know they want to talk.” If they are on their phones, says Quinn Johnson, owner of Bottle, Boot and Cigar in Beijing, “it depends if they are drinking or just babysitting a drink. I approach them to see if they engage in conversation with me. If not, I’ll leave them be.”
4 Find a connection.
“You build rapport by just being yourself,” Stuart Morrow, general manager of Sydney’s much lauded whisky haunt The Baxter Inn tells us. “Ask some general questions and look to attain some common ground.” Start with discussion of the drinks, Ball suggests, but then work in other topics. “If you get decreased eye contact or one- word answers in return, you know to ease off.” Talk to them as a pal, says Iain Griffiths from White Lyan and Dandelyan in London: “I swear like a trooper and make far too many inappropriate jokes and that seems to work.”
5 Move the conversation forward.
General questions help open up a guest’s interest, reckons Joslynne McDonough, manager at Bar Marco in Pittsburgh. “I think it’s a common courtesy in general to ask folks where their night is taking them and what brings them in.” Asking what their plans are for the night, Scott says, “also helps me decide what they will be drinking. Before or after dinner, tired and want to wake up, or tired and want to sleep.”
6 Stay informed.
“I read a couple of newspapers each day, along with as many local weekly publications and blogs as I can,” says Simo. “This ensures I can give a recommendation about an art exhibition that just debuted, a neighbouring restaurant that just opened or a dance party across town. It’s our job to be reasonably well-informed about the topics that interest us, and to know just enough about other topics so that we can ask an intelligent question about them. Asking an architecture buff if they’ve walked down the High Line – an elevated park in NYC with views of some truly amazing buildings – is an invitation to let the guest wax poetic about something they feel passionately about.” As a human, Griffiths believes, “you should be staying informed and always looking to discover things unknown. Embrace that for your own personal sake and sanity, and the rest will come naturally.”
7 But don’t force it.
Let conversation happen organically, Luke Whearty, owner and head bartender of Singapore’s Operation Dagger warns. “Don’t push it. A good way is talking about current events, film and music.” But, as Griffiths points out, “it’s a natural evolution. Some people come to a bar to talk about drinks and so it might not ever move on from that.”
8 The good…
“Any topic that is in the news is a good way to start a conversation, could be sports or trends in the market,” says Stuart Danker, principal bartender of Sugarhall in Singapore. “Get the person to talk about themselves, and take an interest in knowing more about them.”Prabowo serves up trivia with his drinks: “‘Did you know Canada created Crown Royal for Queen Elizabeth’s 1939 visit?’ These little tidbits add value to the experience,” he says, “and are a good way to start a conversation.”
9 The bad…
“Skip dietary restrictions, workout routines and tedious job descriptions,” Simo suggests. “Have you ever heard a finance guy try to explain what derivatives are?” While almost anything goes, says Griffiths, “steer the hell away from politics and religion; both those topics have brought, at times, extreme pain and suffering to many people across the globe.” Eddy Yang, owner of Tailor Bar in Shanghai half-jokingly advises to keep money off the table too: “If someone has just lost money on stocks, try not to talk about the stock market. Because they’re going to shoot themselves – and before that, shoot you first.” Anything important to people, says Ball, “you have to be much more socially adept to talk about, as things can go south fast. That doesn’t stop me a lot of the time. Still, I make mistakes – it’s a risk.” One sour conversation at a loud level, McDonough says, “can offset the whole vibe of the room. It’s way more fun to keep things relaxed and light-hearted.”
10 … and the ugly
Arguing with guests, discriminating or favouring one guest over another are some of the biggest crimes as a bartender, says Yodkamol. Being sarcastic or ignoring a guest, too, Stuart Danker believes. “We always need to manage our guests’ expectations. It is easy to be rude when you’re really busy, but we must always remember to put our guests’ interests first.” If you’re in hospitality, anything that makes your guests angry or sad is a big mistake, says Ball: “Ultimately, the English language is revealing in its phrasing of offence – it is taken, not given. Whereas upset, in this context, is always your fault. Apart from that, there are few avenues of conversation that are truly off-limits.”
11 If something goes wrong, defuse.
“Different things are going to affect different people in totally unpredictable ways,” says Simo. “If someone just lost a parent or beloved friend or co-worker, then you could mistakenly veer into what you thought was a safe topic and provoke sadness or anger. In those cases, I simply acknowledge my error, however unwitting or unintentional, apologise and change the topic immediately. A comped round or pouring a cheeky shot to share may help smooth things over too.” Knowing when to shut things off and “regress into robot-server mode can be a life- saver”, Ball adds. “It’s not pleasant, but it can really rescue a situation.”
12 Keep it real.
“Never try to be interested in something you’re not, as customers can read right through you,” says Whearty. “In saying this, still be respectful in regards to the conversation and don’t just try to change topic or walk away.” Being real is crucial to sustaining conversation and giving guests a positive experience, McDonough argues: “The most unprofessional thing you can do is to be insincere. People can sense the dishonesty.”
13 Adapt your style.
“Fine-tune your approach to suit your different guest constellations. “Groups are the most engaged,” says McDonough. “Talking to them is like being on stage. I try to keep my interaction with couples a little more intimate and personal, making them both involved in the other’s decisions.” Scott approaches couples more softly, she explains: “I always wait for them to finish their conversation before taking their order. I smile and don’t look at anything other then their eyes. Singles, I approach more firmly, just in a way that they know that I am here for them and that they have a friend behind the bar.” Groups can be hit or miss, Simo argues, “but they’re typically easier to deal with because there’s one person who always wants to take charge. Figure out who that person is and get them on your side. That’ll be your go-to if you need to figure out how they’re splitting the bill or who is going to find a cab for the person who got too drunk.”
14 Wear many hats.
Juggle the roles of performer and confidant. “Sometimes, they want you to be a good listener and sometimes they want you to be a conversation starter,” says Yodkamol. Too much of each, however, “will send out a bad vibe”, Danker adds. “So listen to them, and entertain when you see an opportunity.”
“You’ve got to read the room,” reckons Griffiths, “but the ability to do this is very much what separates the good from the great. Go with the flow, give your attention as and where it is needed and make sure you keep making eye contact with your guests.”
16 When it gets crowded, be a matchmaker…
“I try to link conversations between guests sat next to each other,” Morrow says. “When the bar gets busy, your job becomes easier as you act as a link between different groups. All you then have to do is pop in and out of the conversation as you get the time.”
17 …but be careful.
“I will frequently try to steer the conversation towards common ground, so I can bring everyone together. But,” warns Simo, “I will introduce guests only if I know at least one of them reasonably well. There’s nothing worse than sticking an annoying or creepy guest on some poor unsuspecting person. Usually, I set up the intro with something they may have in common, like an alma mater, hometown, profession or hobby.”
18 Expect the odd curveball.
At times, bar orders turn odd. “There have been many strange requests,” says Star, whose cocktail menu is fully ad-libbed, “such as flavours that mimic human body parts or cocktails that intentionally taste bad.” A female customer requested a drink based on her aura, Scott remembers, “that I was supposed to read. I made her a purple drink.” Out of many eccentric orders, “my favourite,” says McDonough, “was a young gentleman’s request to make him a cocktail that he would drink if he were a unicorn, in a parade, on acid, for the fourth of July, in Vegas. I nailed it.”
19 You are not a car salesman.
While shifting drinks is part of the job, don’t succumb to greed. “Upselling is silly,” says Simo. “I believe in the quality in every bottle I carry on my back bar. If someone wants something special, I am happy to point them in that direction, but I would never intentionally mislead a guest into spending more than they wanted to.” The bartender’s role, Danker believes, is to provide information about drinks and spirits, and then let the guest decide: “I recommend items I feel they would enjoy and get a great experience from, instead of the most expensive offerings on my shelf.” The point is not to pressure the guest into making the decision, says Yodkamol. “You may be able to upsell them expensive items once, but they will never return. So what’s the point?”
20 Keep it appropriate.
“Have I had guests flirt with me? Yeah, who hasn’t, but I’ve always been really forthright on shutting that down immediately,” says McDonough. “I’ll have to admit, though,” she adds, “there was this one guy I waited on a few times at a previous bar
I worked at. He was charmingly persistent, so for the first and last time, I gave a guest my phone number, not without some nudging from my fellow coworkers, and some personal internal criticism. He’s now my husband. So call me a hypocrite if you must, but it was totally worth it.”
21 Remember your regulars.
“At the Baxter Inn we have quite a few regulars that we see fairly frequently. It is always important to remember names, drinks and information about all of them,” says Morrow. “In the past I have worked at bars that kept a diary behind the bar with the regulars’ names, and notes on their favourite drinks and interests.”
22 But make every guest feel special.
In the end, each guest that walks through your door should feel taken care of. “Just make them as comfortable as possible,” Ball says, “and if you think it’s appropriate, make them laugh. Consider why people come to bars – to relax and to have fun. Facilitate that.” Service, atmosphere and drinks, Griffiths underscores are the pillars that carry a bar: “If you nail those three in a unique and enjoyable manner, it will be a matter of when they come back, not if. A bar is a chance to be social and have a drink, and we should never forget that’s the order of priority.”
This story was first published in Issue 01 of DRiNK Magazine Greater Asia. Subscribe to the magazine here.