March 21st, 2017 | By Lou Trope
The times, they are a’changing. No longer can a restaurant manager turn a blind eye to the activities that happen behind the bar. Gone are the days when a guest is willing to accept an unbalanced drink made with inferior ingredients, inconsistency in cocktails, skunky beers or poorly kept wines. Today’s guest is a sophisticated, well-educated consumer who understands quality beverages and emerging trends, and has a high expectation for craftsmanship. A well-executed beverage program is just as important to a restaurant or hotel as their culinary program. So it is critical that anyone with a supervisory role over the operation be well educated and skilled in the finite nuances of their beverage program.
However, in many instances, particularly in hotels that do not have beverage or bar managers, there are restaurant managers who are responsible for the beverage operation but have never taken a step behind the bar. The more unfortunate dilemma is that some have little to no interest in the beverage segment of their chosen profession. Clearly, there are countless restaurant managers who are highly skilled in mixology and extremely knowledgeable about wines – these are the rock stars of the operation. Unfortunately, this is not the case for the lion’s share of the industry.
In many cases, a restaurant manager has risen through the ranks along several different paths. While a small sampling has come through the beverage discipline, others have taken the path as a server or hostess. Some had cross-training from the kitchen or, in the case of a hotel, are coming from the rooms division to “get their F&B experience.” In some of these instances, they may have never had the opportunity to train behind the bar to gain that expertise but nevertheless are now accountable for beverage profitability, consistency, technical skill and training. In some sense, it’s like having a chef that has never cooked. This can’t be good for anyone except the bartender who then doesn’t have anyone to “hassle” him or her because the manager has no idea how the bar operates and therefore stays clear.
All these are valid career paths to becoming a successful restaurant manager, and eventual restaurant General Manager, and they have provided the industry with many impressive leaders. However, it is imperative to expand on the current mindset. To be successful, today’s restaurant managers must have a strong working knowledge of bar operations, understand wine, spirits and beer as well as basic mixology, if they are being held accountable for the bar and beverage performance. Just as a chef can walk past the cook line, see a flawed technique and then correct it immediately, a restaurant manager should be able to spot in a split second if a drink is not being made properly, garnished correctly or described accurately. There is nothing worse than getting a Negroni that was shaken and served with a cherry, but it happens more than we want to admit.
So how do we change the game? How do we make sure our restaurant managers have the skills and knowledge to ensure an outstanding beverage program? How do we make sure the bartenders are making the cocktails as designed? How do we set up our restaurant managers for immediate and future success?
First and foremost is to acknowledge that the demands of the role have shifted, and although the past career paths may have been adequate, they are clearly not up to par with the expectations of today’s guest in the upper casual, lifestyle and luxury segments. It must be stressed that individuals wishing to pursue this career path should gain the necessary beverage knowledge and experience as entry to the game, to be a well-rounded professional. A well-defined job description stressing the importance of beverage operations should be developed to give incoming talent full disclosure of the expectations of the position. Providing a clear view of the roles and responsibilities of the position allows aspiring managers to seek the necessary information and training that will eventually lead to their success concerning expectations around beverage performance.
Secondly, for those currently in these positions or aspiring to be, specific training programs should be created to introduce and refine the knowledge and skills necessary to be a successful and valuable part of the beverage operation. This can be done through internal development, working with beverage partners or with outside resources. There is nothing more disturbing then seeing a restaurant manager get behind the bar, pick up a liquor bottle like it is some alien object, and struggle awkwardly in front of guests and the bar team to make a simple mixed drink. However, within a well-planned training program, they can acquire the basic knowledge needed to develop confidence in their own skills. Many beverage suppliers have some form of training available that can greatly improve skill and knowledge. In addition, there are many online resources and apps that can also teach everything from basic mixology and cocktails, to beer and wine varietals.
In addition to gaining the basic foundation, it’s all about practice, practice, practice. It’s all about getting behind the bar making drinks, opening wine and pouring beer. One needs to get a feel for being “behind the stick.” In some cases, the individual may not want to do the training at their property bar for fear of embarrassing themselves and losing credibility with the team. In those cases, reach out to a sister property or colleague who has a bar and ask if they can shadow the bartender for a few nights. Also, identify the cocktails most popular or trending in your market and practice making them at home. If you are not confident opening wine, open wine each day at the daily line up and taste it with the team. In a hotel operation, reach out to the banquet department and arrange to go over on a busy day to open all the wine needed for the evening’s event.
Regardless, the industry we love is a blessing and burden – in that the opportunity for learning is endless and bountiful. Every restaurant manager, whatever their level is in their career, should strive to continually learn. The immense rate of change happening just in the beverage sector – including new emerging craft beers, extraordinary premium and artisan spirits, evolving wine regions and new interpretations of cocktails – is robust and endless. Each manager should become an impassioned student of the game, from keeping up on the latest posts from industry leaders on Facebook and Instagram, to following blogs like liqour.com, thrillist.com, eater.com and others. Take the opportunity to engage with colleagues on a regular basis to discuss what’s new and happening. When not in the operation, be out in the market checking out the latest restaurants and bars to learn, experience and discuss the latest trends and new openings.
Now, not every restaurant manager will be thrilled with the idea of training on beverage. Some will be nervous about going behind the bar while others will state that they don’t drink and have no interest. Just as a guest in a steakhouse doesn’t care if the server is a vegetarian, the fact that the restaurant manager doesn’t drink really does not matter. As a competent, skilled restaurant manager, it is his or her responsibility to be a fully trained, experienced professional in order to provide every guest with an exceptional, memorable experience. However, be clear that the individual’s choice not to drink must fully be respected. Nonetheless, they should still be held accountable for understanding the basics of bar management including cocktail development and technique, wine and beer varietals. Not drinking does not give the restaurant manager a free pass to ignore this huge part of the business, and they should seek to develop a working knowledge and professionalism as best they can.
Beverage is such a compelling part of the dining experience – it should be embraced by every restaurant manager and motivate them to become a skilled, knowledgeable professional in the beverage sector. Once a restaurant manager has attained confidence in their beverage prowess, they can not only hold the team accountable for quality execution but also can become an active, engaged participant in growing and expanding the program’s success. The beverage side is such an intriguing, provocative part of the restaurant dynamic that, when fully embraced by a knowledgeable restaurant manager, it can become an invigorating part of the guests’ dining experience.
Lou Trope is President of LJ Trope & Co. LLC, an independent consultant working with the hotel industry to provide innovative restaurant concepts, operational assessments and b2b beverage strategies.