Bartenders, Benjamin Franklin and the Super Bowl

bartender training by ned barkerI prefer to incorporate the latest in thinking and technology when I assist a company in developing a training program. So, when it occurred that I would write an article about bartender training, I immediately turned to … the 18th century.

And there I found Benjamin Franklin, known for extolling the virtues of wine, among a few other things. In this case, he was speaking about the techniques of (I’m sure it was beverage) training: “Tell me and I forget,” Franklin started. I was now thinking he was doing more than just “extolling” wine. Franklin continued, “Teach me and I may remember.” Interesting for a man who never saw a classroom after 10 years of age. But finally he got to the core of what is widely considered one of his most meaningful quotes, and that’s saying a lot: “Involve me and I learn.”

In fairness, some attribute this to Confucius. And there is a similar Chinese proverb, “I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand.” However, I don’t think Confucius was involved with beverage training, not in 450 B.C., so I’m going with Franklin. Regardless, the “involve me and I learn” statement has been used for decades to support the ideas behind everything from Experiential Learning Theory (ELT) in higher education to technology-driven interactive training, to petting zoos.

And then there are bartenders.

bartender training by ned barker

I’m going to assume that you execute the standard practices just fine, and in a way that would please Franklin – tell, teach (the “why” of tell) and involve. You have training manuals, procedures, standards and perhaps additional training aids such as videos or even e-learning products.

bartender training by ned barker But your bartenders function unlike any other employees in your organization. They create and sell products, produce bill, accept payment for the products and interact with customers. Who else does this? No one. Your chef creates products but doesn’t accept payment, your servers accept payments and interact with customers, but don’t create products.

This brings me to the Super Bowl, which is right around the corner. And I’m wondering, can we learn anything here? How does a quarterback or a defensive tackle get trained? We can’t blame Franklin for not knowing. But looking outside the food and beverage box for a better way to do things may be a smart idea. So, let’s look at football.

How are football players trained?

They watch the competition’s game films. They practice. They stay in shape and work at endurance. They memorize plays and calls. And they’re taught by specialists – there’s a defensive coach and an offensive coach, a kicking coach, and even a special teams coach. And finally, player stats are kept, updated and known by all.

What Benjamin Franklin Said, Or Did He?bartender training by ned barker

This learned and beloved “first citizen” of ours is perhaps the most widely quoted of our Founding Fathers. But is he quoted correctly? While popular sources credit Franklin with the “Tell me and I forget” quote, academic sources favor Confucius.

In the beverage world, it is widely believed that Franklin exclaimed “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” Hard to argue with the statement itself, but in fact the Founding Father was writing, in a letter to Andre Morellet in 1779, about wine. In fact, Franklin even spoke of the marvels of the human elbow, placed perfectly so we could easily drink wine!

(Source: Isaacson, Walter. Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2003. pp. 374-5.)

So let’s apply this to bartender training or teaching. Better yet, let’s call it bartender development.

  1. The competition’s “game films” – Have you sent your bartender to watch the competition? To watch the best bars in your city? If you’re the best bar, send them to the best bars in another city – all bars where customers like your customers would visit.
  2. Practice – Do you require practice, like pouring shots for speed and accuracy? And do you have the right practice equipment?
  3. Stay in shape – There are plenty of studies that correlate wellness to productivity, exercise to on-the-job success, even leadership effectiveness. Do you offer any health-related incentives to your team?
  4. Memorize the plays – Memorize the recipes. When is the last time you checked against this critical ability? Have you tested the bartenders? Have you tested the consistency of your six most popular drinks? Or knowledge about the latest bourbon you added to your bar?
  5. Defensive coaches vs. offensive coaches – Is your training reactive, designed to fix problems, or is it proactive? Who conducts your training? Is it assigned to one person? Is your best guest interaction trainer also your best
  6. bartending skills trainer?
  7. Do you have a “special teams” coach? – Maybe the owner or general manager, someone to ensure that there is a development plan for each bartender, based on the bartender’s long term goals.
  8. Finally, what are your players’ stats? – Dollars per shift? Per hour worked? Average check? Signature items sold? Ratio of food to beverage? Aligned to support your business objectives, of course.

I have no doubt Franklin would have figured this out eventually. How about “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn. Coach me like it’s the Super Bowl and we all win.”