Nathan Rawlinson

Does Your Bar Have a Star?

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Why a head bartender is essential to a successful cocktail program.
By Camper English May 2013 Bar Management

If a drink menu is out-of-date or overly-simplistic and the bartenders can’t speak intelligently about the cocktails, I know two things about a restaurant: That there is no lead bartender in place, and that I’ll be ordering a beer.

A head bartender greatly increases the chances of the bar program garnering press, popularity, and profit in a full-service restaurant. He ensures the quality and consistency of drinks and service, keeps the selection of spirits fresh and interesting, educates the other bartenders about the program and about cocktails and spirits in general, and changes the drink menu seasonally or as needed.

Between 2005 and 2011, the New York restaurant Eleven Madison Park improved significantly, replacing its chef, some management, and the general level of food and service. This gained them two Michelin stars (three as of 2012), yet they served only half as many covers in 2011 as they did six years before. However, wine sales remained the same as in 2005 (meaning they doubled per diner) and cocktail sales increased by an astonishing 800 percent.

“We’re not taking away from wine or food sales, we’re filling in gaps,” says Leo Robitschek, the person responsible for the cocktail program’s success.

Robitschek says that diners who may have previously stopped for a cocktail elsewhere before or after dinner are enjoying them in-house; the bar now attracts before- and after-dinner diners from other restaurants; and many people just stop in for the famous cocktails independent of dining plans. It’s a win all the way around.

John Inserra, senior vice president of Restaurant Operations for Kimpton Hotels, says that having a head bartender is a key ingredient for success when opening a new restaurant. He says, “All of our new projects start with a lead bartender—having a specific personality behind those bars also builds a following that is more grassroots and less corporate-feeling.”

Investing in the Bartender

Inserra continues, “We put most of our energy in developing these people, keeping them inspired, and giving them the tools to succeed.” He says they encourage bartenders to obtain external certifications in the field, and they hold company-wide bar summits annually to focus on the future. And importantly, he adds that by having lead bartenders, “We’ve seen phenomenal results in terms of media attention as well as in dollars to the bottom line.”

Both new and existing restaurants can benefit from hiring or promoting a person into the lead bartender role. When Robitschek was asked to make the cocktail program world-class back in 2005, the job initially didn’t come with a pay raise—just a challenge.

He says, “Once you give someone ownership—as in pride and title—and allow them to invest their time and energy in something they help create, they’ll always give a lot more effort than if you just hire a consultant who teaches people how to make a few cocktails.”

Besides the title, management can empower the new head bartender by funding coursework such as the BarSmarts Wired program, cocktail books, membership dues for the local chapter of the United States Bartenders’ Guild, and trips to cocktail conventions such as Tales of the Cocktail or Portland Cocktail Week. Additionally, management might even require their head bartender to research the best cocktail bars in town once a week to see what they’re doing and report back. Management should also encourage the lead bartender to attend local industry events and enter cocktail competitions.

Onsite in the restaurant, the lead bartender should be given authority to order or suggest new products and ingredients, the time and budget to experiment with new cocktails, a directive to train the other bartenders on what he is learning, and (eventually) permission to court the press and bloggers by reaching out and inviting them in for complimentary cocktails. Bartenders might take a role in promoting the bar program on social media as well.

But the lead bartender will need some paid time in which to do all this—and encouragement along the way.

Benjamin Schiller of Chicago replaced an existing lead bartender at restaurant Boka and took the beverage program to new heights. He won a Bartender of the Year award his first two years in the position, and a third time this year. Now he is the head bartender for the entire Boka Restaurant Group that includes Girl & the Goat, GT Fish & Oyster, and the J. Parker.

Schiller says that early on he implemented a fresh-juice program, replaced free pouring with a standard policy requiring measured pours, and focused Boka’s back bar on whiskey—eventually ordering more than 100 additional bottles to do so.

“As soon as the sales increased on higher-end sprits and these cocktails started getting press, it just started to snowball,” he says.

Keeping Good People

That press not only helped with bar sales, but also helped legitimize Schiller’s position in his bosses’ and formerly-skeptical chefs’ eyes.

“Chefs know that PR is good. It’s been a very good relationship in that way, but it’s definitely me riding their coattails,” he says.

Not every chef has a great relationship with the lead bartender. The industry is full of stories about chefs who are jealous that the bar is getting press when their food should be the star, or forbidding the bartender to enter ‘his’ kitchen, let alone use it to make syrups, bitters, and other ingredients. Hopefully these problems are temporary and solvable, but attention should be paid to potential personality conflicts between chefs and bartenders.

Another issue that can occur is that the lead bartender, feeling unappreciated or seeking more money, outgrows the venue and jumps ship to a new restaurant. Schiller suggests that management retain good people by paying or splitting costs on educational programs, allowing and encouraging the bartender to use his new fame to take outside consulting gigs, and possibly giving financial incentives for press mentions or cocktail sales.

“The best-selling cocktail at GT Fish & Oyster did six figures in sales last year. I wish I had thought to ask for a dime on every drink,” he says, laughing.

Of course, it’s always good to have a contingency plan. Management should also ensure that the drink program will continue even if the lead bartender departs. There’s no use denying that bartenders like to move around, and the time and money invested in the lead bartender should not walk out of the bar when he does.

A major part of the lead bartender’s role should be to share his knowledge with the other bartenders in training and testing sessions, or on an individual basis. That way, a departing bartender isn’t a huge loss of talent but an opportunity for a new, well-trained and inspired bartender currently on staff to take the role.