Tony Abou-Ganim On Making Your Bar Fun Again

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Going to a bar should be an enjoyable, welcoming experience for the guest. But the current focus on craft cocktails and “serious” mixology has taken the fun out of going to some bars.

In a May 22 session at the National Restaurant Association’s BAR conference in Chicago, Tony Abou-Ganim, the founder of Las Vegas-based cocktail consultancy The Modern Mixologist and the author of several cocktail books, shared his tips for taking the pretension out of the bar and putting the fun back in. Here are some highlights

Always aim to enhance the customer experience.

“We are not serving drinks, we’re providing experiences for guests,” said Abou-Ganim, who’s been a bartender since 1980. So don’t make people feel stupid if they order a summer drink in the winter, or they want a cocktail that uses a spirit that you don’t particularly care for—it’s all about the customer.

That said, don’t be afraid to offer friendly recommendations. When Abou-Ganim running the bars at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, he had a young couple visit the resort’s Baccarat bar. He could tell that the woman was confused about what to order, so when she eventually opted for a Bud Light, he asked if he recommended a drink.

“I said to her, ‘ Let me make you a fresh peach Bellini, and if you don’t like it, I’ll give you a Bud Light,’ Abou-Ganim noted. The guest loved the Bellini, and the couple returned to the bar several times during their trip to have more of them.

Don’t underestimate the restaurant bar.

If you operate a full-service restaurant, “Do not look at your bar as a waiting room—it’s the first course of the meal,” Abou-Ganim. The quality of the drinks is just as important as the quality of the food.

He recalled a survey on what goes into the decision about where to eat out when he was living in San Francisco. Abou-Ganim’s take: “ When I’m craving Mexican, I’m not thinking about enchiladas—I’m thinking about a Tommy’s Margarita.”

Make your bar a destination.

A signature drink or offering will help brings guests in. Abou-Ganim used The Brass Rail bar in Port Huron, MI, as an example. Opened in 1937 by his cousin, Helen David (who ran it until she died in 2006), The Brass Rail has become known for offering Tom & Jerry cocktails during the holiday season.

The classic cocktail, which involve separating eggs, beating the whites and the yolks separately, then making a batter with powdered sugar and combing with light rum, Cognac and hot water, is messy and labor intensive to make. So it’s not something you’ll find on most cocktail lists.

To this day, generations of guests make a point to visit The Brass Rail for a holiday Tom & Jerry. Though it doesn’t happen overnight, Abou-Ganim noted, “When you have a drink like this, your bar becomes a destination for a great experience.”

Stop hating on vodka.

When Abou-Ganim was doing research for his 2013 book Vodka Distilled, he went all over the world including Poland and Russia. He made a point to visit a cocktail bar in Emeryville, CA, that he’d heard about.

Abou-Ganim said he didn’t see any vodka on the bar, so he asked if the bartender about it.  The barkeep’s dour response: “We stock two vodkas, and in my opinion, that’s two too many.”

That bar didn’t exactly live up to Abou-Ganim’s expectations. For one thing, he noted, that bartender missed the most important part of the bar: welcoming the guest and making it fun.

What’s more, “One out of four people that walk into your place will want vodka,” Abou-Ganim said, so don’t make them feel bad about asking for it.

The same goes for guests who want a Cosmopolitan, so your bar should be able to make a good one, Abou-Ganim said. “The Cosmopolitan is a great cocktail, but you can’t cheat it with cheap ingredients.”

Train your team well.

You need to provide the tools and training to staff so they can provide a great guest experience every time, Abou-Ganim said. Apprenticeships and role models are very important in this industry. “When you stand behind that bar you’re representing the whole profession,” he added.

Abou-Ganim will hire personality over skill, and in particular, he looks for people with passion. “I can teach you to make a Negroni, but I can’t teach you to be passionate about making Negronis.”

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