Behind Bars: Industry Experts Share Tips for Success

The restaurant and bar business is grueling and competitive and it’s difficult to rise to the top. So how did the major players get there? Four bar stars led a discussion at The Winslow in New York in June to share some insights on succeeding in the industry and offer some tips of the trade.

Sponsored by William Grant & Sons brand Monkey Shoulder Scotch and moderated by U.S. brand ambassador Sebastien Derbomez, the panel included Chris Hannah of French 75 in New Orleans; Dev Johnson of Employees Only in New York; John Lermayer of Sweet Liberty in Miami; and Ezra Star of Drink in Boston. Here are a few of their tips on starting and running a bar program.

Be disciplined and focused.  A bar program is just like starting any other business, Lermayer said. “You need to have a detailed mission statement and stick to it.”

“The industry has changed—there’s so much to grab at, like prizes, trips,” Hannah said. “You have to navigate through all the brands pulling at you.” Turning it all down is the hardest part, said Star: “I say ‘no’ a lot.”

Listen to the staff.  Remember that they’re there on the nights you’re not, Johnson said. Communication with the team is important, Lermayer added. He meets with his staff members one on one every 60 days to make sure that “everyone is happy and on the same page.” His goal is to make Sweet Liberty an extraordinary bar; to make that happen, “you need extraordinary people.”

Get the team on the same page.  Teamwork makes the Employees Only program a success, Johnson said. You should have a “standard of the house” for your cocktails. He added. Convey to the staff that “it’s not that this is the only way to do it, it’s that this is the way we do it here.”

Look for ways to engage with guests.  If you’re behind the bar, you should be able to talk to anybody about a little of everything, Johnson said. “Guests don’t live in bartending—they live in the rest of the world,” so stay up on local and current events.

One way to do this is to heed King Cocktail Dale DeGroff’s advice: Read the newspaper every day before you go to work. You should also make customers feel safe and comfortable in your bar, Johnson said. Introduce guests to each other when you’re busy to put them at home. Don’t forget that “regulars are where you make your money.”

Think outside of the bar.  The hours are long and hard behind the bar, so “do something besides bartending” to balance your life, Star said. It also helps to “have friends who are not in this industry.”

Take care of your body.  Make sure to exercise, Star said. You need a program to keep in shape as you get older, Hannah agreed. “This is not something you can do forever physically.”

A lot goes into managing a successful bar, but it’s rewarding job for those with a passion for it. “I love the people in this industry,” Lermayer noted. And if you do it right, “bartending will make you better at any other job for the rest of your life.”

TOP: The Behind Bars panel, from left, Chris Hannah of French 75 in New Orleans; John Lermayer of Sweet Liberty in Miami; Ezra Star of Drink in Boston; Sebastien Derbomez, Monkey Shoulder Scotch U.S. brand ambassador; and Dev Johnson of Employees Only in New York.

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