By David Spanton
It’s never been so good to be a bartender. Just look at the endless supply of competitions to enter with mind-blowing prizes, the fantastic array of drinks brands that now are available, and the many savvy bar owners bending over backwards with flexible working hours in order to keep good staff. These are just a few good reasons why people are staying in the industry and why many more are joining and honestly it was what was needed for this exciting profession to take the next step.
Now it’s true I haven’t professionally mixed a drink for a “paying” customer for over 12 years but I spend most of my waking hours writing or talking about the bar industry. Looking back a decade or so I see how much more exciting and professional the trade is today. And this is mostly thanks to education – from suppliers, brand ambassadors and fellow professionals. Remember education is the key for premium brands otherwise they will never sell much in the bar unless a consumer requests it. Smart bar operators are also running their own in-house training programs and this is probably the biggest and most benefical educational development I see the industry having over the past decade or so. Not only are the big groups doing comprehensive training but also small bars. I enjoyed Anton and Jason from the slightly successful Swillhouse group (Shady Pines, Baxter Inn & Frankie’s) explain that every week they review a few new whiskies and the following week random staff need to get up and explain them back to the group. Competitions also play a huge role incentivising bartenders to learn more and increasing their confidence but let’s be realistic because for the brands behind these comps, they also want to sell more product. There are a lot of comps out there and most do a really great job but I think bartenders need to be careful when picking the ones they enter.
Lately, I have noticed that some competitions are really advocating the hard sell. By that I mean that the bartenders who enter have to flood their cocktail lists with competition brands and take on a car-salesmen-like approach with customers on drinks selection. I can think of two high profile national competitions taking place right now that I think are way too pushy. If I was a bar owner I would consider banning staff from entering themselves or at least the bar’s participation. What these competitions focus on are sales rather than education and unfortunately this creates pushy bartenders, and who wants that? Why not have a disclaimer on the cocktail list that informs customers “we have entered XX competition and 60 per cent of our cocktails must be from XX distributor”. See what your customers think about that! Don’t get me wrong, I am not anti-competition and we have been doing our own comp for years but I guess where we always differed is we only require bartenders to use that product on stage rather than insisting it be included on their bar lists. If your product is good, bartenders will want to stock it and serve it, especially if they know a lot about it. Unfortunately, this strategy is only going to spread to more supplier events unless influential bars put their foot down and say no to such sales driven competitions, no matter the prize.