Behind the Bar Bar Talk

Naren Young on How to Create a Strong Bar Team

Making drinks is not that complicated. It certainly takes practice, and it helps to have mentors to show you along the way. But one of the hardest aspects of my job as a beverage director, bar manager, managing partner, whatever you call it—I’ve never been comfortable with titles—is building a team and continuing to inspire them on a daily basis. I’m not sure there are rules to follow in being a good leader. I like to think I’ve learned a little something from everyone I’ve worked for—good and bad—and that hopefully those skills have put me in a position to make more informed decisions on bringing together a team that’s always psyched to come to work every day. These are some mantras that have worked for me. Maybe they’ll work for you.

1. Lead from the front.

Don’t ask anyone to perform a task that you wouldn’t do yourself. Yes, that means cleaning up someone’s vomit, plunging a blocked toilet, carrying a keg up two flights of stairs or taking out the trash. The job is not always glamorous, and it’s not just about making a perfect Martini.

2. Give everyone a voice.

Everyone deserves the opportunity to be heard. If you don’t care what your team has to say, then you shouldn’t be in charge of a team to begin with, and you’re missing out on advice from those closest to you. Make sure your team knows that it’s okay, even encouraged, to approach you about anything on their minds. And guarantee that this exchange always remains confidential. You’d be surprised at how much more your team will respect you if you take their concerns seriously and personally. Besides having a meeting every week (yes, every single week), make some one-on-one time for each individual, and address any issues immediately. No one likes a procrastinator.

3. Allow them to be part of the creative process

Not everyone on your team may be a creative tour de force, and that’s okay. But for those that show a creative flair or want to be involved in the development of your next menu, let them submit their ideas (even if you have to give some guidance and direction).

4. Find out about their passions.

What parts of the job do they like or don’t like? (Have you asked?) There may be someone in your ranks that’s a beer geek, former sommelier or collector of vintage spirits. Take this information and use it to your advantage (and theirs). It adds invaluable expertise, and loyalty, to the team and helps the business grow. What is it that they do away from work that they’re passionate about? Maybe they want to learn about the business side of operations or get their cicerone certification. Maybe you can offset some (or all) of this cost. By investing in your staff, they’ll invest in you.

5. Keep training.

I cannot overstate the importance of consistent and ongoing training. I aim for once a week, and it shouldn’t always be cocktail related. Perhaps you visit an abattoir, a greenhouse or an oyster farm. The same importance should be placed on every topic, whether it be wine, beer, spirits, cocktails, coffee or tea. And let’s not forget about the most important lesson of all: service. Ask all of your staff to read Danny Meyer’s Setting the Table and Charlie Trotter’s Lessons in Excellence. You can thank me later. While either myself or a spirits professional/brand ambassador typically leads most training sessions, have a staff member lead your next session. Give them a topic, have them research it, and then sit back and watch them shine.

6. Give everyone a job description.

It’s paramount that every employee knows what’s expected of them. What are their duties? A good leader will sit down with each new hire and talk them through their job description.

7. Be firm.

But be fair and consistent. No one needs to shout a la Gordon Ramsay to get the message across. That just breeds a culture of fear and doesn’t get you respect or results. There’s never a reason to raise your voice to anybody.

8. Work on their weaknesses, and applaud their strengths.

Nobody’s perfect. But the only way for a bar—and by extension, the bar team—to evolve and improve is to identify what certain individuals are good at and what they’re not so good at. How can you work on these together? Make sure you identify as many positive attributes as weaknesses and always thank people for their work, letting them know their contributions are truly valued. Make these the very last words you say to a staff member after every shift: Thank you.