The onboarding process at bars can vary greatly, depending on a variety of factors: the size of the bar, whether or not it’s part of a hotel or restaurant group, and the individual preferences of owners and managers. While this freedom means bars can really distinguish themselves through their training, it also means folks moving to new jobs can feel totally lost.
This, of course, applies to smaller cocktail bars, which don’t have formal training teams or HR departments. And it has to do with the nature of cocktails themselves: Recipes are often measured precisely down to the quarter-ounce. So if you’ve learned classic cocktails with one spec, it can be extremely difficult to relearn them with a slightly different one. Multiply that by the dozens of recipes you’re expected to know, and you can be looking at a pretty steep learning curve.
All of this is to say that bar owners and managers should invest some serious time and energy into their training program. Even the most talented new hire can bring with them bad habits. Rather than letting those issues go unaddressed, which can lead to conflict and miscommunication, tackle them head-on with strong leadership and constructive feedback.
So who should be tasked with training new staff? What techniques can you use to encourage new hires? And for how long should they be evaluated before working a shift unsupervised? This is your expert guide to training a new bartender.
1. Assign a Leader to Train Your New Bartender
While everyone on your team can lend helpful support to a new hire’s onboarding process, formal training must come from someone who has final say on best practices for your bar. This could be a manager, head bartender, bar director or other leadership figure within your staff. Whoever it may be, make sure your new hire and entire team know that that person has been trusted to manage the process.
Devon Tarby, a partner at global bar consultancy Proprietors LLC, says, “Formal training should come from someone in a position of leadership, while guidance, tips and tricks can reasonably come from peers. While peer-to-peer mentorship is a great way for new hires to learn more about the quirks of service in your specific venue, it can be a slippery slope to allow colleagues to police other colleagues.”
Tarby suggests asking the rest of your bar staff to keep their comments and guidance positive—“Heads up, the service well can be a bit of a splash zone. I like to keep my tickets on this side of my station so they stay dry.”—rather than critical—“Don’t put your tickets on that side of the station.”
2. Remember That Everyone Can Use a Refresher on the Basics
Tyler Zielinski, the creative director at Lawrence Park in Hudson, N.Y., says he always revisits the essentials of bartending when working with a new hire. Beyond teaching them the nuances of your physical space, including the backbar and any pertinent equipment, ensure the new bartender knows your bar’s specs for an Old Fashioned or Martini. This establishes a baseline from which you can work off and teach more advanced drinks. If a bartender is unwilling to quickly run through these topics, even as a matter of review, that may be a red flag.
“Regardless of their prior experience, I will make sure they truly understand the essentials for bartending at a cocktail bar—how to make classic and modern classic cocktails, how to apply specs for various cocktail styles and formats, how to build a round of drinks efficiently and how to speak about different spirits and liqueurs,” says Zielinski. “After I determine that they’re solid in these categories, some of which can also be vetted during the initial interview for the role, I will then make sure they understand how we do things at this bar specifically.”
3. Know How and When to Critique
Zielinski suggests that the designated trainer track the performance of a new hire throughout their first shifts and address any issues constructively at an appropriate time. “Keep notes during service and review them with the new bartender during a small break in service or at the end of the night,” he says. “Nobody likes a micro-manager, so don’t be one.”
Tarby agrees, suggesting that asking noncondescending questions about the bartender’s decision-making process is an effective way to not only correct a problem but to explain the “why” behind that correction. She provides this example scenario:
Manager: “I noticed that last night you were shaking your Champagne cocktails for less time than other shaken cocktails. Was there a reason for that?”
Bartender: “Yes, I wanted to under-dilute them slightly because they were getting topped with a sparkling ingredient.”
Manager: “Got it, that makes sense, and I appreciate your attention to that detail. For drinks topped with club soda, that’s definitely the technique you want to use, but for Champagne cocktails, you’re looking for full dilution since Champagne is more flavorful than club soda. Makes sense?”
4. Expect—and Leave Room for—Mistakes
“Being thrown in and learning through mistakes while doing the job is the best way to train,” says Bjorn Taylor, the assistant manager at Lefty’s Brick Bar at the newly opened Arrive East Austin Hotel. “I believe in patience because I was once also very green.”
When a new bartender makes a mistake on a recipe or technique you’ve already discussed, be patient. We’ve all been given chances to get things right. Use the opportunity to correct as further reinforcement of the lesson, reminding the bartender of the reason behind that correction.
Tarby says the number-one thing to avoid when training a new bartender is assuming the worst. “The only thing worse than making a mistake is being made to feel bad about it,” says Bjorn. “If the same mistake is made consistently, that probably requires a different conversation beyond a training opportunity.”
5. Allow Enough Time for Bartenders to Learn the Ropes
Establish a reasonable probationary period during which your new bartender can feel at ease asking questions and making mistakes. In the same way you’d want customers to give a new bar a learning curve, afford one to your staff. The general consensus here is that an initial evaluation can take place after one month, with a broader performance review taking place after around the three-month mark.
“I think new-hire performance evaluations should be done after the first month, with future check-ins set after that initial review,” says Zielinski. “If you’re someone who really pays attention to your staff and team, you will have a pretty solid idea of whether or not this individual is a good fit for your team after that short period of time.”