Behind the Bar The Business of the Bar

How to Make the Most of Your Time When the Bar Is Slow

Alex Testere

Guests may think that bartenders waltz into work, mix a few cocktails and then leave just after closing time. But the reality of the job goes far beyond making drinks. There’s cleaning, prep, R&D, sales, nurturing relationships and so much more. That said, the most high-volume cocktail bars have downtime. And while it might be tempting to sit back and watch the ice melt, there are countless ways to take advantage of the lulls—ways that can help to better your bar and allow you to sneak in some professional development. These are five tips for keeping productive when the bar is slow.

1. Study

Whether it’s getting to know your bar’s food menu better or reading industry publications to keep up with the latest trends, there’s plenty you can learn to help you become better at your job. The vast array of spirits behind the bar can be a great place to start. “I take it as an opportunity to study bottle labels front and back,” says Jerome Sequeira, a bartender at The Confederation Lounge at Fairmont Hotel Macdonald in Edmonton, Canada. “There’s a lot of information provided on the labels, and this helps me sell premium products. It also helps me grow as an expert in my profession and offer suggestions to my guests.”

Cocktail books are an especially great tool for boning up on classic recipes and flavor combinations. “Reading influential books is a great way for me to make use of my time during slower parts of the day,” says Asadour Sheldjian, a bartender at BG Lounge in Beverly Hills, Calif. “I like “The Craft of the Cocktail” by Dale DeGroff and “The Canon Cocktail Book” by Jamie Boudreau.”

2. Train

If you’ve been behind the stick for a while, use these moments as training opportunities for less-experienced bar staff. “Training more junior bartenders is a priority when the bar is slow so they can gain confidence when orders are not flying out of the printer,” says Nader Chabaane, a bartender at Nacarat Bar at Fairmont The Queen Elizabeth hotel in Montreal. “I also invite staff to sit at the bar and live the experience of the bar since we’re not often sitting in the guest seats in our own venues.”

3. Experiment

There’s no better time to think about the next iteration of the cocktail menu than when you have a moment to survey the bar. It’s a great opportunity to better familiarize yourself with different flavors and jot down some ideas. “We use the slower times to start working on new cocktails and flavor combinations,” says bar manager Jake Larowe, the bar manager at Birds & Bees in Los Angeles. “We like to play a game where we pick a base spirit, one modifier and a limit on how many ingredients can go in the drink. Then everyone working comes up with a new drink working with those parameters. It’s a great way to develop original flavor combinations and new ideas, and it really helps with teamwork.”

Since everyone has a phone in their pocket these days, use social media to look for inspiration. “My first source of inspiration is Instagram,” says Sam Vakameilalo, a bartender at Quattro in Palo Alto, Calif. “I can spend hours browsing the accounts of the world’s best bartenders and tastemakers in our industry.”

4. Bond

If the bar only has a few guests, it could be a great time to foster a special experience for them. “This is the time to turn the few guests you have at the bar into regulars,” says Larowe. “Ask how someone’s day is going. You never know who you might meet and what kind of interesting things they have to tell you.”

These are the moments guests remember that may lead to them recommending your spot in the future. “I take advantage of slower periods to engage with guests in the bar,” says Sequeira. “I learn about them and talk to them about the history of our hotel, which is a landmark in our city. I aim to build relationships first and foremost.”

They’ll also feel extra special if they get to take part in your R&D. “I’ll test new cocktail recipes with our guests and save recipes that receive high approval for the next special of the month,” says Luiggy Arteaga, the bar manager of English Bar at Country Club Lima Hotel in the Peruvian capital.

5. Clean

While it’s not exactly glamorous, the first piece of advice most managers will give you is to keep your bar spotless. While you’ve likely already done some routine cleaning, take a look around and see what needs a deep clean. “A bar is like a showcase, and it’s so important to keep it clean,” says Sheldjian. “There’s nothing worse than a dirty bar.”

“There’s a saying, ‘If there’s a time to lean, there’s a time to clean,’” says Eric Kopczick, a bartender at MKT in San Francisco. “You’ll always be in the spotlight when working behind the bar, and guests will observe every single possible detail. Having a pristine space will speak of the quality of the establishment.”