Behind the Bar The Business of the Bar

How to Work in a New Bar Every Day

Image: Courtney Crockett

Upon meeting Courtney Crockett, it doesn’t take long to notice that a deep commitment to community support, humor and hospitality are all a part of her very being. It makes sense, then, that the Kansas City–based bartender founded The Traveling Cocktailian in 2015—a one-woman guest-bartending road show that aims to show off the diligent work bars in diverse (often overlooked) parts of the country are doing on a day-to-day basis. “A friend told me, ‘No one else is doing this—you should.’ And right then I decided that I’m not wasting my passion on someone else’s dream,” says Crockett.

Since 2015, The Traveling Cocktailian has been shining a light on the day-to-day accomplishments of bartenders, including “the application of our trade, the daily grind that goes into opening up each day [and] closing down at the end of a 14-hour shift, and the unyielding hospitality that ... must be present in order to continue to grow our profession within any community, regardless of its geographical location.”

With the saucy, vibrant colonial-era bartender Elizabeth “Betty” Flanagan as her inspiration and muse, Crockett travels to new bars in all pockets of the country to work alongside colleagues and gain a deeper understanding of their teamwork style, approach to hospitality in an ever-shifting landscape and how the space operates from the ground up. “Every bar and every city has its own story to tell. It’s hard work, but I approach it as a pro and a guest. If I’m coming to your bar and this is the experience I’m getting, I want to be honest with you.”

Crockett outlines below some of the key lessons she has learned on the road and what she’s trying to help others achieve with the program.

Courtney Crockett, right.

“I am not a craft bartender—I’m a bartender, period. I’m tired of there being a distinction. Look, I should be able to do craft bartending, volume bartending, work a restaurant or anything I need to do to provide the highest level of hospitality. When we limit ourselves, that’s when we become irrelevant. Adaptation is the most important quality we have as humans.”

1. Always Remember Why You Do What You Do

“One part of this is reminding others that being a bartender is not about your popularity or celebrity. Why are you doing what you’re doing? Is it good money? Is it fun? Is it hospitality? All of those things are great, but ultimately what it boils down to is your guest space and their experience. They want them to be as comfortable in your bar as they are in their own home and create a memory for them.

“For example, I went to someone’s bar, and they handed me their drink list. It was really beautiful, but I told them, ‘I’m not really into a cocktail tonight. I’d like a pour of Armagnac.’ And the guy got really upset I wasn’t going to drink a cocktail. You can’t take that kind of stuff personally. I’m not discounting your creation, but I don’t need that now.

“Ultimately, it’s about the guest and what the guest wants. If they order a Vodka Soda, though, and seem like they’re looking for something different but might be nervous, then you should be able to read that body language. You should be able to say, ‘Let me help you find something different you might like.’

2. Be Hands-On at the Bar

“In this community, we need to invest in one another and in education. The best form of education is always going to be hands-on when you’re in a new place. Get behind the bar and see the dynamic that exists. This project has a working aspect, not just an observational aspect. It’s all about the community, and I can’t know that community unless I work with them.”

3. Look Into an Exchange Program

“I’d love to create the first bartender exchange program in the U.S. and get the United States Bartenders’ Guild on board with that.”