Hold on to Your Ego – Character development for Bartenders

You may have bumped into an epistle that’s been floating around the bar-o-sphere with a bit of a tailwind of late entitled “Buh-Bye Hipster: Why the Friendly Bartender is Making a Comeback”, offered by the business section of an American news website. It opens with the proclamation that “…the trend of the hipster bartender is over” and goes on to poke a little gentle fun at the stereotype of a small subset of bartenders and their lavish and impenetrable cocktail programs. It is not a particularly good piece of journalism (unsurprising since the trend of news outlets serving up “bar trend” filler pieces to us like too much rice in a burrito seems to continually be recycling itself), it quotes but one source proselytizing for this revolutionary service tactic, profiles its targets reductively, presents its assertions as facts with no source or counterpoint, etc. But the tone of the thing is of the kind that gets Facebooked to within an inch of its life: “Nice is the new mean! Down with Assholes!”, as if assholes in any industry decide to be that way just to be on trend. There have always been assholes behind bars, just as there have always been sweethearts, often times on the same bar team, and that’s a trend that isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, at least until only lovely and generous people own and manage all of our bars, and insist on hiring and training staff who reflect their sunny outlook.

The piece concludes by switching the target of its prescription from bartender to patron with the sage advice to “Just go somewhere else” if you’re not being treated well by the staff of the bar you’re at, an idea which vibrates with such self-evidence one would hardly think it worth mentioning. But the larger theme this monograph ignores is that it does us no good as an industry to compare ourselves in any way to the scores of other bar employees out there whom we don’t actually know in real life—fictitious though some of them may be—the people we need to be giving more of our attention to with regards to our professional self-improvement is ourselves. You’ll always find someone out there worse at customer service than you, that’s the easy part; your yardstick for your level of customer care should be your own ego. Ego is what this and all the many articles like it are really, actually about. Ego is at the core of the bartender experience, and deserves proper discussion, not a quick finger jabbed in the direction of the nearest guy who is “leather-aproned and wax-mustached”, pinning upon them the mark of “hipster” (a term which has been re-purposed in the media with so much verve as to have lost all shred of meaning) or “jerk” (which is actually quite apropos in this context of bar jockeys).

Hold onto Your Ego | Bartender Atlas

The ego in its Freudian context is that section within the structure of our personalities that interfaces with the rest of the world and serves to protect us, and bartending must be contextualized as a job requiring—as with all performative occupations—exponentially more interfacing with the public than most, and so it’s a muscle worth our close consideration. Note well: some measure of control and exhibition of your ego is a good and necessary thing as a bartender, it will bolster your personality and make you entertaining and keep your head above water amidst the chaos of a busy night. Yet give it too much rein and it will develop into egoism, and suddenly you’re buying leather aprons and waxing your moustache, I suppose, or more likely, trying to sell all your guests the night you think they should have instead of the night they want to have. I resolutely believe this to be the bedrock consideration of a sterling bar team, and so I talk with my team about it ad nauseam, likely past the point of surfeit. Which is why I was knocked quite sideways when, upon my return to the office after the New Year’s break, I was greeted by the following email in my inbox:

“This article is soooo needed at your bar. I’m just one of many countless
dissatisfied customers who suffered this kind of abuse there. I was glad to
see this in today’s news articles. Sincerely, Al”

Attached was a PDF copy of “Buh-Bye Hipster”.

Talk about a punch in the ego.

I sent it on to the crew and we sat down and discussed it; they were mystified and saddened and probably a bit worried they were going catch trouble over it. But I dearly love my bartenders and watching them with a constant critical eye assures me they are all on the same page as me with regards to the treatment of our clientele, and I actually found this to be a fantastic discussion topic to start 2017 with, and certainly one worthy of wide-spread industry discussion.

Unfortunately I don’t know the nature of the abuse that Al suffered at my bar (nor sadly the identity of any of the countless other upset guests he references, my return email asking for edification and forgiveness as yet remains unanswered), but I do know that “abuse” isn’t a word to be taken lightly in any context, and while there may be a different point on a sliding scale for each of us whereupon that word resides, I have no doubt that whatever the details of Al’s experience were they added up to one he was profoundly unhappy with. Typically—being professionals who care about our work and reputation—our ego’s initial reaction to something like this is to go hard on the defensive and disgorge invective at such gall and hypersensitivity and to fabricate all sorts of imagined scenarios like “he probably got cut off” or “we probably didn’t have the vodka he liked” or some other little movie script, but the pith of the whole thing is this: it simply doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter, because one got through the cracks. One guest gave us money for a shitty experience and that’s something we should very much want to keep to a minimum. Not for Al’s sake nor for the sake of the worst- or best-behaved clientele, but for the sake of our own professionalism and our own self-respect.

And here’s where it starts to get tricky, because we interact at the barrel-end of an emotionally well-lubricated client base with an unbelievable and indescribable multitude of personalities all having a day on some particular point on a roller coaster of an emotional journey that we know nothing about and all the articles on the internet advising you to “be more friendly” at work can in no way prepare you for the superconducting supercollider of personality that is your average work week in the bar business. And in order to inspire longevity and careerism in our young acolytes it is vital that we give them some tools to help navigate this largely-undiscussed yet universally affecting slice of the whole bartending pizza. And these must be tools engineered to keep the ego in fine tune.

So the fundamental idea that we need to keep in the upper deck of our tool kit is that it isn’t about being more friendly at work. It’s about acting more friendly at work, and that’s a vital distinction. Because in this job when you’re having the inevitable bad day, or sad day, or atomically furious day you’re simply not allowed to throw that up in the face of your clientele. The ability to go out there on stage in front of a paying audience night after night for 8-10 hour performances and bring sweetness, laughter and light with you is incredibly hard-won and it requires constant practice over a long stretch of time. And you have to somehow take care of your own emotional needs at the same time, so as not to wind up miserable or in therapy or—at the worst—addicted to things that will end up doing your life some serious damage.

Career bartending requires a tough shell that looks to all around you warm and welcoming, and that is a product of how you choose to regulate your ego. Some—too many—bartenders deal with the demands of the job by raising their status high up above their customers, a shaky platform built on some esoteric knowledge compiled in the same few books and web sites that most of us—those of us in the “craft” end of the cocktail pool, anyway—have ingested, and they look for every sliver of an opportunity to trumpet that knowledge, not to be an educator, but to be a snoot. These are the types “Buh-Bye Hipster” is referring to, one supposes, the kind of bartender who offers one somewhat smug face to all regardless of their individual needs. This is unquestionably the signet of the immature bartender, protected against all negative opinion by a pre-determined idea of what an “authentic” bar experience should be. But bartending is a fluid and adaptable art; to be performed at its highest level it requires the ability to harmonize with the unique needs of each guest and manifest the personality and drink skill that will make your bar seem, to that particular guest, the best bar in all the world. This is galactically challenging, and is exactly why bartending is such a beautiful and necessary craft. It’s easy to say “this is how you should drink”; it takes a secure ego and loads of experience to say “tell me what you like and I will make you the best version of it that you will ever have”, and then deliver on that promise with ease and grace.

It’s a simple test to discover the health of your ego at work. Do you find that your guests occasionally have the ability to make you upset? When someone complains that they don’t like their drink, do you get a sour feeling in your gut? Or when they’re grumpy that you don’t carry that one product that is the best product of all the products and what kind of bar doesn’t stock that product, do you get the burning urge to set their doofy opinion straight? You must develop a self-awareness of your reactions to these things because it’s dangerously stultifying to absorb the negative energy of those who would challenge you at your own bar; you know why you do the things you do and stock the things you stock, that’s enough. A healthy ego is reflective of all the work that you do to be a sound professional, and no one has any power over you that you don’t give them. And when you go above and beyond to course-correct a wayward customer experience, don’t do it only for them, “them” is a giant, career-spanning many-headed beast with whom you cannot do battle with only a fragile ego as a shield. Work to keep each night smooth for your professional self-respect, fix the problems purely for your own satisfaction. Concentrate on building yourself a bright and shiny suit of emotional armour that you can quickly don for the days when you’re not in love with the world, one that looks exactly like your best self, and reserve the volatile energy for your personal life outside of the show, where it’s free to run. This is an immensely challenging goal to set as you head into a new year, more so for some of us than others to be sure, but it’s a skill we can all of us get stronger in, if we’re truly serious about this job. You’ve got a lot of mileage left in your career, and a lot of time left to become the best there ever was.

Simon Ogden
Simon Ogden has been a professional bartender and bar mentor in British Columbia for over twenty-five years, and is currently writing a book about it. He is the Food & Beverage Director of Victoria's Hotel Rialto and the head bartender of its lounge, Veneto.
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