The Boozy Bookshelf | Straight Up: Real World Secrets to Running a Killer Bar by Ramona Pettygrave Shah

It’s Boozy Bookshelf time! Our monthly feature where our friends Marlene and Lucas of Famous Last Words Bar in Toronto review books of a boozy nature. This month, they hit up Straight Up: Real World Secrets to Running a Killer Bar by Ramona Pettygrave Shah and give us both of their opinions of said book.

The Boozy Bookshelf | Straight Up: Real World Secrets to Running a Killer Bar

Marlene’s Review:
Because this is a book targeted at people who are new to managing people and to managing, period, it’s a little tough for me to critique objectively. With a background in business and people management in the corporate world (not to mention running a bar for almost 2 years now), my judgment may be a bit off in regards to what qualifies as useful information. What I can say definitively is that this book is full of practical, real-world suggestions. In my admittedly biased opinion, some feel painfully obvious, others are good reminders and a few are genuinely helpful, bordering on inspired.

The book itself takes a while to get going, and could’ve used some editing at the front; too many forwards and intros means that the content doesn’t really get going until somewhere around page 30. Conspicuously absent from those first 30 pages is an index / table of contents – which would have been quite helpful. And speaking of editing, the style is quite breezy, which at times ventures into the overly casual. You certainly get a sense of who Ramona is, but many areas could use a bit of tightening up to lend her a bit more credibility. She covers a lot of ground, and the structure overall could use more, well, structure.

Once things kick into gear, section two offers such sage advice as get a notebook and a calendar (!) and in fact the whole section on organization seems obvious to anyone who’s ever read a management book or had to, you know, actually function in life.

Section three, on “Team & Leadership”, is where the real value starts to shine through. It covers areas like how to build a strong, cohesive team and how critical good people management and leadership really are. They do say that the measure of someone’s intelligence is the degree to which they agree with you, but I found it incredibly refreshing – in a business that seems to consider people expendable – that much of her philosophy lines up so closely with my own. (i.e. That people are your biggest and best asset and the personal dividends of nurturing a staff and striving to always be better together can be so incredibly high. There are a few significant diversions in our approach, but we’ll leave those for another day.) The part dealing with training is excellent, more so because it is so often overlooked in our business. Leadership can often be an esoteric topic, but this breaks down into practical advice around having a positive attitude, keeping cool and leading by example, and also talks about proactively addressing issues in the workplace. Although it may be leadership 101, her approach to identifying triggers is a very good reminder for those of us working in the trenches.

The practicality continues with section four that centers around systems, policies and procedures, etc. with checklists that many will find helpful to implement in order to build structure where it doesn’t currently exist. Next up is the section on P&L which is a bit of a misnomer, since it ranges across choosing a concept, menu engineering, purchasing & pricing, etc and then bleeds into section six on cocktail creation (which is less about the financial aspects and more about the creative side of building cocktails and how to find inspiration). There’s great stuff in both sections that will serve as a great guide on how to make a list that is interesting, executable and might actually make your bar some money. (A costing sheet that works AND is easy to follow? That alone may be worth the cover price of the book.)

With the current zeitgeist around self-care, section 7 on lifestyle is timely, if difficult to execute for those of us who close ‘til 3 on a regular basis – sleep more, drink less, etc. It all culminates in a section on recipes for cocktails, infusions and syrups that I’ve admittedly not tried, but seem to be a requisite for any industry book and is, at the very least, very clear.

Marlene’s Last Word: This book could have used some additional editing for style and structure, but for anyone new to managing a bar, you could do much, much worse than adopting this as your go-to manual. Throw in the fact that she will send you her templates and it’s more than worth the cost.

Lucas’s Review:
When our esteemed hosts at Bartender Atlas provided us with Straight Up: Real World Secrets to Running a Killer Bar, I was uncertain as to what to expect. It’s a hefty, brand-new book from a bartender/bar manager I’m unfamiliar with (not a difficult feat, to be honest) and it covers a hole about the bar industry left by the other books we have reviewed: bar management. Ms. Shah certainly accounts well for herself with the book — the writing style is breezy and engaging, and she covers a lot of ground. It is a potentially very useful book, but with some pretty strong caveats.

The book itself covers a lot of ground, which is both a strength and a weakness. It is designed as a catch-all book for all aspects of bar management, including (but not limited to) personal skill evaluations, bar lifestyle elements, organization, employee management, bar systems and structure, cocktail and cocktail menu development, P&L, managerial strategies, and a big list of cocktails and infusions. Structurally, it comes off as a cross between an anecdote-heavy managerial memoir (a la Setting the Table) and a more serious academic instructional how-to book (as shown by the action steps at the end of chapters and some subchapters). It reads actually rather well cover-to-cover, as she follows a pretty solid arc of ideas and has a consistent narrative voice, but at the risk of sounding mean it really could use a brutal professional editor. The tone is a bit cutesy and cheeky at times, but the writing is very clear and brisk. There aren’t any major typos or errors at getting Ms. Shah’s ideas across — the book could just use some trimming and a some external structural elements, like a table of contents and some indexes. (The lack of those items makes reviewing it pretty annoying, and referencing things took a lot longer than it should since I’m using a borrowed copy I can’t annotate.) The Kindle version seems to solve the problem of a lack of a table of contents — perhaps it was an issue with print on demand, so I would suggest the e-book version if you have that option — but the book still lacks any sort of index or bibliography.

I’ve had a few managerial bar positions and much of the advice she offers seems on the mark, if at times a bit basic and common to any book in the managerial or business sub-genre. Items like keeping a calendar, making lists, and having a mission statement are all great bits of advice, but probably don’t need entire subchapters with personal anecdotes to support them. In other places, restaurant specific items are discussed briefly but glossed over — for example, the chapter on steps of service is four pages that can be summed up as “some places, like chains, use lots of steps of service, some places use none, you should choose how much you want to use them (or not).” When I was a new manager, I would have loved to have someone actually break down examples of steps of service used at different venues — comparing and contrasting different chains or high-end establishments and discussing how they might have been more appropriate and useful. Note this issue appears in several chapters, though in a few cases it was alleviated by making use of the template bundles she offers with the book.

The book gets better as it goes on — when Ms. Shah finally gets into the sections on pricing & labour, systems, and cocktail construction, her obvious passion for those subjects inspires her to go more in-depth on them. I would have loved to see a bit more factual rigor here. While it goes against the casual tone Ms. Shah has put forth, there has to be some sort of research on percentages and pricing out there she could use rather than the “figure it out for yourself” approach she seems to take. I understand the respect Ms. Shah has for how weird and mutable and unpredictable a business this can be, but big time restaurant chains have likely spent millions on figuring out whether 19 or 20% is optimal for mid-shelf booze, so some small look at some studies would carry a lot of weight. That said, her math seems solid and pricing and processes are areas where a lot of first time bar managers stumble, so the section is very useful.

The best part of the book — and maybe the best execution of this I’ve seen in any book, including Meehan’s Bartender Manual — is the lengthy section (90+ pages) detailing cocktail and cocktail menu creation, along with the many anecdotes about individual cocktails sprinkled throughout the book during write-ups of her staff. I find those quite in-depth write-ups a bit odd — they, and some other passages, can make the book read like it was originally a bar book about Magnum, the venue Ms. Shah managed (a la books like the Dead Rabbit) and the focus shifted. I understand the benefits of these write ups, as Ms. Shah is trying to show traits of workers she has appreciated and also illustrate the thought process behind individual cocktails. The sections on menu structure and practical cocktail development processes in a professional setting are great and I really appreciated that she addressed setting up her bar and wells, and batching processes.

The biggest issue with the book, again, is the structure. Page wise, it’s longer than Liquid Intelligence and about as long as Meehan’s Bar Manual (considering the lack of an index or bibliography), though the font size puts it at far fewer words than those two giant reference manuals, even despite their illustrations. The collection of infusions and cocktails in the back lack any sort of visual accompaniment, which ends up making them stand out as a simple list rather than an essential part of the book. The “Case Study”, staff member, cocktail recipe, and “Pro Tip” headers give the book the feel of “Cocktail Bar Management for Dummies” which actually isn’t that bad of a place to be — those books are great and successful for a lot of obvious reasons, and have covered a lot of ground over the years. (They literally just published “Global Logistics for Dummies”, written by my uncle, which I thought was a bit esoteric, but hey…)

Lucas’s Last Word: Once again, I have written a review that I feel comes across harsher than my real feelings about the book. Ms. Shah has written a book for bar professionals, using language they (rather than business majors) can likely understand, that fills a niche (bar management) as important as the ones Morganthaler’s Bar Book (first-time bartenders), Meehan’s Bar Manual (cocktail professionals), and Liquid Intelligence (science-y menu developers) have addressed. If it was just a bit tighter and better researched and annotated, I could recommend it as highly as I do those three; as is I simply have to appreciate the many useful reminders and bits of advice I was able to glean from it, and recommend it mostly to those who want advice on building a cocktail program and menu.

Famous Last Words
Famous last words, opened in October 2016 in Toronto's Junction neighbourhood, is a bit like a library - if the library made kickass cocktails and let you play vinyl. They regularly host book clubs, readings and book launches and have built a literary-inspired cocktail list over 40 drinks deep with chapters of "Short Stories", "Modernists" and "Classics". A self-described lifelong book nerd, Marlene opened famous last words to combine her two loves: reading and cocktailing. She can be found behind the bar a few nights a week and, according to Lucas, is the master of the four ingredient sour. Raised in Lexington, Kentucky, Lucas Twyman moved to Canada because it was the only other country in North America that makes whiskey. He bartended pretty much everywhere in Toronto's Junction neighborhood and can be found at Famous Last Words. Marlene recommends asking Lucas about his publishing career and/or his clarified milk punch recipes.
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