Friday, June 27, 2014

What More Than 10 Years in Bars Has Taught Me About Hospitality Management

For those of you familiar with my background, you know that I've been in the hospitality industry, both bars and restaurants, for a fair percentage of my life now.  Much of that has been spent as a manager myself.  The greatest thing you can learn about yourself in the years following any specific management job is how good and effective of a manager you were.  Employees still come to me many years after I've worked with them for advice, to thank me for the various things I've taught them, and to let me know about their own successes using the skills and attitudes I've taught and shown to them.  Some of the greatest compliments I've ever received have been from former employees.  One, on my last day working with them, said to me, "I am better at what I do because of you, and I'm so grateful for that.  Thank you." Another, years after working with them, sent me a text out of the blue one day that said, "Thank you for teaching me that an issue with a guest is always an opportunity and never a debate."  I'm grateful myself, and quite humbled, that these are not rare occurrences within my career and my life.
Last week, I found myself thinking about good managers vs. bad managers.  A few days ago I came across a pretty direct Facebook post by a high-profile Facebook acquaintance that summed things up pretty efficiently, if also a little on the more…shall we say...colorful side of the coin.

Essentially, both my personal take, and what the person on Facebook said, is that there are an excessive number of managers who don’t know how to appropriately do their job.  They are vindictive and petty to their employees.  Behaving that way with your staff is easy and doesn’t take any level of work or talent or experience.  There are too many managers in our industry who look for the easiest way possible.  To be a good and effective manager, you have to also learn how to be a good leader.  An effective manager, and a good leader, takes the time and effort to learn who their employees are.  An effective manager and leader learns how each of the employees in their periphery learn and grow, and how to capitalize on and extract that from each to the greatest benefit of the employee, the manager, and the business as a whole.  An effective manager (especially General Manager or Managing Partner) knows everything that is going on within their organization and keeps abreast of where (within their positions) their managers and employees happen to be at any given time, and of what they are doing within those positions.

Good managers and leaders can be either strict or easygoing (the best have figured out how to be both simultaneously), but both should be effective in their chosen style, and neither should berate or discourage their employees, nor should they let their employees and co-workers use them as a stomping ground.

An ineffective manager is one who is unapproachable.  Employees are disinclined to come to this manager with any problems arising either in their personal lives that may affect their jobs, or with problems within their workplace.  An ineffective manager berates and blames instead of giving constructive criticism in an approachable way.  An ineffective manager looks at one instance instead of a period of time and pattern of behavior.

Both types of managers have bad days, but how they handle those days at work make all the difference to their employees and customers.  Bad managers have volatile moods.  When they are in a mood, every employee is on edge, and becomes disconcerted.  The employees spend more time worrying about what the manager is going to perceive as wrong that day, assured that everything they do will be seen as bad or lacking, and as a result are distracted when taking care of customers and are more inclined to make more, and bigger, mistakes, which then compound the stress and frustration of both the employee and the manager.  A good manager does their best to put on a positive face, and the employees know that even if the manager is clearly having an "off" day, they will handle their interactions with their staff with grace and tact--no differently than they would on any other day.

Just as we ask our employees to leave their problems at the door, so too should our management staff.

Employees of good managers and leaders know that their management always has the best interests of their staff at heart; that every action comes from a desire to make each individual, and the business as a whole, stronger, and they embrace constructive criticism and corrections.  Employees of a bad manager feel subject to the selfishness of the ones meant to lead them.  They feel like any word of concern to the manager, or of constructive criticism about their workplace, will lead to retribution against them.  A good manager knows how to soften the negative with positive; they understand that you generally get more flies with honey, and they are able to turn not only guests, but also their own employees, into raving fans and loyal followers.  They understand how what they say and how they say it is going to affect any given employee, and they are careful to frame their words in the most effective way possible for that one individual before approaching any given issue.

Good and effective managers know the importance of training; they know how to turn anything into a learning moment.  Bad and ineffective managers punish for things the employee was never taught.

Bad and ineffective managers pit their employees against one another in various aspects of their job while good and effective managers understand that teamwork, particularly in a hospitality setting, is the surest way for their employees (and their business) to thrive and look forward to the time they spend at work.

Many bad and ineffective managers don’t realize they are bad managers.  These people have never had the life-changing influence of a truly outstanding manager and leader to show them what, with work and perseverance, they could be to those people within their own reach.

Do you think you’re a good manager?  Would your employees agree?  How can you tell if your managers are effective?  If they’re not, what resources and people do you or will you utilize to make them better?
Required Reading:  Simon Sinek, Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don't.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Cocktail Menus and Brand Cohesiveness.

I recently read an article discussing an issue I've long held very strong feelings about: bar and cocktail menus that don't match the brand/concept of the restaurant they are supposed to represent.  The post (Identity Crisis, from Possessed by Spirits) went on to describe an Italian restaurant he visited with a very locally sourced, rustic style Italian menu and a head bartender/director without any previous experience developing cocktail menus.  As a result, the cocktail menu was at complete odds with the style of the food--featuring classic and original cocktails without any Italian ties, and a bar program completely ignoring all of the amari and other ingredients that could make their program something unique and special to their town, and in perfect sync with their food:
The entire bar program from the spirits selection to the drinks menu could have just as easily been picked up and dropped into any other faceless craft cocktail bar in the country.   This was because there was absolutely no sense of cohesiveness in place to tie the bar to the restaurant.
It was almost as if the bar manager just looked through the latest cocktail book, picked out ten drinks at complete random and chose to put those on the list.  There was nothing that said rustic Italian, and Aperol was the most obscure Italian product on the entire back bar, which for some reason was primarily American Whiskey and gin.
Having spent about half of my career to-date in corporate-style restaurants, I am very lucky to have taken away a keen understanding of brand cohesiveness, and I find myself disoriented when a bar program and food program at a location don't seem to match up.  The cocktails might be fantastic, and the food might be amazing, but I just can't laud the location if the two don't...well...mesh.  I'm not saying that bourbon should be left off an Italian restaurant's cocktail menu, or amari can't find their way into a Mexican-style tequila bar, but as a beverage director/head bartender/manager you need to find the ways to be smart about your choices and placements--make sure that you have a reason for carrying or using something.

Instead of completely rehashing what someone else said brilliantly, I will use this space to throw out some ideas on how to make a bar program fit the food being served for various styles of cuisine.

Italian:  Italy is well-known for their amari (bitter liqueurs and cordials best known for their ability to stimulate an appetite or aid digestion after a meal).  Amari are generally very herbal and bitter, and they are currently enjoying a vast boost in popularity among bartenders.  Some examples are Campari, Aperol, Fernet Branca, Zucca, etc.  Amari can be heavily utilized in classic and original cocktails, and can lend an Italian twist to non-Italian classics to tie them into the concept.  If you plan on having a nice collection of amari for your guests, be certain to educate your staff on their flavors and uses, and be certain to find ways for your guests to know you have them available and how to drink them--maybe add a page to your cocktail or wine list.  Similarly, there are some lovely grappa and limoncello options available for after-dinner sipping, as well.  Both of those, in addition to your amaro collection, would make a fantastic After Dinner section.

Another potential idea for Italian (and any country known for their wines) cuisine would be a wine-based cocktail--or three.  Sherry, vermouth, and other wines can make a fantastic addition to cocktails, or even a wonderful base ingredient.  Wine cocktails can be especially nice because many of them are much lower-proof than spirits-based cocktails, and they offer your clientele an alternative when they are not interested in an evening of heavier drinking.

Japanese:  From a cocktail development standpoint, Alcademics said it best in a post earlier this year: Zen and the Art of Japanese Cocktail Development.  Use the very unique flavors of the area, and look to their philosophies of complexity and depth through simplicity and technique...and, if your state allows, showcase some of the phenomenal whiskeys coming out of the area.  Show beauty through the stories of your cocktails and the way you make them, and the lovely, lovely garnishing.  Also, did I mention that the Japanese love their whiskey?  If you can't get your hands on Japanese whiskey to showcase, ones from other countries would not be out of place--just use and feature them in the same spirit that you might use the Japanese ones.  If you can get your hands on the Japanese variety, some classic American cocktails would not be out of place with such a twist (Japanese whiskey variations on the Manhattan and Rob Roy, just for a couple of examples).  Regarding flavors, also posted a great piece on Asian-inspired cocktails and the flavors useful in them: The Growth of Asian-Inspired Cocktails.  Continuing with the low-alcohol thought previously mentioned, sake can make a really unique and amazing base for low-proof cocktails.

Mexican:  Obviously, mezcal is the spirit of Mexico, and tequila is the variation of mezcal that Americans are most familiar with.  There are a number of simple and popular classic tequila cocktails that offer much opportunity to play with and twist.  Plays on margaritas are plentiful, but what about twists on the Matador, or the Tequila Sunrise, or the Paloma?  The climate of Mexico offers many fantastic fruits and flavors to play with (mango, pineapple, cilantro, chiles and spices of a dizzying array), the different aging levels of tequila offer many different options for flavor pairings, and the smokiness of mezcal produced from roasted agave opens up an even larger realm of possibility--I've had a fantastic mezcal Mule, and many places have played with the idea of an Añejo Old-Fashioned.  Be certain to develop your own sangrita recipe, and don't forget the possibilities of agua frescas and horchatas as mixers, or as non-alcoholic options--and atoles in the winter (or brunch).  If you're lucky enough to have access to great pulque, there's another world to open, too!  For sweetening in general, agave nectar is fantastic, and you can use it to make amazing flavored syrups, and in place of standard simple syrup for...well...pretty much everything.  If you choose to have an extensive tequila selection, be certain your staff is well-educated in the differences, and don't forget to play up the bourbon/cognac-style properties of Añejo and Extra Añejo tequilas and their perfect place as an after-dinner sipping liquor.

American "Locavore": This is one that can go many many ways.  First and foremost, bourbon and other American whiskey is likely to be a solid fit, as will products from local distilleries.  Be discriminating, however--just because it's local doesn't mean it's good.  If it's not good, there's no reason to carry it.  Do you know that saying "You're only as strong as your weakest link"?  Well, your bar is only as strong as the weakest product in your wells or on your backbar.  If your food program is set on fresh and quality ingredients do you really want $5-$6 plastic bottles of well liquors taking up what's likely valuable real estate behind your bar? Do you want a sour mix or grenadine with a base of high fructose corn syrup that's loaded up with unpronounceable preservatives and fake colorings?  Probably not.

If the food menu is very focused on being locally sourced and seasonal, follow suit with your cocktails!  Fresh muddled fruits and syrups made from local produce will fit in famously.  For a little more rustic feel, shrubs and switchels (what's a switchel?) fit the bill famously, and shrubs and jams can help you keep some of those summer flavors all year 'round.

This is really just a taste of the possibilities, and only a few popular cuisine styles.  The key I hope anybody reading takes away from this is to research, research, research!  Know the flavors, know the philosophies, know the styles, know your options, know your target clientele, and make sure your bar is an asset and a complement to your location and your food menu. For bar managers: Talk with your ownership. Know what the concept and the feel should be, and work towards that accordingly. Be willing to be the brand you work for, and give it your all.  For restaurant/bar owners: Be willing to be picky. Don't settle for a manager who is more interested in their own brand than they are yours.  A beverage director/manager who is willing to embody your establishment's brand will do more for both of your reputations and brands than the former type of person will. Unwilling/unable to shell out for a full-time mixologist for menu development and upkeep? Hire a professional consultant who understands how it all works, and how to appropriately train and execute for the long-term success of your list.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Turning Rocks and Introductions

One of my go-to books on hospitality is Danny Meyer's Setting the Table: the transforming power of hospitality in business.  There are many fantastic key pieces of knowledge throughout the book, but one that I most often refer to is the section on "Turning Over the Rocks."

Turning rocks (or turning stones, as I tend to refer to it) is a way to describe the necessity of finding ways to connect with your guests.  As he says:
I'm constantly reminding our staff members to initiate a relationship with our guests whenever it's appropriate.  For example, it's amazing how powerful it can be simply to ask guests where they are from. Often, that leads to making a connection because we know someone in common, or we've enjoyed the same restaurant, or we can share a sports story. The old game of "Do you know So-and-so?" is a classic example of turning over rocks to further human connection. And it works. When you are considering several restaurants for dinner, other things being equal, you'll choose the one whose maître d' went to the same school as you, or roots for your sports team, or has the same birthday as you, or knows your second cousin. You'll also tend to choose a restaurant whose chef came out to greet you on your last visit, or who saved you the last soft-shell crab special, knowing it was a favorite of yours. The information is always there if it matters enough to look for it.

I am a member of a fantastic restaurant/bar business website and community that sends out regular emails compiling various profit tips.  In light of the above, one I recently received threw me for a bit of a loop.  The email was titled, "The 3 Dumbest Things Your Servers Are Saying & Why It's Hurting Your Business."  The message starts out appropriately with three terrible and terribly scripted cliches, and then starts to explain why each one is bad.  One of these was the open/introduction script of, "Hi, I'm Me, I'll be your server tonight."  The email goes on to explain that the only appropriate time for a server to give their name is when asked.  I very much believe just the opposite.  The standard script is agreeably awful, and there are many better ways for a server or bartender to introduce themselves, but one thing we must remember is that we are in the hospitality business--making connections and making people care about your business and your people is critical to success, and one way we do that is through the introduction of our names.  Another thing to consider, which I learned while working as a server at a restaurant with a higher-end clientele, is that consumers/guests of a certain caliber want to know who is taking care of them.  When one missed an introduction, they would often ask for my name again.

Now that we've established the importance of an introduction, how do we keep it from sounding scripted and insincere, and how do we make it memorable?  One thing I've discovered is that placing the introduction at the end of any requisite initial scripts (specials, features, etc.) tends to sound less scripted and more sincere: "I'm Lindsay, and if you have any other questions, or if you need anything, please let me know."  I've also found this helps them remember the introduction despite the onslaught of feature information the server or bartender may have just thrown their way.  The other key is to offer your employees a variety of potential "scripts" and let them work it out in a way that sounds natural and sincere through them.

Please chime in with your own experiences and thoughts on introductions, and good and bad ways to do them, in the comments section below!

Required Reading:  Danny Meyer, Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business.