The quality of the beer isn’t the only measure of success for brewery visits. Front-of-house (FOH) employees can have a huge impact on guest experience. According to Secret Hopper, a mystery shopping service for breweries, patrons who hear “Hello” when they enter and “Thank you” when they leave a brewery tasting room will return and/or recommend it 96.6 percent of the time, compared with a less than 40 percent chance of return or referral when they get no greeting or expression of gratitude.
While it’s easy for a brewery to settle for basic training of taproom staff, the addition of a few creative educational strategies can pay off. SevenFifty Daily spoke to brewery owners and managers who specialize in creating new and innovative ways to train FOH employees to get their top tips for developing highly engaged staff. Here are their suggestions.
1. Create a School for New Hires
To standardize onboarding for all employees, Lost Rhino Brewing, a craft brewery founded in 2011 in Ashburn, Virginia, created the School of Hard Hops, which features two half-day courses that each new hire must successfully complete. “Our staff knows to expect some yeast sludge when a keg is about to kick,” says Melissa Hoffman, Lost Rhino’s quality assurance manager, “or to pour and dump a pitcher or two when they first tap a keg. They know to rotate kegs so you are getting the freshest beer possible, and they can identify off-flavors like oxidation and diacetyl.” Hoffman took over and revamped Lost Rhino’s training program, including the School of Hard Hops, two years ago.
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The two half-day sessions cover topics including the brewery’s history and such skills as cleaning a draft line and troubleshooting keg problems. Because these courses are mandatory, all staffers have the information they need to jump behind the bar during busy taproom hours. “When customers come to Lost Rhino, we want them to become as passionate about our history and brand as we are—to become insiders,” says Hoffman. “But we also want them to leave with new, correct beer knowledge.” The School of Hard Hops may even expand its curriculum; Hoffman is currently designing an optional production and sensory class that will give bartenders a deeper insight into brewing and a broader lexicon with which to describe beer to guests.
2. Offer Ongoing Training
At The Glass Jug Beer Lab, a microbrewery, retail shop, and craft beer bar in Durham, North Carolina, the focus is less on new-hire training and more on long-term education. “We don’t have some huge onboarding program, like many of the national chains,” says Katy Creech, the brewery’s co-owner, who spends at least 65 percent of her workday on FOH staff training. “Instead, we only hire people who are well qualified and get them up to speed and running quickly. Then we put an above-average amount of effort into ongoing training to foster the long-term success of our people and our business.”
In addition to offering twice-yearly full-day classes on beer styles and off-flavors, and quarterly sessions on bartending specifics, Creech requires (and offers reimbursement for) FOH staff members to pass the Certified Beer Server test, the first-level certification for the Cicerone program. She also offers free admission to staffers to attend The Glass Jug’s public classes, and team members are encouraged to request reimbursement for industry conferences and outside informational events.
At Transport Brewery in Shawnee, Kansas, the management upholds high standards for the enjoyment of craft beer by integrating the beer itself into staff training. “Periodically, our brewer will pop out from the back with a sample and ask servers to discuss it,” says Christie Merandino, the general manager of Transport, which opened in February. The management team also trains staff on correct glassware, holds an in-depth tasting for every new beer, and asks distributor reps to educate employees on any new arrival getting showcased from an outside brewery. Employees at Transport and Lost Rhino are encouraged to participate in brew days, which not only give staff members an in-depth look at brewing but fuel their investment in the product they’re selling.
3. Open Up the Books
Creech has found success at The Glass Jug with the simple yet effective tool of transparent communication. To make staff members feel invested in the brewery’s success, she and her husband, Chris Creech, who is also a partner in the business, share financial data with their team, such as mean transaction amounts and weekly, quarterly, and event-specific monetary targets.
Creech also believes that her employees are paid $2 more per hour than the standard base rate paid by local competitors. “It’s very important to feel we have the highest caliber of people on staff, and we do a lot of things to make that happen,” she says. “If we want our people to act like the best, we need to treat them like the best, and if we want them to think on the highest level, we need to give them the information they need.”
4. Encourage Advancement and Retention
Throughout their employment, Lost Rhino bartenders can cross-train in other departments, by, say, brewing or working the canning line for a day—a strategy by which management retains and motivates talent. Creech compensates employees at The Glass Jug when they voluntarily take on projects like strategically reorganizing the bottle shop—encouraging them to seek out growth opportunities within the company. In another case, Creech now pays one bartender to lead the brewery’s ladies’ craft beer appreciation group, which connects the bartender to the community and nurtures her event-planning skills.
Merandino also encourages FOH staffers to try out different roles at Transport when departments need entry-level help. “Our bartenders are on the front lines,” she says. “They speak to our customers first and need to exude confidence and education enthusiastically. If we give them all the tools, they will want to grow, too.”
Tara Nurin is Forbes magazine’s beer and spirits contributor, the drinks columnist for New Jersey Monthly, cohost of the What’s on Tap radio show, and a contributor to publications such as Food & Wine. The BJCP-certified judge and Cicerone Beer Server teaches beer classes at two accredited universities and leads beer seminars for the Smithsonian and other institutions.