In the hospitality industry, an establishment can have the most lauded chef, Instagramable menu, and glowing nods in regional and national publications, but an under-educated staff can mean those merits are not effectively translated to the guests. Certainly, much effort goes into training staff on dishes and ingredients, not to mention at the very least a perfunctory knowledge of the wine list. Spirits and cocktails—let alone beer, cider, and non-alcoholic offerings—need the same level and effort in education or a business is losing out on both positive customer experience and the sales that come with it.
The challenge of finding skilled workers and retaining them makes staff education more important than ever to the industry, which lost over one million workers in 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic—many of which never returned.
“Many skilled and seasoned employees were either forced or made the decision to leave the industry,” says Christopher Bidmead, the cofounder of Bar Methods, a Brooklyn-based skills and systems masterclass for the bar industry. “This means that we are looking at an entirely new generation of bar and restaurant staff that doesn’t have the benefit of senior personnel to guide them or help teach. This leaves the burden on the owners or managers who are already spread too thin trying to navigate the ever-changing landscape of post-COVID hospitality—as if it wasn’t already hard enough.”
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Beverage Basics Matter
Equipping staff with the very fundamentals of beverage education is the first step of training a new hire. But those basics are also pivotal in creating a long-term employee who has the tools to thrive in their position and, thus, the business. When it comes to foundational training, start simple and build.
“Staff are given a 101 training on how to work in a space, but it’s always missing the foundational elements like, ‘This is what whiskey is; this is what beer is.’ Those things often aren’t available,” says Greg Buda, the former director of education for The Dead Rabbit, who developed a successful, modular, knowledge-building beverage curriculum that’s become the core of his bar consulting business, Buda Consulting.
Buda’s proven methodology? Write it down. It sounds simple—or, perhaps, like a slog to put together—but creating the material, or finding a subcontractor who’s already done that work and can provide it to your business, is meaningful for many reasons, not least that it offers the basics in bite-sized lessons.
“Put it in a format that’s easy to digest one element at a time: a document on each category of spirits; how to develop a menu; how to train staff. That’s your foundational level of education,” says Buda. “I combine them and give the information in any order depending on the consulting project and depending on the skill level of the staff. Then you can build on stuff that’s part and parcel to your venue.”
Also, this information doesn’t depart when an employee leaves. “One of the most frustrating elements of hospitality staffing is that it can be somewhat transient. Working in a place for a year is more the exception, not the rule, and people leave and take knowledge with them,” says Buda. “The more you can put on paper the more stable your business. The knowledge remains.”
Education isn’t just about focusing on new employees, though. “The other common error I see is businesses forgetting to retrain their existing staff,” says Bidmead. “It’s not just about the new hires; everyone on staff should receive refreshers. You need to keep your skills sharp. Ongoing education invites the opportunity to discover new points of view that may introduce efficiencies or solve problems that you didn’t know existed.”
Expand Training Across Categories—and Staff Members
Derek Brown, the founder and owner of the recently shuttered Columbia Room in Washington, D.C., has been especially plugged into the non-alcoholic cocktail sector with his consulting company, Positive Damage, which creates low- and no-alcohol bar programs. Understanding low-proof drinks and educating staff on how they’re made and using terms that aren’t isolating or pejorative (mocktail in particular, he says, makes consumers think of syrupy-sweet, unthoughtful drinks) can enliven a sector of consumers who are often left out.
“If that part of your menu is not welcoming and your servers aren’t educated about it, you’ve missed out on an opportunity to meet a person’s needs and make money from it,” says Brown. “Almost 25 percent of consumers don’t drink alcohol.”
In addition to diving into ignored consumer categories, Buda argues that effective education is also about ignored sectors of your staff. Looking at your training beyond those behind the stick is also crucial. “If you have two bartenders and 10 seats at the bar, each bartender touches five guests; servers are touching many times that number.” says Buda. “It’s inexcusable that a bartender knows everything about the cocktail list and the spirits, and the servers know nothing. They are in control of more experiences of guests who walk through the door.”
Bidmead agrees, adding that beverage training in both technique and knowledge directly impacts both the bottom and top-line growth of a business. “It doesn’t matter if you’re serving tables or behind the bar; that knowledge is going to show in your performance and engagement with guests,” he says. “This registers with guests and improves their overall experience leading to organic marketing for your business as well as higher check averages.”
Training Aids in Staff Retention
“Giving staff educational tools and encouragement is to take away the expectation of transiency—which, arguably, has the power to alter that industry assumption altogether,” says Shawn Soole, the bar manager for Clive’s Classic Lounge in Victoria, British Columbia. “I think the biggest mistake most establishments make is the mentality of, ‘What if they leave?’ They worry about investing in their team. My argument is always: How much does it cost to replace good staff? Training in the grand scheme of things is a minimal amount based on staff retention, measurable return on investment in increasing sales, and per head spend[ing],” says Soole.
At Clive’s Classic Lounge he’s created a program that offers all employees complimentary BarSmarts online education, and compensates them for the time they spend in class. Clive’s also offers annual WSET Spirits courses, and they are adding particular spirits category-focused educational programs in the future—an expense that’s paying off.
“I have staff post-pandemic that have been with us two years, 18 months, and 12 months consecutively, and I have had minimal turnover since reopening,” he says. “I think training has always been important but now it can mean a difference in staff retention. The intangible value-add for staff is unquantifiable post-pandemic.”
Buda is in the process of opening a Mediterranean-skewed aperitif bar in Montreal called Bisou Bisou that he co-owns with Kevin Demers, who also owns El Pequeño and Coldroom. For the latter, Demers has experimented with a staff bonus structure that rewards knowledgeable sales that increase profit. But it also looks to reward good decision-making that is the result of education in the bar business. For example, staffing effectively, ordering efficiently to take advantage of delivery schedules and deals, and ordering the right amount of food so less goes to waste would warrant bonuses under the scheme.
“It’s bold and generous but it’s also really clever. It sounds to some people like he’s giving money away, but I see it as he’s rewarding people for making his business a success,” says Buda. “For management, it teaches them how to understand the bar from a financial standpoint. We’re looking to expand that to Bisou Bisou, and not only apply it to management, but to the whole team and offer a financial boost when there’s an increased level of expertise.”
Create an Encouraging Learning Environment
Learning on the job is an ongoing process that, ideally, builds upon itself. But that environment is created at the top, and encouragement is key. That’s not to say that everyone gets a gold star for simply showing up, but hospitality is a tough business. There’s something to be said for establishing a workplace that celebrates the wins in order to foster more of them. “Treat your employees like adults. Recognize that most people have a desire to be competent in their job,” says Brown.
“I feel like a lot of establishments and owners look at money in the wrong way. They look at the cost of training and see that as a dollar amount that can be cut back on rather than seeing it as an avenue for staff retention, and to save money in the long term,” says Buda. “I don’t know if that’s greed or shortsightedness or lack of understanding of finance, but the simple idea is that you don’t invest in a place—you invest in people.”
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Amy Zavatto is the author of Prosecco Made Me Do It: 60 Seriously Sparkling Cocktails, Forager’s Cocktails, and The Architecture of the Cocktail. Her stories appear in Liquor.com, Imbibe, Beverage Media, and many others. She judges at the American Craft Spirits Association annual competition and the New York Wine & Food Classic, and she earned her Level III Certificate from the Wine & Spirits Education Trust, but her favorite way to learn is through taste and travel. She’s a big fan of underdogs and talking with her hands.