Training Bartenders with a Hospitality Mind-set

Houston bar icon Bobby Heugel’s tips for developing a top-notch team

Training Bartenders
Photo by Seth Stern, Bar Convent Brooklyn.

Bartending is increasingly becoming a professional calling—as well as a vocation on which lifelong careers are built. And while all professions demand comprehensive, structured, and ongoing training, not many of them require the sort of cultural, service-oriented mind-set shift that bartending does.

That was one of the central themes of the education session “How to Train Bartenders” on day one of Bar Convent Brooklyn 2018, an international trade event for the bar and beverage community. The presenter of the session, Bobby Heugel knows a thing or two about that mind-set: He’s successfully opened and staffed an eclectic collection of revered cocktail establishments in Houston, including Anvil Bar & Refuge, Better Luck Tomorrow, The Pastry War, and Tongue-Cut Sparrow.

Heugel’s training model is similar to a scholastic system in that there are 12 stages (like the 12 grades of school) through which each trainee progresses. Not only do bartenders who complete Heugel’s training program become adept at mixing cocktails, but they come away with an encyclopedic knowledge of every major spirits category, an elementary comprehension of the wine and beer categories, and an understanding of the nuances among specific brands within those three categories.

The program also provides bartenders with basic business skills, including a detailed understanding of the real, itemized cost to the business of every drink they craft and strategies for managing inventory. Perhaps most importantly, they develop a better sense of what “hospitality” means—something that requires a fundamental shift in mind-set, according to Heugel, who says that culturally, American society doesn’t exactly prioritize serving others.

The Culture of Hospitality

To illustrate this point in his presentation, Heugel displayed a chart based on the renowned Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede’s theory of cultural dimensions. The chart illustrated the division between countries with strong individualistic values and those with more collectivist orientations. The U.S., Australia, and the United Kingdom are high on the “individualism” scale—in which motivations tilt more toward serving oneself—and low on “collectivism,” or service to others, which Heugel pointed out suggests that hospitality is not a “Western” value. The opposite is true for many East Asian countries, like the People’s Republic of China, Taiwan, Singapore, the Koreas, and Japan, as well as Russia, Brazil, Mexico, and Turkey.

Heugel notes that getting American bartenders to completely adopt a non-Western service tradition is an ongoing process. “I think in Japan,” he says, “if you pay attention to how they do bar training—‘Live with the shaker’ and ‘Emphasize the shake’—it’s very task-oriented because they don’t have to spend much time talking to people about the ethos for why they’re doing something.” The hospitality aspect is already ingrained through the country’s cultural mores. “For us,” Heugel says, “we have to shift.” Bartenders need to interact with guests more and focus on the guests’ individual needs. “We have to emphasize technique less because if we don’t, we’re not helping people move from this [individualistic] place that they’re inherently at currently. We have to reconfigure the things we’re emphasizing in our training programs and find time for those discussions.”

Serving technique has its place, but Heugel asserts that the motivation for that technique is often too individually focused. In other words, the hospitality is sometimes more about ego and advancing one’s own career than it is about providing optimal customer service. The key to “de-Westernizing” a bartender’s approach to hospitality, Heugel says, is for the bartender to constantly engage not only with customers but with the community beyond the four walls of his or her establishment, whether it’s through volunteer efforts or helping to raise money for local charitable initiatives. “If you’re not engaging your staff in charity, you’re not taking your staff as far,” he says. “We have to teach people to engage the community—we’re trying to change people’s minds about how they engage the world.”

Raising Up New Bartenders

Fairness and transparency are additional cornerstones of Heugel’s model. Bartenders who have yet to complete all of the training stages are kept out of the tip pool but receive a living wage that’s slightly below what they’d earn if they were in the pool.

It’s a matter of ethics, Heugel says. It’s simply unethical for undertrained staff to cut into their coworkers’ income. “We don’t compensate them the exact same amount,” he says, “so they will definitely make more when they go in the tip pool. But we also need to make sure we’re not requiring them to suffer for an extended period on our behalf.”

Regular staff meetings are a forum for transparency, Heugel adds. They enable new and established team members to take ownership of various behind-the-scenes facets of bar management. For instance, when it comes time for the bar to raise drink prices, everyone’s involved in that decision. Heugel noted in his presentation that the managers might ask bartenders to come to meetings armed with 10 cocktail recipes for which they’d be comfortable charging, say, an extra dollar. “We talk about what we need to charge and what we’re comfortable charging guests”—after all, he says, “guests aren’t ATMs, and we want them to be comfortable.”

Bartenders are also privy to conversations between managers and owners about financial performance. For example, if the cumulative tip percentage for the previous week was below established levels, everyone works together to get to the bottom of why that happened.

Additionally, from the very beginning of the training program until “graduation,” bartenders constantly participate in blind tastings to fortify their spirits education and build rapport with the other staff members. The tastings help prepare them for their big moment of reckoning: the Blind 50 Test, in which each staff member, in a single day, must taste 50 different spirits and identify them by type and brand. There’s no A for effort here. They have to nail at least 48 to pass.

As you might imagine, few pass on the first go-round.

“The [first-time pass-fail] ratio is very high on the fail—probably 90 percent of them fail,” Heugel says. But they don’t get discouraged. They usually stick around, retake it regularly, and eventually pass. And when they do, the rite of passage is the 100 Day, when the newly minted fully trained bartender makes 100 cocktails for the public for a dollar each. It’s a huge celebration for which a line of regular guests forms out the door.

Such a guest-focused event is a fitting graduation party. After all, as Heugel suggests, bartending is all about serving the community—and that’s the heart of hospitality.


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Jeff Cioletti is a former editor in chief of Beverage World magazine and the author of the books The Drinkable Globe, The Year of Drinking Adventurously, Beer FAQ, and the upcoming Sakepedia. He’s a Certified International Kikisake-shi (sake sommelier).

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