Bar Institute Classes: Masters of Mayhem

Bar Institute Classes: Masters of Mayhem

There's the dinner rush, boys! Let's do this!

There’s the dinner rush, boys! Let’s do this!

The Bar Institute{A first post in a series outlining some lessons learned from selected classes I attended at The Bar Institute held in Phoenix this month. If you don’t know what Bar Institute is, check out my post outlining what attending Bar Institute is like and what is offered.}

Masters of Mayhem was an inspiring class that I attended at the Bar Institute during its Southwest swing in Phoenix that dealt with the challenges and rewards of building and managing a truly great bar team. Presented by restaurateurs Nectaly Mendoza and Kate Gerwin, this was most powerful hour I spent over the whole weekend. The few operational specifics may have been about the bar industry, but the main material presented would be just as applicable in almost any service industry. If it weren’t for the fact that very management style they espouse would make it impossible, I believe these two could make some serious coin were they to polish this seminar just a little and travel around the country three months a year, presenting it as general management training and motivation for anyone.

I think the presenters assume from the outset that anyone interested in their class recognizes already that the bar/restaurant business is an art of barely controlled chaos, at the best of times. The subhead of the class title is “How to build a team of passionate, loyal workers who will ride the storm with you.” You cannot run a bar successfully on the strength of your own talents. Nor will you necessarily successfully run a bar even if you have a lot of talented people.

The structure of the class was an examination of Nectaly’s and Kate’s ten steps in building a team. Actually, they discuss something more than a team, they discuss the need for the bar staff to be a unit. A unit shares motivation, supports each other, and depends on each other. I’m not going to go over the ten steps in detail, because I doubt I’d do the material justice, but let’s look at some of the highlights.

The first thread that wove throughout the presentation was a contention that the bar manager’s first concern should not be for his or her customers, but for his employees. “Treat your staff well. Think of them first,” said Nectaly. “They will take care of your customers.” They hammered over and over again that if your focus, your genuine, unfeigned focus, is on the welfare of your fellow team members, they will return that loyalty, and that focus.

If there is a problem, you need to consider the value of ensuring your employee knows you want to have their back. Rather than leading with, “Hey! You did X,” instead first ask, “Are you OK?” and then, once you have a reply, follow up with “What happened with X?” if they haven’t already told you in their reply. You need to make sure that this kind of approach to each other is shared by every member of your unit, and the only way to do that is to live it yourself first, then insist on it in others.

You must possess these traits yourself, or you will never imbue them in others.
— Nectaly Mendoza

The bar business is a people business. All meaningful communication needs to be face to face. Texts, emails, and especially third-party messages (“tell her I said…”) all undermine the kind of cohesion they talk about building. There is no two-way bandwidth broader than eye contact.

And all the people in your bar are part of your team and need to be treated that way by everyone, starting with (of course) the leader. All your finely trained thoroughbred bartenders will be serving precious few drinks if the guy in the dish pit whose name you never bothered to learn gets fed up and walks out during Saturday night service…. And in this vein, every job in the bar business is mission critical, and cannot be below anyone, starting with (lead by example, remember?) the boss. I have never been in any work environment where anything… anything good ever came from anyone uttering the dreadful words, “that’s not my job.” It was immensely gratifying to hear them both insist that you must ban it utterly from your team.

There is lots more in their talk, from the value of spending “sober time” with your unit away from work, to ethical conflicts, to the simple recognition that requests for help, whether made or received, need to be welcomed as strengthening the team, not viewed as an imposition. “When a team member buckles under the weight of a problem they insist on handling themselves,” or feel obligated to handle on their own, “the whole unit buckles,” said Nectaly.

Finally, will all this effort put into as high-turnover an endeavor as the bar industry be worth it?

Train your staff to surpass you.
Train them to leave you.
Treat them so that they won’t.
— Kate Gerwin


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