In my last job, I was spoiled with a considerable comp tab per bartender per shift as well as certain bottles that we were allowed to pour without charge since liquor companies made deals like “buy 10 cases and get 4 for free.” This allowed us to treat regulars, industry folk, and cool guests to gifts that both increased their enjoyment of their visit as well as added to our tip pool. This was not even considered stealing from the house since it was approved by management. In my current position in a small, young restaurant, we are not as free to comp food or drink or give away pours. For solutions to improve my guests’ experiences, I looked around town to observe some tricks of the trade that didn’t cost the house a dime.
One of the consummate barmen in the city used to own his own place downtown before he sold it off to focus on his other restaurant partnerships. Despite not having an amazing spirits selection, complex cocktail lists, or a cutting edge beer program, the place was rather popular, and I frequently was content to drink a few High Lifes and watch the magic. This barman was an expert in remembering people’s names and figuring out what would make them happy. Many of them were his signature stock tricks like when someone got up to go for a smoke, he would fill a shaker tin with ice to chill their bottle of beer as if it were wine service for a nice bottle of white or bubbles. Other times, it was a warm handshake and an inquiry into how one’s job was going; this sincere act was extra meaningful at times when one needed an ear or it felt like everyone else just wanted to talk about themselves. Knowing people’s drink orders and asking if that was what they wanted not only saved time, but it made people feel like true regulars. I think the best moment was when I was walking down the stairs one evening, and this bartender immediately took note, quieted the bar, and announce, “Everyone: Fred Yarm is here.” This declaration was followed by a round of applause from the bar patrons. It was surreal, but this act made me feel that this place was special and a welcoming home. Moreover, even 3 or 4 years later, this moment still makes my list of most memorable bar experiences both here and in my travels.
At a larger establishment across the city, there is a different style of hospitality. There, the food and drink are rather noteworthy, but this was not where they stopped. True, they certainly utilize their ability to comp a round of drinks or send out a complementary appetizer or dessert, but those good deeds are less memorable over time (and sometimes not even noticed unless the bartender pointed that out the removed drink round during the bill presentation). What sets them apart is how the bar team and the restaurant approach hospitality seriously. There is allegedly a database of guest names, photos from social media, their likes, their dietary restrictions, and drink preferences so that they can better cater to their return guests; apparently, they are required to study this data collection so that they can react instantaneously. But to their first timers and even their return guests, they take extra steps to make nights special. One thing they do when guests mention that they will soon be closing out is to ask where they are going next. For the indecisive, they offer recommendations, but for those with plans, they will do every effort to set them up at the next stop. Often, they will call ahead and do their best to reserve seats for them as well as try to connect with the bartender or manager on duty to make sure that these guests get the VIP treatment there.
Other things that I have experienced across town include bartenders taking out special vintage glassware for guests who were really into cocktails as well as increasing their garnish game on off-list requests and bartender’s choice requests. Other times, it was the absurd that stood out. At one bar, we were playing the dice game 1-4-24, and the bartender came by and provided a gamer’s dice box to control the rolls. In addition, to make things more interesting, he offered up a mask from their collection of wares behind the bar such that the loser of each round had to wear this monkey mask for the following game round. At several other establishments, it was being taken on a tour of the downstairs wine and spirits room or of the kitchen in response to our curiosity about the place’s layout or other. At one brewpub, it was the brewer seeking me out and giving me a tour of the brewing facility upon hearing about my enthusiasm about beer.
Even if your establishment allows you to pamper your guests with freebies, consider the many ways that can be conjured up to make a guest’s experience all the more memorable by being their advocate and figuring out what would best suit their needs. Many of these cost the restaurant nothing and stand out in a guest’s mind longer than a free shot of amaro at the end (although those are generally appreciated in my book). Restaurateur Danny Meyer declared, “The most important thing you can do is make the distinction between customer service and guest hospitality. You need both things to thrive, but they are completely different.” Looking out for how to make your guest’s night special is above and beyond just providing them with what they ask for, but by figuring out what they might need or want without them asking for it.