Recently, I entered into a Friday night shift knowing that we were down a server due to the new guy not finding our place a fit and no-showing and as a result, the other bartender would be working the private event in the other room. Tack on that it was the first warm day that our patio was fully set up and there were plenty of people milling around the neighborhood. So not only was the bar half-staffed, but the restaurant itself was understaffed for the evening.
I played in my head the advice that blogger/bartender Erik Ellestad was given by his boss one night when the other person that was supposed to be behind the stick could not make it in. The boss sagely guided Erik with the mindset of, “You’ll probably go down in flames, but the most important thing is to go down in flames gracefully.” This was relayed in Erik’s discussion of William Boothby’s Ten Commandments for Bartenders in the third commandment of “Always appear pleasant and obliging under all circumstances.”
It was not the first time that I have worked that bar half-staffed including super busy nights such as when Valentine’s Day fell on a Saturday this past February, and I have gotten through with the vast majority of guests being understanding of the situation. The events set up in the first paragraph were not one of them.
The following day, my boss came up to me and told me what a great job I have been doing at the bar lately. I replied, “Save for my two star Yelp review from yesterday.” I explained that I never consider myself weeded if I am busy or in fact too busy. That is part of the job and eventually the drinks will be made, the shift will end, and things will reset; moreover, one elder server once told me, “If you ain’t sweating Freddy, you ain’t earning.” Physically, I can only produce quality drinks up to a certain rate which is also slowed down by guest interactions; having a stack of drink tickets to make is just part of the job. However, once there is anger from a guest, server, or manager about the time it takes for a ticket to be fulfilled or an order taken, then and only then do I feel weeded. It means that my triage system in trying to make the most of the situation has failed. While sometimes that is from a person who has been unfairly neglected, it is often someone who wants slow night-level service at prime time.
In this case, four ladies sat at my bar, and I got them water and menus immediately and went back to making tickets that were coming in rapidly from both the patio and the 30 person open-bar event in the other room that had only started moments ago. Soon, I took their drink order and made their cocktails, and went back to making drinks and trying to figure out where to transfer checks as the bar was the waypoint for people waiting for patio tables to open up. Normally, both the act of providing water and menus and the act of making the drinks buys you a bit of time, respectively. Here though, while I was taking the drink order of the people a few seats down, they started getting needy about questions about food and placing an order. After the third time explaining to them since they arrived that I would be there in a moment, and not seeing a manager or server who could take their food order that minute, I eventually snapped and scolded them with, “Look, I am really busy and I will be there when I can.” It is not a tone I like to use. It is a tone of defeat for a hospitality worker. The mystique was broken. I was broken. The night felt broken to begin with, but in reality, the rest of the evening went really well (considering). But for those four guests, they left insulted.
While discussing the Yelp review with my boss, he first noted how they mention that they were the only people at the bar and inside the main room of the restaurant and all the action was outside, so they did not understand why the bartender was so flustered. Besides the inside guests, they did not even acknowledge the three guests to their right. My boss did provide me pointers on phrases to use to communicate to guests and keep the mystique. For example, never say "a minute" or any distinct time frame other than "a moment." Perhaps tell them that they are next after these guests or these two parties, but do not make a time frame more specific than that.
Some other advice that has helped me is to ask for assistance. Not in a vague way, but asking someone to take a food order, clear plates, or other task. This sometimes can be more difficult; when everyone else is slammed, there is less of a team environment at the establishment. But your very moment of need might be at a less high-pressured moment for someone else. Also, try to keep management abreast of your needs and report incidents as they happen so complaints in person or online are not so much of a surprise. In my above story, I forewarned them that it was the makings of a bad Yelp review, and I was not wrong.
In the stress of it, make note of what is wasting your time the most, such as the way the well was set-up, or how the host was taking bar guests and sitting them at tables without communicating where the guests went so I could forward the financials. Figure out with the bar staff and the management later how to make these things more streamlined. Also, when things subside for a moment, take a minute to drink water, tie your shoe, and clean up your station – things that will allow you to be in it for the long haul that night.
In terms of mental focus, remember that every shift ends and the workday resets. This was not the case when I worked in business where the stress carried over into the next day. Know the rhythms of your bar and restaurant of when things will be at their peak and how long that peak usually lasts, for it will help set a better idea of when things will lighten up as opposed to just counting the hours to the end of the night. True, every night is a bit different, but over time, it is possible to gain a good understanding of the range of how things generally are.
I wish that I could advise to never be unpleasant, but as I have described already, it is not always possible in every situation. We are human and hospitality is a two-way street, even if it ought to seem like a one-way one. With co-workers, remember to apologize. Feelings get trampled in the heat of the moment, and always take the time to try to mend it later. Experienced restaurant workers know what it is like, and just acknowledging their feelings will generally make them relate, forgive, and forget. Apologizing to the guest is not always possible if they have stormed off, but there are ways of patching it up if they stay past the high volume moments. Some of the best hospitality moments that I have observed or participated in have come in the rescue of what was heading towards a bad dining or drinking experience.
I have heard some advice to take a shot to calm the nerves and keep working. I cannot speak for what works for others, but I feel that I am most on top of my game when the drink in my hand is coffee. However, when it gets really busy, that coffee is room temperature and hours old by the time I take another sip, but it seems like such a treat regardless.
The saying, “Be like a duck. Stay calm on the surface but paddle like hell underneath” is a good slogan to remember. However, bartenders have the problem of always being in front of their guests as well as in front of the servers at the pass looking for their tickets being fulfilled. Eyes are always on us looking for the answers to their needs when things get busy. Adapting a zen-like demeanor and pleasantly working at full capacity is the goal – do your best to go down in flames as gracefully as possible on those nights. Failing to maintain that 100% is just reality. Do not blame the circumstances, but understand them to put things in perspective and learn from them.
Finally, learn to relish the slower shifts even if they are not the ones that pay the rent. The slow times are when you can feel great about yourself as a hospitalitarian and free yourself of guilt for any slights and slips during the busier nights. Indeed, my Sunday night shifts after a busy weekend are some of my favorites in regards to guest treatment and interactions with my co-workers. And yes, on those nights, I can sip my coffee when it is still warm.