Boston, MA Restaurant Group ‘Hospitality Admin Fee’ Successfully Narrowing FOH/BOH Wage Gap: 1-Year Update
By: Patrick Maguire
Book Chapter: Human-to-Human Service
As is often the case, they endured vitriolic comments from online trolling dissenters. Similar to the way some Yelpers ‘review’ restaurants without visiting or dining in them, some folks are more interested in denouncing creative solutions than making an honest effort to study and understand them.
When an ownership group of 3 Boston restaurants introduced an innovative idea to combat a very complex problem, they were called greedy, sanctimonious and insincere, and told that “they must have lost their minds. The greed of these guys is pathetically transparent and offensive.” They were accused of “cloaking their business decision in this mantle of righteousness,” promised boycotts, and their innovative Hospitality Administrative Fee (HAF) has been called a “gimmick,” “yuppie tax” and ”socialist bullshit.” Several other thoughtful, engaged commenters applauded their enterprising initiative.
They engaged many of the online commenters in great detail with respect, restraint, facts, and a promise to report their findings.
Co-owner, Keith Harmon responding to Facebook commenters, “I understand the resentment. We tried many, many other approaches. This is an idea that generates a lot of internet hate but in practice people who come into the restaurant are very supportive. It’s the toughest issue facing restaurants today, which is why you see so many places experimenting with solutions. If there is an effective solution that has zero visibility to the guest than we will absolutely change our policy.”
“We’re going to work our tails off to see it successfully implemented, but it’s definitely a big risk and we’re hoping we can get enough support for the new business model to make it effective and sustainable.” -Keith Harmon Eater Boston 12/1/15
Megan Woolhouse in the Boston Globe on 3/5/16 called the Hospitality Administrative Fee, “…a risky strategy in a competitive industry fearful of alienating customers, but it also may be the way of the future.”
Keith Harmon, David Doyle, and Maricely Perez-Alers, co-owners of Tres Gatos, Centre Street Cafe, and Casa Verde restaurants in Jamaica Plain, MA were well aware that changing their business model was a risk when they pioneered the bold, progressive measure of adding a (pre-tax) 3% Hospitality Administrative Fee (HAF) to guest’s checks on 12/1/15 in order to pay their back of house (BOH) kitchen staff higher wages, closer to what their front of house (FOH) servers and bartenders were making.
In a Boston Magazine piece titled, The Great Cooks Shortage, Corby Kummer stated, “If other owners don’t rip off the Band-Aid and eliminate tipping to pay kitchen workers more, or adopt Harmon’s sensible plan, anyone who cares about restaurants and the culture of the city will be forced to say that Boston is in dire straits.”
In their ”Open Letter to the Restaurant Community,” on the websites and on an entire side of the menus at their restaurants, the trio stated, “We acknowledge that this is a risk, one that might not work, and if it doesn’t we’re willing to chart another course.”
I vividly remember the restaurant environment when the HAF was being implemented. It absolutely was a risk, but in retrospect, a very carefully calculated risk. Before implementation, research and considerations included:
- ‘Traditional’ restaurant business models, equations, percentages, and formulas for opening, operating, and sustaining restaurants were not working, and immediate, corrective action was required to survive and sustain. The existing model was breaking under price pressures and the FOH/BOH wage gap.
- Operational costs had steadily increased while profit margins had been allowed to decrease in order to increase BOH compensation.
- The belief that restaurateurs need to adjust expectations and implement new models for current and future independent operators.
- The time, effort, energy, and cost required to implement, explain, and defend a ‘non-traditional’ business model. (Including additional accounting/bookkeeping hours to track and fairly distribute new fees and pay taxes on those fees.)
- Flat pay with profit sharing.
- Creating a culture of mutual respect and trust where employees feel valued, safe, and compensated fairly. Individual and team morale and quality of life are extremely important.
- Inspiration from Zingerman’s inclusive, progressive business model and philosophies.
- Staff retention and recruitment. Minimizing the time, effort, energy, and cost of hiring and training new employees was a very important goal.
- Eradicating ’traditional’ resentment and tension between FOH and BOH over compensation. HAF allows FOH and BOH to rise and ‘fall’ in unison.
- The potential impact of using mega-vendor food suppliers to drive down expenses would compromise quality and was inconsistent with their mission statement of directly supporting small, local, suppliers and agriculture.
- Cutting costs by reducing support to local charities, non-profits, and neighborhood community organizations that are critical to the mission of the restaurants was not an option.
- “Customer accepted” menu price points vs. “non-traditional” approach, requiring explanation and education of diners in the restaurant and prospective guests researching their restaurants online.
- A solution that didn’t include eliminating tipping and alienating/losing quality servers and bartenders. They also didn’t want to take the discretion and control of tipping away from guests and did not believe that guests or the industry were ready to let go of tipping. Tipping was too widely embraced by their servers and guests.
- A “No Tipping” policy is extremely difficult to transition to as an established restaurant. (They respected Juliet and Tasting Counter for implementing a “No Tipping” policy as new restaurants.)
- BOH staff was being paid at competitive, “industry standard” rates or above, but the owners felt that was unacceptable, especially for entry-level cooks. They also wanted to allow for a more sustainable schedule and a reasonable number of total hours worked weekly for BOH staff.
- The desire to create a competitive advantage to address the BOH staffing shortage in Boston area restaurants, and create a model to make small, independent restaurants more sustainable.
- Raising BOH wages without hospitality admin fee. This would reduce mid-single digit profit margins further, putting the viability of the restaurant at risk of surviving, especially a catastrophic event (‘temporary’ closure of business due to weather, equipment failure, an accident, flooding, building damage, etc.) Restaurants are often one significant event away from closing for good, and then everyone loses. Doing nothing was not an option.
- The common perception that restaurants are highly profitable, and ”wealthy owners” should simply reduce their own compensation to pay BOH staff more. (Harmon and Doyle explained to online commenters that this perception was incorrect, and that repaying loans to investors, meeting payroll, and other priorities always take precedence over owner compensation, and have.)
- Pending legislation regarding salary minimums, OT, sick days, benefits, etc. (Minimum wage increases were not a concern unless the tipped minimum wage increased substantially.)
- Forecasts/estimates for inflation, costs of all goods and services, insurance, etc.
- Public perception of change and trying something “unconventional.” Not everyone will take the time to read or try to understand what’s happening and why. Some people just won’t like it, no matter what.
- Legal, accounting, and all local and national Government rules and regulations. (Massachusetts law makes it illegal for BOH staff to be included in restaurant tip pools.)
- The requirement to operate a business they were proud of rather than stagnate.
Keith Harmon-Personal Facebook post 12/2/15: Well, here we go – For most of the past 5 years I have been working on the problem of back of house (read kitchen) vs. front of house (read servers and bartenders) wage gaps. For the past several years, I have had an ongoing dialogue with my business partners as to how we could potentially close the gap and have been developing an approach. With Danny Meyer’s announcement in regards to the same issue in his restaurants, and numerous other factors, we decided early last month to put the finishing touches on our best solution and implement. It’s a big risk, but I’m super excited and motivated to share not only the vision, but the mechanics, the underlying data, and the results hard and soft as they come in. I love the restaurant Industry and am coming up on almost 30 years working in it. Parts of it won’t function properly for much longer, and this is a key piece. The “status quo” is headed “the way of the dodo” in the next 5-10 years, and I am so proud and excited to get started early on behalf of and side by side with our teams. Time to get busy living or get busy dying.
Beginning December 1st, 2015, a flat 3% hospitality administrative fee will appear on your bill. This goes directly to our kitchen crew, in the form of increased wages and more sustainable hours.
Parties of 6 dining adults or more will see a 15% service charge and a 7% hospitality admin fee. All service charges and gratuities will go to your server; all hospitality admin fees go to the kitchen.
Please see the back of this menu or our website for more details. We thank you in advance for your support and look forward to answering any questions you may have as we endeavor to create a more fair and sustainable restaurant.
An Open Letter to the Restaurant Community: Why we are changing our business model, and why you will see an administrative fee on your bill.
We have decided to change the business model of Tres Gatos and Centre Street Cafe in Jamaica Plain in order to be able to pay our back of house (BOH) kitchen staff better in relation to the rest of our team. The disparity between front of house (FOH) and BOH compensation has been growing for many years. What was a gap 25 years ago has become an abyss, and it will only continue to widen. We think that within 5 years the majority of restaurants will have adopted some measure to address this critical issue. We are choosing to do so now for the benefit of our BOH teams, and because we would like to be agents of change and share our results with other restaurants. We are writing this letter for three reasons:
1. To be completely transparent to all of our stakeholders (team, community, guests, vendors, investors/lenders) about what we are doing.
2. To explain why we are doing it and why it is so important to us and our industry. And,
3. To ask for support as we try a new approach.
There are some well-known statistics regarding wage growth among tipped employees vs. non-tipped employees. In our restaurants, tipped/FOH team members make 2.2 to 2.6 times as much as non-tipped/BOH employees. The fundamental issue underlying this widening gap, as we have come to see it, is that tipped employees are tied to top-line revenue, whereas back of house employees are tied to bottom line results.
Every time we increase menu prices to cover inflation somewhere in the expense structure, we cover the expense but we widen the wage gap. While we’ve largely been spared the hiring crisis many restaurants have faced, we feel the wage problem can no longer be ignored. How can we as owners tolerate a scenario whereby half of our team’s compensation is about 60% lower than the other half’s? We’re tired of feeling like our kitchen staff are second class citizens. We’re tired of knowing that they would be financially better off bussing tables or working at a chain restaurant. We need to hitch (at least part of) their star to top line revenue if we want to correct the disparity.
The impasse we’ve reached presents us with a host of difficult choices. Do we live with the status quo and accept stagnant wages in the kitchen? Or, in an effort to pay our kitchen staff more, should we cut total hours and streamline how we operate: stop making our own pasta, bread, and pastry, and buy those things even though we know they’re better if we make them? Should we stop doing our own fish and animal butchery? Should we work with mega-vendors and stop supporting local agriculture? Should we give less to charity and support fewer local events and organizations? Or, finally, should we ask guests to pay more in order to directly benefit the kitchen?
Beginning December 1, 2015 we are making two substantial changes to how we charge at Tres Gatos and Centre Street Cafe: First, all group, prix fixe, and event dining will have a 15% service charge and a 7% hospitality administrative fee added to the bill. Second, all other diners will have a flat 3% hospitality administrative fee added to their bill, and guests may still tip as they see fit.
All of the charged hospitality administrative fees will be used for raises, benefits, and more sustainable work hours for our BOH team. We know many people will ask, “Why don’t you just raise your prices? This is your problem.” Our response is that it is our problem, and that in fact we are raising prices, albeit in a slightly different way that specifically aims to close the quality of life gap between front and back of house.
The FOH/BOH wage gap issue pervades the U.S. restaurant industry. Success and evolution in this industry is our life’s work, and we believe our restaurants – and small, independent restaurants in general – will not be sustainable for much longer without a correction. Quality restaurants cannot function, much less thrive, without quality chefs and cooks. We hope that making this small change will have a sufficiently large effect. Our goal is not only to improve the lives of our BOH employees, but to serve as a test model from which other small restaurants can gain valuable insight. We acknowledge that this is a risk, one that might not work, and if it doesn’t we’re willing to chart another course. But we need to take our best shot at fixing a problem that is growing increasingly difficult and intolerable, and we need your understanding and support.
For small restaurants that don’t want to sacrifice craft or integrity in order to serve the communities they love, we believe this is a fair, effective, and sustainable approach. We will open Casa Verde with this model as well. Our hope is that by making the compensation more equitable at each restaurant, our teams will be able to achieve more, not less, for many years to come. We thank you in advance for your understanding and support as we attempt to correct this core issue.
We Live to Serve,
Successful implementation of the HAF required thoughtful, thorough communication, internal and external. The owners held a staff-wide meeting to explain the plan, solicit input, and to ensure that the entire team understood and supported the plan. Mutual trust and shared vision were crucial to the success of the plan.
As one of the first restaurant groups to implement this business model locally, and the first to communicate in such detail, many people were watching. Restaurateurs locally and nationally reached out, empathizing and offering support. The story was reported locally on WCVB TV, BNN News, Eater Boston, Jamaica Plain News, Boston Globe, Boston Magazine, Universal Hub, Boston.com, The HAF was also a very lively, engaging topic on Reddit and Hungry Onion.
As Keith and David mentioned on BNN News, it was important that they carefully communicated what they were doing and why. They were very proud of what they were doing and did not want to appear that they were hiding it in fine print in a “footnote on the menu.” If it was going to work, they felt they had to broadcast it far and wide.
Execution Details (How does it work?):
Keith Harmon: It’s a revenue sharing pool that is fed by the 3% administrative fees. We pay kitchen staff $1/hr extra in every paycheck, then we distribute any excess collected according to total hours worked at the close of each month. Since the money is distributed evenly by hours worked it’s more effective at the lower end of the payscale, which is part of the design. The HAF does not come from FOH tips, it is added to the pretax total of the bill and guest tips as they see fit on that total. So if you and a friend come in and order $100 in food, we charge a $3 admin fee that goes exclusively to the kitchen. We could have just raised prices, but that is a one-time fix. This is systemic. Now as total sales go up or prices rise in the future due to inflation, the servers and kitchen will each make more in lockstep. Adding the HAF to a guest’s check was the simplest, best solution we could find to a very complicated problem.
#1-Early Returns, one month in:
I am happy to report that the hospitality admin fees for December 2015, when distributed 100% and equally among the kitchen staff (only) according to hours worked, resulted in an average pay bump for kitchen staff of $2.29 per hour at Tres Gatos and Centre Street Cafe. We saw no negative impact on sales, tips for servers were actually slightly higher than usual, and we had about 6500 guests in December across the two restaurants WITHOUT A SINGLE COMPLAINT. The only impact on our bottom line was the resulting payroll FICA taxes we incurred due to the extra wages paid. Long way to go, this is a good start.
#2-One Year in, 11/30/2016:
- Average wage increase for kitchen hourly workers was $2.87 per hour. (Varies by restaurant and by month, but that’s the average.)
- BOH (kitchen) salaried workers are on average making approximately $5,948 more per year than before HAF implementation.
- Hospitality Admin Fees have increased gross kitchen wages by $100,700.
- Despite the initial concern about reducing FOH tips, servers actually saw an increase in their tips by 2.5%.
- There is now a direct correlation between restaurant volume/revenue/success and the compensation of all workers. There is an investment, motivation and incentive to improve every aspect of operations. Team engagement has improved significantly. The program has been good for everyone.
- The 3 restaurants have served approximately 85k guests since 12/1/15, with about 12-15 negative comments, none of which were severe. Since inception, no guests have refused to pay the HAF. (Because it is prominently displayed on the menus and websites, it is legally enforceable.)
- As noted earlier, addition of the HAF actually costs the restaurants money because payroll FICA taxes are required on the additional wages paid. (Ancillary, positive gains offset the cost.)
- Positive HAF impact has led to excellent staff retention and improved recruitment dramatically. There has been slight improvement on more sustainable BOH scheduling, (total, individual hours worked) but not dramatic.
Keith Harmon: This was scary, but it is the best business decision we’ve ever made. The goal was to do our homework and implement the best plan we could. We’re overwhelmed with gratitude to our staff, our guests, community, industry peers, and everyone who has supported us. Ninety percent of our hopes were met. This is only a start. We’re resolute about continuing to improve, paying close attention to the ethics, culture and social justice aspects of our mission, while simultaneously operating a financially viable business.
David Doyle: Despite initial concerns about how FOH staff might be affected by the fee, we quickly discovered that their tips were not adversely affected, and to their credit, they quickly embraced the HAF as a gesture of respect to their BOH co-workers. Overall, the experience of responding to questions from guests about the HAF has resulted in our teams being more aware of how hard our BOH teams work, for relatively modest pay, and I believe this has strengthened our teams.
In terms of our guests, particularly our regulars, we have been warmed and gratified by the level of support they’ve shown us for this modest attempt to narrow the wage gap. JP is in, in general, a neighborhood that prides itself on being progressive, supporting indie businesses, taking care of each other. We felt that if any neighborhood in the city (or the country) would support our effort, JP would. Our faith in the neighborhood has been confirmed.
I asked Keith, whose financial consulting practice focuses exclusively on the hospitality, to comment on the investment of time for implementation, logistics of execution, and bookkeeping and accounting requirements. What can other restaurant operators expect?
Keith: “We worked on the problem for 4 years to arrive at the HAF concept. To implement all aspects, I’d estimate 40 hours initially, with an additional 3-4 hours per month to administer. The architecture was specifically designed to make it easy on myself as bookkeeper and lines up with payroll and restaurant reporting norms.”
Ongoing considerations of tweaking the HAF program include the possibility of adapting performance metrics (rewards, incentives, and penalties.) And future consideration about whether or not to increase the HAF percentages will center around restaurant industry legislative changes and increases in the cost of goods and services to maintain and operate the businesses.
Some of the variables determining whether or not creative, progressive solutions will or won’t work in specific restaurants include :
- Neighborhood, town, city, state, country.
- Size, demographic, culture, environment, and laws of all of the above.
- History and reputation of the operators and the business itself.
- Size, seating, and capacity of the restaurant. (The 3 Boston restaurants featured in this piece have combined seating of 132.)
- Style/type (casual, counter service/formal, full service, etc.).
- Demographic of clientele (tourists, locals, regulars, etc.).
- Menu price points.
- Local, tipped minimum wage.
- FOH (tipped) staff buy-in and support of what’s best for the team, despite potential decrease in tips.
- Revenue, profit margins, budget, cash-flow, and all related finances.
- Ownership/management willingness to investment the time, effort, energy and costs associated with implementation, and the knowledge and desire to execute, maintain, and communicate all HAF-related issues with staff and guests.
Jamaica Plain, MA where the 3 restaurants successfully implemented the HAF is a prime location for success.
David Doyle on BBN News: “We have a long history in the neighborhood, being involved with non-profits, being involved with art organizations, and I think what’s exciting for us, again, going back to wanting to share this message, we’re proud of it. We think it fits in really well with the kind of ethical background of the neighborhood, and we think it represents the best of JP (Jamaica Plain) which is taking care of our residents and trying to approach our business in the most ethical way that we can.”
On a personal note, my first restaurant job was in the dish pit in college where I eventually managed the dining hall at lunch. During senior year of college I worked my first bartending gig at Polly’s restaurant, then a 2nd stint at John B’s Cafe on Ferry Street in Middletown, CT (great dive bar) serving ‘real’ Fireballs, Cinnamon Schnapps and Cherry Brandy. There have been long stretches where my only involvement with the industry was as a customer, but having worked in the industry, I’ve always been intrigued by all of the FOH and BOH dynamics and inner workings of restaurants.
My only ownership experience was building and operating a small seafood shack for one season on Cape Cod in 2011. (I sold my 50% share to my business partner because the business wasn’t profitable enough to sustain.) Jobs from the dish pit (1978), bartending, management, to ownership, and currently restaurant consulting, have run the gamut. It’s an extremely hard, very stressful way to make a living. Regardless of how organized and prepared you are, there are always unpredictable challenges (some devastating) for independent operators to overcome. There is a huge misconception that restaurant ownership automatically equals wealth. I remember the perpetual anxiety, fear, and sleepless nights very well, despite wearing the ‘game face’ every day. Many, very talented people have been forced to close very good restaurants for a wide variety of reasons. I applaud the innovation and creativity being employed by many owner/operators in an attempt to take care of their people and have some semblance of quality of life and peace of mind. ”Living the dream” can be a nightmare…
Please support your local, independent, neighborhood restaurants, and the change agents leading the way to sustain them. And please consider sharing this post and adding your insights in the comments below. Thank you.
Footnote(1): George Couros, The Principal of Change: 5 Characteristics of a Change Agent
By: Patrick Maguire
Book Chapter: Human-to-Human Service
Too damn inspiring and important not to share.
Reprinted from The Washington Post.
By Petula Dvorak Columnist
October 13, 2016
Every night, they had the same routine.
The Georgetown University business student would settle in for his cram session — soda, chips, books lined up. And the janitor would come in to start his night shift — polishing each of the windows in the study room, moving amid all those books and chips and sodas. Invisible.
“There was this space, like ice separating us,” said Oneil Batchelor, an immigrant from Jamaica. The janitor worked around the students — many of them in their 20s like him, many with entrepreneurial ambitions like him — for nearly a decade before one of them finally broke that ice last year.
A nod one night. A hello the next.
Georgetown University business major Febin Bellamy, left, talks with janitor Oneil Batchelor, who wants to open chicken joint. Students raised $2,500 and got him catering gigs. (Andy Hogg/Unsung Heroes)
And within weeks, Batchelor and the student, Febin Bellamy, were having long talks about being immigrants, about wanting to be entrepreneurs, about politics and history and music. Bellamy even went to Batchelor’s church and met his 6-year-old daughter.
After he formed that bond with the once-invisible worker, Bellamy couldn’t stop noticing the others.
“Once you see it, you can’t unsee it,” the 22-year-old said.
The minimum-wage cafeteria workers dishing up food, the locker-room attendant scrubbing the stinkiest places, the maintenance man doing backbreaking work in the garden while students maneuver around him, heads bowed to their phones.
It’s not just affluence, age and pedigree that create this yawning gap at a school where tuition and room and board run more than $65,000 a year.
“Everybody’s in their own world,” Bellamy said. “A lot of students have good hearts and were raised right. It’s just not always easy for them to get to know people around them.”
Georgetown students raised more than $5,000 for Umberto “Suru” Ripai, a cashier at Leo O’Donovan dining hall. He will be able to visit his family in South Sudan for the first time in 45 years. (Andy Hogg/Unsung Heroes)
Each of those workers has a story. Many of them are immigrants, and their collective histories of war and flight and families left behind offer a master class in geopolitics. No tuition needed.
Bellamy understands because these are his people. His family immigrated to the United States from India when he was 5. When they got to New York, his mother worked as a nursing assistant and his father as a customer service rep while they were going to college at night and raising a family in the few hours left over.
Bellamy started at a community college and then transferred to Georgetown as a junior. He knows the scrap and fight the folks fixing pipes and cleaning bathrooms have inside them.
So he had a brainstorm. What if he found a way to introduce the workers to the students? And that idea went from a class project in April to a fundraiser making real change today.
Students learned that the guy who cleans the business school windows, Batchelor, left a place of little opportunity in Jamaica 20 years ago and dreams of opening his own jerk-chicken joint someday.
They learned that one of the cooks at the Leo O’Donovan Dining Hall, José Manzanares, saw family members killed in El Salvador’s civil war and escaped when he was a teenager.
They realized that every time Memuna Tackie, the woman vacuuming the carpet at the stately Riggs Library, asked a question about an English word, they were helping the immigrant from Ghana study for her citizenship test.
The guy who runs the cash register at the dining hall? Umberto “Suru” Ripai hasn’t seen his family in what is now South Sudan for 45 years.
And that crossing guard who smiles at all the students, even when they don’t smile back? Anthony “Tracey” Smith’s dad was killed in a crosswalk. Smith decided he wanted to protect pedestrians, and that’s why he took the job at Georgetown.
The stories got shared. And liked. And loved.
“I walk through campus now, and people are waving at me, saying hi all the time,” Batchelor said.
It gets even better.
The students also learned about some of the hopes percolating, as windows are washed and floors are scrubbed. And they’re helping.
Turns out that Batchelor really is a gifted cook. Students who read about him encouraged him to hold fundraisers serving his now-famous-on-campus chicken. They raised $2,500, got him catering gigs and helped him put up his own web page, Oneil’s Famous Jerk.
“It’s like the door has cracked open in front of me,” he said. “And I can smell the air coming through. The inspiration.”
That cafeteria cashier at Leo’s? The same students who once silently handed their meal cards to Ripai just raised more than $5,500 on a GoFundMe page for him to go to South Sudan to visit. That’s enough money for two round-trip tickets. He’s planning his journey now.
I call it awesome.
Talk about an antidote to the divisiveness and bile of this election season.
Say all you want about tax returns and emails and locker rooms. This is what makes America great, Americans.
By: Patrick Maguire
Book Chapter: Human-to-Human Service
Two previous Server Not Servant blog posts, 64 Suggestions for Restaurant Customers, and 64 Suggestions for Bar Customers, resulted in the some of largest volume of traffic to this site. The posts were in response to Bruce Buschel’s list of 100 Things Restaurant Staffers Should Never Do published in the New York Times, You’re the Boss Blog (The Art of Running a Small Business). Bruce was building his first restaurant, Southfork Kitchen in the Hamptons when he published the posts, before hiring any servers.
These “Suggestions for Bartenders” are intended to add some balance, insight, perspective and fuel to the ongoing conversations between workers and guests.
Inspiration for the following list came from responses to the posts mentioned above, and dining out at bars countless times over 4 decades. Some are obvious, but I omitted often repeated, no-brainers like “Don’t steal or get shitfaced,” and others that have been beaten into submission on every listicle ever created for bartenders.
I realize the job can be extremely hectic, and that “when time permits” could be added before many of the items listed. And yes, I know there are some redundancies. (The magic number is 64…)
Many of the suggestions for bartenders below were gleaned from from my experience behind the bar and other restaurant work, questionnaire responses from 200+ bartenders/servers for Server Not Servant, and countless conversations with customers and restaurant industry professionals. Thank you to everyone who contributed, especially SNS Facebook Group members.
The final, forthcoming lists in this series are, “64 Suggestions for Restaurant Servers,” and “64 Suggestions for Restaurant Owners and Managers.” Please email me your suggestions.
64 Suggestions for Bartenders
- Don’t call yourself a mixologist.
- Greet and welcome every guest in a timely fashion, even if you’re slammed and can’t serve them immediately. “I’ll be right with you,” or at least eye contact and a nod, buys you time with reasonable people, and let’s them know you’re aware and hustling.
- Strike a balance between having fun with your friends/regulars/co-workers and welcoming and tending to first-time guests. No one wants to feel like an outsider in your house. Pay attention to the “odd person out.” Include everyone in the party–they’re all watching, listening, and noticing.
- Use “Welcome” frequently when greeting guests, especially with new people you haven’t seen before. (I included this no-brainer because “No one made us feel welcome” is one of the most frequent complaints from customers.)
- Introduce yourself if it feels right and time allows. Many guests will appreciate being able to refer to you by name instead of, “Excuse me.” (Yes, some will incessantly exploit knowing it.)
- Engage. Convert customers from guests to ambassadors. If you don’t recognize a guest, break the ice w/something in your own style to welcome them. “Welcome, have you been in/joined us before?”, and “How did you hear about us?” work well. I’ll never forget Ted Kilpatrick at No. 9 Park in Boston asking me, “Did you bring inspiration tonight, or would you like to see a cocktail list?” I knew exactly what I wanted, and appreciated cutting to the chase. (Credit: Jeff Toister-”The 5 Question Technique”)
- Offer a taste of a beer, wine, or spirit when someone is unfamiliar with a product, or on the fence about committing.
- Don’t pass the buck, if you make a mistake own up and resolve the situation, don’t blame the chef, barback, owner, food runner, or anyone else. Most customers will understand if you explain what went wrong and how you’re going to make it right. (Credit: Bruce Buschel)
- Use ‘We’ not ‘They’ when discussing policies of your restaurant/bar. Don’t deflect responsibility and throw your team or ownership under the bus, own it. (Credit: Jeff Toister)
- Don’t drag your team down, the job is hard enough without excessive negativity. Leave your drama and baggage at the door. Your co-workers and customers don’t want to hear your whining and negativity.
- Set up personal accounts and follow all social media platforms of your restaurant. Before each shift, review your restaurant’s social media posts since your last shift. There’s no excuse for not being informed about social media posts from your restaurant, professional reviews and news, especially when guests broach the topics.
- Occasionally retweet your restaurant’s tweets, share Facebook posts, and repost or comment on IG posts, and add a personal endorsement inviting friends in when inspired and comfortable doing so. Today’s technology makes building and cultivating a following much easier than it used to be.
- Don’t be an asshole on your personal social media platforms. You could be fired. (Amazing how many people rant about how they hate their job, co-workers, customers, etc. on public platforms.)
- Subscribe to your restaurant’s newsletter.
- “Keep alert, scan your guests, and anticipate their needs. For example, offer or give them things before they ask, whether it be a refill on their low water, or delivering a sharper knife when they are having problems cutting with the regular one. Listen and overhear what they are talking to their dining or drinking companions about to know whether you can be of assistance or suggest something in that realm — people are always surprised when you are picking up on their needs before they directly ask you.” (Credit: Fred Yarm @cocktailvirgin)
- Control what you can control. Be prepared. The job is hard enough dealing with the inevitable shitshow coming your way. Be sure you have back-ups of everything, and if you don’t, know ahead of time so you don’t leave a slammed bar looking for a bottle of wine, booze, beer, or anything you don’t have.
- Checklists for opening and closing are critical. And everyone needs to use them and sign-off on them before and after every shift. “Prior, proper planning prevents…”
- If your guests congratulate you on a positive, professional review or media mention, respond with humility and gratitude. Sincerely acknowledge how fortunate the restaurant is, and share the credit with those who contributed to your success; your team, guests, purveyors, etc.
- Clean the bar with sanitizer mix between guests leaving and new guests arriving. On approach, new guests can see rings on the bar and greasy schmutz from the previous guest that a bartender often can’t see. A quick, dry wipe doesn’t instill any confidence in a new guest that the bar is clean.
- Don’t try to hide issues that could blow up on you. If you serve someone you find out later has been day-drinking for 6 hours, (and hid it well before you served them), communicate with your team so you’re all on the same page about shutting them off, making sure they’re not driving, and that they have an escort and/or a way to get home safely. Too many bartenders have an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality and just want to get “over-served” people out the door. You and the bar/restaurant are liable for their consumption and safety.
- Read amateur reviews of your restaurant/bar even if management doesn’t bring them to your attention. You can always pick up on recurring themes or learn something specific that can be improved upon, especially if the sample size is large enough.
- Understand the significant difference between service and hospitality. Indifferent ‘service’ is one of the most frequent complaints from restaurant/bar customers. Great service is execution. Great hospitality is about meaningful and memorable connections with guests.
- “Don’t be condescending if someone asks for a ‘lower-level’ cocktail or beer. For example, if they ask for a Bud and you don’t have it, don’t give them a smug look and/or ridicule them on social media.” (Credit: Marc Hurwitz, Founder, Boston’s Hidden Restaurants)
- Try like hell not to smoke during your shift, even on your own time if you get a break. No matter how much you wash your hands, gargle, brush, suck on mints, or chew gum, guests can smell the residual effect. Most won’t say anything, but many will notice and hate it.
- Don’t chew gum, unless Nicorette is the only way to keep you from smoking…. (RIP, Maryanne Hooley-Olives Restaurant-Charlestown, MA)
- Show up in advance of your shift. Allow enough time to change, eat, use the facilities, read the employee bulletin board, study new menu and drink specials, and prepare for your shift. When you ask/expect preferential scheduling/treatment you’ll get it because you’ve acknowledged that respect is a 2-way street, and earned.
- Write down the details of lengthy orders with multiple modifications if you’re not entering them into the POS while a guest is ordering. No one wants to be interrupted (especially multiple times) to clarify something you forgot because you didn’t write it down.
- Think like an owner. Be proactive about recommending improvements to your bar manager, GM, or owner. Bitching to your colleagues (about colleagues) not following procedures over shift drinks at 4am is not going to fix the problem. Make specific recommendations about how your team and restaurant can improve, and volunteer to make change happen. If your repeated recommendations to improve the quality of life for you and your co-workers, save money for the company, and/or improve business falls on deaf ears, move on.
- Every shift is similar to the curtain being drawn before a play. You have a choice about how (most of) the performance is going to go. If you’re prepared, positive, friendly, and focused, your co-workers and guests will feed off the energy you put out. “Have fun while you are back there and realize that you are the emcee of a show. You have the power to make people very happy…use it.” (Credit: Roy Binbuffalony-Pearl Street Grill & Brewery-Buffalo, New York)
- Serve red wine by-the-glass at an appropriate temperature. Hot, red wine essentially says, “We’re not trying.” (I realize you might not have enough designated reach-ins for reds, but there’s almost always a creative solution.)
- Don’t appease a small group of pushy, obnoxious people (turning up the TV volume during a sporting event) at the expense of other guests or the mission/culture of your restaurant.
- Be confident and firm with assholes. Don’t let them ruin your night or ruin the experience of your other guests. Address loud, obnoxious people who are ruining the experience of guests around them. Resolve a potential problem before the situation escalates. (This includes oblivious, detestable, loud cellphone humans.) Most offended guests are reluctant to speak up but will fault you and your team for tolerating boorish behavior at their expense.
- Read/sense your guest’s desired level of engagement. Be attentive without being intrusive. If they ask questions about the restaurant, the neighborhood, etc., provide them with an experience that demonstrates that you genuinely care. Recommend other restaurants/bars, and whatever else people are looking for, especially out-of-town guests.
- “Focus on the guests and less on distractions like cell phones, the servers at the pass, the television, etc. This includes drinking on the job. While I am not offended by witnessing a little camaraderie especially later at night, there is no way that a bartender can do as good of a job after a drink or two. Sure, the bartender can probably pour beers just as well, but the awareness of the guests and the financial transactions can drop to the point that serious mistakes are made.” (Credit: Fred Yarm @cocktailvirgin)
- It’s not all about you. There’s a big difference between confidence and arrogance. No one likes a know-it-all. “You don’t know everything. Check your ego at the door.” (Credit: @Lissa3243)
- Stay on top of water refills. (This is one of the things that amateur ‘reviewers’ have been complaining about the most on Yelp and amateur sites for years.) If a guest just finished a road race and is chugging a glass of water every few minutes, leave them a pitcher. It’s more efficient for you, and serves the guest better.
- Maintain a wait list/queue for barstools if possible. Civilized humans appreciate avoiding the scrum when barstools open up.
- “Keep clean and tidy. Everything from the bar space to the bartender’s hygiene matters when it comes to food and drink that will be ingested into the guest’s body. Sticky bar tops, straws and napkins on the mats below the bartender’s feet, and unpolished glassware matter just as much as whether the bartender is touching their face or hair, grabbing glassware by the lip, and not washing their hands. Perception of space and delivery does indeed affect the enjoyment of food and drink.” (Credit: Fred Yarm @cocktailvirgin)
- Use “We” not “They” when dealing with a potential negative with a guest. “We don’t carry ‘The Captain’ (Morgan), but we do have Sailor Jerry, which I like better,” is more effective than, “They don’t have that here.” (Credit: Jeff Toister)
- When a guest asks for extra or a side of something (sauce, guacamole, condiments), let them know if there’s a charge before you bring it. (Especially in a casual, less-expensive restaurant.)
- Know the menu and inform guests about unique characteristics of the food and drink that aren’t described on the menu. Some details are purposefully omitted because there’s not enough room on the menu or to encourage verbal descriptions and engagement. Forgetting to explain the detail (Spice/heat level, temperature, portion size, etc.) can be costly and erode trust with a guest.
- “Never bitch about ‘only making $150 tonight’ within earshot of the kitchen crew.” (Credit: Roy Binbuffalony)
- If your shift ends when you’re in the middle of serving a guest, explain that you’re leaving, and introduce them to your replacement when possible. Leaving without acknowledging the transition is inhospitable.
- Be consistent with hospitality. You never know who is sitting at your bar. Every guest has the potential to be a regular, professional reviewer, or word-of-mouth ambassador. Many life-changing personal and business relationships begin in, or over, a bar.
- Be a great resource for your co-workers. If time allows, offer to speak to your server’s guests if they’re interested in agave and you’re the resident expert. And call on your colleagues for help if they know more about beer than you do. Guests will appreciate the teamwork and depth of knowledge you collectively share.
- Pitch in to help on the floor or wherever needed when it’s slow and you’re caught up, especially when another bartender is on. Deliver drinks that are sitting at the service bar, run bus buckets, replenish service station, etc. (Yes, servers should offer to help you when you’re slammed and they’re slow.)
- Be aware that guests can often hear your conversations with co-workers at the service end of the bar. (The barstool closest to the service station is often a wealth of information.)
- Don’t eat in front of guests.
- Be a connector. Great bartenders are resourceful and introduce guests to each other when appropriate.
- “A great bartender remembers where a guest left off last time they were in. Anything from what drinks they prefer to following up on asking about their travel plans. Showing a guest that despite dealings with hundreds more that they are indeed important and valued. Especially when the last visit was more than a year ago.” (Credit: Fred Yarm @cocktailvirgin)
- “Absolutely,” “My pleasure,” or “You’re welcome” are more effective than,”No problem.” (Credit:Bruce Buschel)
- When you shut someone off and serve them water, serve it to them in a plastic cup, especially if they’re combative. (Hurled plastic hurts less than glass…)
- Be mindful of interrupting conversations. Be patient and use eye contact to get the attention of your guests.
- Get out from behind the bar and circulate when time allows. Check in w/guests at a table who had a drink at the bar before dinner. Check in with your FOH and BOH teams. View the bar and restaurant from a guest’s perspective, and be sure the bar looks good to new guests approaching it.
- When you “check back” with a guest after a few bites or sips, listen carefully to their response after asking how they’re enjoying something. Don’t do a drive-by, nodding in approval while stating, “It’s good right?!?” Let them tell you if it’s good, and if it’s not, make it right.
- If you’re an intense craft cocktail, beer, or wine geek, awesome, but be sure your guests want to hear the sermon before preaching…
- Always be hustling.
- “Leave your bar (after shift) the way you would expect to walk into the next shift.” (Credit: Marvin Cohen-SNS Facebook Group)
- Be thoughtful, polite, respectful, and kind to your “work family.” We often spend more time with, and are closer to, those we work with than our biological families.
- “Be proud of your work. You, as a server, hostess, chef, bartender, busser are an important and integral part of your customers’ life. You can make or break their day with the simplest of gestures. As someone that can easily count how many times she’s cooked in the last 8-12 month, my life literally revolves around this industry and meals and cocktails and the people presenting them to me can brighten up a stressful day. Value yourself for having such an impact.” (Credit: Blogger and pro customer, Markeya Williams)
- Vet the owners, management, and culture of a bar/restaurant before accepting a job. Smart employers do their homework on prospects, so should you. Speak with current and former employees, review the restaurant’s website, the history of all social media platforms, all pro and amateur reviews, and every story/feature on the place.
- Don’t be a job hopper to the newest/hottest restaurant/bar every few months. (The “greener grass” is often the same set of issues with a different cast of characters.) You’ll damage your reputation and make future, prospective employers wary of hiring you.
- Demonstrate genuine gratitude/appreciation (in your own style) before guests leave. And invite them back. “…they will never forget how you made them feel.”
- Take care of yourself. Don’t get caught up in the after-hours vortex too often, it can kill you.
Ok, your turn. Please add your personal ”Do’s” and “Don’ts” for bartenders in the comments. Comments are screened before being approved. Feel free to give a shout-out to some of your favorite bartenders, the watering holes they work at, and what you love about how they operate. And please consider sharing this post. Thank you.
PS- There is a new tab on the right side of this blog under the “Server Snapshots” to support this project and expedite publication of the Server Not Servant book. As always, feel free to reach me privately at Patrick@servernotservant.com. Thank you-Patrick
By: Patrick Maguire
Book Chapter: Introduction
I’ll be publishing a new blog post soon offering Suggestions (“Do’s” and “Don’ts”) for Bartenders. Feel free to email me your suggestions/submissions if you’d like them to be included in the post. In the meantime, today’s post is a timeout from Server Not Servant to promote my restaurant and small biz consulting business.
After hearing from several prospective clients, I’m offering an Annual Subscription Package for new restaurant and small business clients. This year-long social media/marketing partnership, or ‘independent audit’, is a way to ensure that you, your staff, and affiliates are maximizing the potential to market your business. This candid, up-front and ongoing feedback, will ensure that your restaurant/business is at the forefront of social media marketing, you’re “in the game,” and that you remain current with what is happening in our industry, and potentially impacting your business and income.
This offer is not intended to disrupt any successful, existing relationships you have, but to supplement them. However, too many restaurants and small businesses are over-paying for PR and social media consulting firms that are over-promising and under-delivering. For those of you with no outside contracts for PR, marketing, or social media, this affiliation, through coaching and candid feedback, will enhance what you and your team are currently doing on your own.
As this Inc. piece states, “Social media marketing is far more than an online popularity contest, and the better business owners understand that, the better they can use it for their companies.” In 2016, effective, consistent social media campaigns need to be an integral part of your game plan.
Maguire Promotions Annual Subscription: Cost: $600 per year. ($50/month)
•Audit/analysis and evaluation of your most recent 3 months of social media posts/content. This includes every aspect of your company’s online presence. This is the honest feedback you need that your friends and family won’t give you for fear of offending you. The initial evaluation will be performed by me personally (not an intern), and the results will be presented in writing and in-person.
•A copy of the “Maguire Promotions Social Media Strategy Guide” is included with our partnership.
•A copy of my “jm Curley Social Media Strategy” is included with our partnership and will be included in the initial meeting with you and your team. (jm Curley was named one of the “50 Coolest Small Businesses in America” by Business Insider when I was managing the social media and promotions.)
•A copy of my “Instagram Strategy for Restaurants and Small Businesses.”
•A copy of my “Free Content Checklist.” With this, we’ll implement protocol for communicating (Internally and externally) and humbly sharing reviews and all media, blog posts, Zagat mentions, etc. praising your restaurant. Most restaurants have no strategic gameplan for sharing great news.
•A copy of my “Social Media Daily Checklist” for restaurants and small businesses.
[After emailing all of the highlighted items above to your team, I will meet and review specifics with you, your internal social media team, and your designated affiliates (in one meeting). Average initial meeting time is 2 hours.]
•After the initial kickoff meeting, I will perform ongoing audits/analysis of your social media content every 60 days and share the results via email.
•Boost your current social media by leveraging my personal network and voice in the Boston restaurant community. Includes retweeting or “liking” tweets, “liking” Facebook and Instagram statuses I support, and favorably commenting when inspired. (Please note, FTC regulations require that I use #ad or #promo when I promote a client I receive compensation from.)
•Increase your brand awareness by leveraging the Server Not Servant blog and SNS Facebook Group when appropriate. I can defend and promote restaurants in a way that restaurant owners would like to, but can’t. (See ‘Mom and Pop’ blog posts) Some of my blog posts reach several thousand people, including an expansive network of Boston’s blogging, media, and restaurant communities.
•Scouring the internet to defend and promote your brand/business. I will be constantly seeking ways to promote your restaurant and improve your operation. A common complaint I hear from restaurateurs is, “I don’t have time to keep up with all that stuff. It’s overwhelming.” I agree. I read everything I can locally, nationally and internationally about restaurants, and will forward anything that I feel is relevant to your restaurant/business and can help you. I often find great pieces on hospitality, training, motivation, leadership, and other industry-related topics. I will forward select items I come across about your restaurant or about our industry that you may want to forward to your managers or entire staff. Great internal communication builds trust and loyalty.
Next Steps: Getting started on this basic, Annual Subscription Plan requires an up-front payment of $600. Upon receipt of the check, I will email you copies of all of the items referenced above, then schedule time to meet with you and your team. If you are a brand new business, same rates apply. Please feel free to forward this to your restaurant industry friends in Eastern Massachusetts.
Please contact me to clarify anything included in this proposal. Thank you very much for your consideration.
Sincerely, Patrick Email: email@example.com
PS- Please email me for a complete list of all of the restaurant and small business consulting services I provide. Everything is available à la carte and can be tailored to the specific needs of your business. Thank you.
By: Patrick Maguire
Book Chapter: Human-to-Human Service
So many times we walk or drive by. We may empathize and sometimes get involved, but many of us don’t often do enough.
This simple story is too important not to share, and so refreshing in light of all the negativity we’ve been barraged with. The picture and accompanying story were shared on the Massachusetts State Police Facebook Page on 5/17/16.
A Selfless Meal, and Conversation, for Two
We were shown this picture from a third-party who had not taken the photo, nor knew anything about it, other than they thought it was taken in Fall River. After a little digging, we were able to locate the citizen who had taken the photo. The citizen said the well-dressed Trooper in a suit appeared to be having lunch with a panhandler on Davol Street in Fall River. The citizen was struck by what he saw, snapped the photo, and posted it to a Facebook group in Fall River, captioned “And they say chivalry is dead…….Much respect.” We are grateful to that person, who thought to take the photo and share it.
After a little more digging, we found out the trooper is Luke Bonin, who is assigned to the State Police Dartmouth Barracks. After reaching out to Trooper Bonin, he was a bit surprised that someone had taken his photo, stating that he wasn’t seeking or expecting any publicity for it. But we pressed him, and he very reluctantly told us how he ended up sitting on his cruiser’s bumper that day sharing lunch with a stranger.
Trooper Bonin had just left court when he drove by the woman, who appeared down on her luck. She was holding a sign and asking for help from anyone who would pay attention. Trooper Bonin continued to drive on – directly to a local establishment, where he ordered two meals. He returned to the woman, pulled up, and exited his cruiser. Thinking he was there to remove her from the side of the road, she immediately stated to him that she would leave, that she knew she shouldn’t be there with her sign. But Trooper Bonin told her, “I’m not here to kick you out.” He then extended the two meals and told her to pick one.
They then sat, shared a meal, and a conversation.
Yes, Trooper Bonin, we know you do not want or expect publicity. We know you didn’t want to be noticed, but you were, and the job is proud of you. We commend you for your selfless act, and for “doing the right thing” for someone less fortunate than most people.
We have extraordinary troopers on the Massachusetts State Police who conduct themselves honorably, and perform selfless acts, every day. Most times, it goes unnoticed. But not this day.
[All text below picture courtesy of Massachusetts State Police Facebook Page.]