We’re thrilled to share this excerpt and illustrations from Meehan’s Bartender Manual, Jim Meehan’s definitive guide to the art of bar building, out October 10 from Ten Speed Press. Check out an exclusive look at the cover above, and make sure to preorder the book today from Penguin Random House or Cocktail Kingdom.
I didn’t grow up with Emily Post or finishing school, but my parents taught me the importance of etiquette, and I’d say its fundamental purpose is, perhaps surprisingly, to make people feel comfortable. I recall sitting down for a formal dinner for the first time and seeing a dozen pieces of (real) silverware at each table setting and not knowing how to use them.
Etiquette dictates that you set (and clear) the table with appropriate silverware for each course from the outside in, which is not only easy to follow, but logical. Asking guests if they’d like their coats checked upon entry, pulling out and pushing in chairs when they sit down or get up, and refolding a napkin when they leave the table isn’t just pageantry; these gestures acknowledge the importance of your guests’ presence and your effort to anticipate their needs.
Seeming formalities such as the presentation of the cork for a bottle of wine were instituted not merely for show but to check for faults and to safeguard against counterfeit wines. Offering to decant a wine that benefits from aeration, serving a highball with the mixer on the side for the guest to add to their taste, or asking whether a guest would like their margarita with or without salt are all examples of anticipating their wants and needs.
Cleanliness is another way in which we make guests feel comfortable, which is why proper service involves gripping plates from the bottom and side (away from the surface food rests on) or glasses by the stem (away from the rim, where guests put their lips). By extension, a spotless uniform, a neat workstation, and even a clean bathroom all relate to the environment the food and beverage should be prepared in, which is why managers monitor these conditions vigilantly during service.
Every bar and restaurant has a different style of service, but whether you’re serving cold bottles of Bud at a dive bar or salt-crusted sole in a fine dining restaurant, there’s a cycle of service to be followed. You can codify these gestures without service feeling scripted, so please note: I’m not trying to discourage the spontaneity of organic interactions. As with the placement of many pieces of silverware on a formal dining table, my goal is to uncover the logic behind service. None of these suggestions should come as a surprise, as they’re all derived from years of careful observation of a story line that unfolds every night when a patron walks into a restaurant or bar.
Welcoming Your Guests
The two most important points of contact for a guest are when they enter your business and when they leave. Make sure your storefront and sidewalk are swept and scrubbed, with sparkling windows, dust-free lamps, and a clean awning. A warm welcome at the door, conveyed after eye contact is established, and a gracious goodbye, either before or after asking about their experience, are two of the most effective ways to ensure that your guests feel acknowledged and recognized for their patronage. In restaurants, this is typically communicated by the host, who may have been their first point of contact on the phone. But in bars, this may be the doorman, coat checker, or even a bartender, who must be trained to deliver the message graciously as they attend to their other duties.
The First Impression
“The most important service step is the greeting, first and foremost. People need to be recognized when they walk into a room, whether it’s a maître d’ recognizing them, or the manager working the floor, or a bartender or server working in proximity to them. Even if it’s not their responsibility, the greeting is the magic touch. It sets the tone for everything. I teach that to all my bartenders: no matter what you’re doing—whether you’re in the middle of building a cocktail—stop what you’re doing, say hello to the guest, give them a menu, and give them a glass of water. I’m a huge fan of the glass of water and menu, as it buys you time to go back to what you’re doing, and it makes them feel appreciated and welcomed.” —Brian Bartels, bartender, on the first impression
Mission control for any well-run restaurant is the host stand, where you’ll find the host or manager along with the reservation book, phone, menus, business cards, wedges to prop up wobbly tables, coat-check tickets, and a variety of other tools related to service. Whether noted in writing or using a reservations service such as Open Table, valuable data about guests is collected, recorded, and communicated, including any important notes about the occasion for their visit and meal preferences. The more you know about a guest and the reason for their visit, the more likely you are to meet or exceed their expectations.
Many operators make the mistake of seating the restaurant in its entirety when it opens, which leads to all the orders going in at once, all the food going out at once, all the checks being asked for at the same time, and another tidal wave to follow. The entire service staff should be communicating throughout the night so tables can be turned for another seating or allowed to camp out so the room remains full. Once a dining room empties out, it’s hard to restore the energy a roomful of happy people generates to entice new customers to join.
You need to put careful thought into the seating chart, taking guest table preferences, servers’ abilities, and the look and feel of the business into account. Most businesses seat customers near the front at the beginning of the night to generate buzz and later space them out to evenly distribute the workload among servers. This is where intuition comes into play, as some guests will want an intimate experience, while others may be gathered for a boisterous celebration. Putting too many large parties in one section of the room, seating dates next to singles on the prowl at the bar, or reserving a small table for a large party are three examples of seating issues that must be avoided to help ensure a positive guest experience from the outset.
BRIBES VERSUS COMMISSIONS
In a restaurant or bar, cash accepted before service is rendered is a bribe, whereas afterward it’s a tip: there’s a big difference. While all employees, including the managers and owners, run a restaurant for money, if an employee accepts any payment before any food, beverage, and hospitality are rendered, it sends a message to the person making the gesture that the employee can be manipulated with more money to alter the business’s protocols, which should be based in democratic capitalism. Anyone who accepts a bribe in a bar or restaurant—especially at the door, before the guest enters—undermines the integrity of the rest of the staff and the ethos of the business itself, which can have grave repercussions for the business’s reputation.
Reprinted with permission from Meehan’s Bartender Manual, copyright 2017 by Jim Meehan. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Photography copyright 2017 by Doron Gild. Illustrations copyright 2017 by Gianmarco Magnani.