Now more than ever, the bar industry needs leaders who inspire, motivate and create a strong sense of team culture. Diageo Bar Academy offers immersive training programs for bar professionals across the globe, including a free, on-demand masterclass, on how to lead effectively during this challenging time.
Despite the upheaval and chaos of the pandemic era, one thing hasn’t changed: Bar professionals still want to be successful in their industry. While it’s clear that solid drink-making technique, communication skills, and the willingness to adapt and learn remain constants in any bartender’s repertoire, during the pandemic the toolbox for success has expanded even further. More than ever, bar managers value those willing to flex outside of their job description and support others on the team, while being able to balance safety for staff and guests alongside service. Meanwhile, in the age of social distancing, the core skill of hospitality has become even more essential than before.
Here, three UK-based industry veterans—Madeleine Geach, head of culture at Hawksmoor’s properties across the UK (and a New York City location slated for reopening); JJ Goodman, founder of the London Cocktail Club; and Tristan Stephenson, co-founder of drinks consultancy firm Fluid Movement and host of Diageo Bar Academy’s Bar Chat podcast—share their hard-won expertise on how bar professionals can shine, lead and advance their careers, even in this challenging environment. (Of note: These interviews were conducted as UK bars headed into a November lockdown.)
Commonalities include the ability to adapt, a desire to grow, and accountability for one’s team. Additionally, all three note that, over the trajectory of their own careers, education has been an ongoing process. Goodman, for one, says that he’s learned on the job everything from financial management to marketing to how to fix an ice machine. “I’m still adding to that list,” he says. “You’re constantly learning. That’s the thing.”
How do you define “success” in the industry?
Madeleine Geach, Hawksmoor, London: “Creating a place where people love to drink and work. It’s about your employees as much as your customers.”
Tristan Stephenson, Fluid Movement, Cornwall: “When a team effort produces a great outcome. That could be as simple as a really great shift with very happy guests, or it could be a fantastic review, award or accolade. The greatest sense of achievement is felt when everybody knows that they pulled together to make it happen.”
JJ Goodman, London Cocktail Club, London: “Success involves learning early the skills that can take you in different directions for the long term. I’m keen to see our bartenders become entrepreneurs, open their own businesses, and learn life skills they can transfer to other industries, [such as] cash handling, working on P&Ls, managing and leading small teams. I’m seeing a massive movement toward entrepreneurship, bartenders starting their own spirits brands or launching events companies. There’s more than one definition of success, but the key is staying with it.”
What makes a successful bar leader? How can bars’ leadership teams support bartenders?
Geach: “Someone who can inspire their team through developing them. That, and knowing how to prioritize what’s really important to you and your work.”
Stephenson: “Accountability and extreme ownership of one’s responsibilities. If you’re managing a team, you need to set out clear objectives so they know what is expected and clear timelines for when they are to be achieved. If the team fails … the problem is more often than not with the team manager, rather than the team itself.”
Goodman: “Great bar leaders are incredibly skilled behind the bar and lead by example. When they’re in the room, everyone ups their game. And how teams perform when they’re not in the room—that’s the true testament to your success as a bar leader. A great manager is only as great as his day off.”
What advice would you give to newcomers seeking to become successful bartenders?
Geach: “Be humble, listen lots and surround yourself with people you respect and can learn from.”
Stephenson: “Two slightly contradictory pieces of advice: First … take good opportunities when they come. Don’t dismiss opportunities out of hand because you think you’re not qualified. I learned on the job for pretty much every job I’ve ever had.
Second, don’t leave until the job is done. If a position or place doesn’t live up to your expectations, it’s good to re-calibrate your objectives, go after them, and then you can move on knowing the time was well spent.”
Goodman: “Learn your trade. Technique is what separates great from good cocktails. Of course, go and be creative. But get those locked down.
Also, don’t get caught up in the drink more than the guest … Only 20 percent of a great bar experience comes from the product, the cocktail. The other 80 percent comes from the room. A bartender needs the confidence to believe you have the ability to change the atmosphere in a room—because you do.”
What key skill or technique is most relevant in the bar world?
Geach: “Willingness to learn and grow, for people to stretch themselves and support the people on their teams really well.”
Stephenson: “Curiosity. Without an innate curiosity, I wouldn’t experience the passion to inquire and develop and the sense of achievement of having learned something.”
Goodman: “Communication. It’s the make-or-break of any industry. If you can make someone feel at home instantly, smile or laugh on a bad day—people need that genuine human interaction.”
How has this changed vs. pre-pandemic times?
Geach: “Adaptability and flexibility are really important. They always have been, but with all the change right now, being willing and excited to work outside your normal comfort zone goes a long way.”
Stephenson: “The hospitality side of the profession has had to evolve to deal with social distancing, hygiene and masks. You need to smile twice as hard through a face mask to get the message across that you’re happy that someone has chosen your bar as a place to invest their time.”
Goodman: “Communication has become even more valuable. The bars that survive through these next 12 months, the recovery months—you’re going to need that.”
How has your skill set evolved over the course of your career?
Geach: “I’ve changed careers a few times … but developing people has been the thread that has run through it all.”
Stephenson: “I have jumped around a lot as new aspects of the profession piqued my curiosity. I spent a two-year period focusing on almost nothing but espresso and coffee. I spent another two years investing a lot of time in ‘molecular mixology’ and flavor science. I’ve owned bars, been an ambassador, been a brand owner. I’m the progeny of all these love affairs with the various sections of our industry.”
Goodman: “I got into bartending at a really young age, collecting glasses in a nightclub at the age of 15, and bartending around 18 or 19. I went on to cocktail competitions, got to win some great competitions. At 24, that was my first bar. I hit those milestones one at a time. I learned from the bottom.
Going into management, and then business ownership, has taken more depth of knowledge in finance and marketing. You need to learn how to fix an ice machine, do plumbing, basic electrics. You name it, really.
This year, I’ve been Googling the word ‘furlough’ a lot. Renegotiating landlord positions. Lawsuits that have popped their heads up in the past month or so. It’s been a lot, and I’m still adding to that list. You’re constantly learning. That’s the thing.”
What’s one thing you think bars should be doing to prepare for the year ahead?
Geach: “Scenario planning. Create three plans for the best-, middle- and worst-case scenarios for 2021. You’ll be prepared to face anything that comes your way.”
Stephenson: “Don’t plan for this to be over anytime soon, so continue doing what you can to keep staff and guests safe and balance that with a fun environment with good service and good drinks.”
Goodman: “People are going to be in varying financial difficulty. The only way to get on top is to get great value from experiences. Certainly we won’t be selling $20, $30 Martinis three deep and 10 wide. We have to give guests great service if we want to win them over and keep them in bars.”
What’s one strategy you’ve used to motivate your staff during this time?
Geach: “Not forgetting fun—running competitions and fantasy football leagues, sharing daft jokes, anything and everything to balance out all the important (but a bit draining) COVID-related communication.”
Stephenson: “I’ve relied on the usual words of reassurance: ‘There won’t be a pandemic forever,’ and ‘At least we’re allowed to open!’ … It’s been a tricky time, for both guests and staff. Re-examining that dynamic and re-aligning expectations on both sides has been the most valuable coping strategy.”
Goodman: “The conversation we’ve had is that we decided we wanted to be happy to be back. Every drink counted, every song we wanted to play, every ‘hello’ counted. We just wanted to give people a normal day in their lives. We lost some jobs in the head office, but we saved all the bartender jobs in the company. We just stripped it back and focused on the customer experience. We wanted to work hard for each other.”
How do you see spirits and hospitality education evolving in the future?
Geach: “It needs to address more beyond the ‘right now’ of people’s jobs and focus on building a lifelong career. What are the options? Where can you take it if you want to stay in the industry for decades? What skills will you need to do this?”
Stephenson: “More of this will be shifting online. In the hospitality context, online does have its limitations … but the pandemic and the subsequent ingenuity it has birthed have shown us that a lot can be achieved remotely.
The whole culture of bartending has shifted online as well, and, where once we learned while working alongside colleagues … we now share ideas and values and develop a cultural identity in the digital domain.”
Goodman: “I think we’ve all discovered the power of e-learning. Having speakers dial in globally for seminars, while distributing tasting samples to your door. Think about what a quality training class looks like; [now,] there’s no limitation on how many people can join. That’s beautiful. And it’s not just for the trade. Customized, personalized education for consumers at home—that’s also going to continue to blow up.”
Join JJ Goodman and Madeleine Geach for their free, on-demand digital masterclass, “An Expert Guide to Leading Well”. Watch here.
[Editor’s note: Interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.]