My favorite bartender of all time is this scruffy, loud mouthed, cigarette smoking, older man with a beard and beer belly named Brad. He worked the 6am shift in a dive bar of Old Town Orange, California. If you’re wondering who goes to a bar at 6am, well lots of people do when you have a consistent and charismatic personality behind the bar. His bar was filled with graveyard shift nurses, hardcore alcoholics, policeman coming off the beat, people with hangovers and then bartenders like myself who wanted a little beer buzz at 9am before opening up shop down the street. If bartending was art, Brad was my Starry Night. His presence stayed with me long after the encounter, leaving me with feel good vibes to carry with me all day (even if I left sober). He always had a story to tell or something funny and witty to say. A great bartender can keep the conversation going even if you don’t feel like participating. It’s almost like they’re talking to themselves and thinking out loud. Loud enough for everyone to hear and stay engaged, but without the need for patrons to speak up and actually engage unless they wanted to.
Part of the fun with Brad is he would drink shot for shot with you at all hours of the day. I’m sure it was never anyone’s intention to drink shots before 12pm, but nonetheless, he was good at convincing you to do so. Each conversation or story Brad told would seamlessly flow to the next subject and the next, with plenty of drink sales in between. He had animated jokes, punchlines, quips, good humor, healthy sarcasm and of course, interesting new drink recipes combined with the magical ability to make you feel like an old friend. Brad was so popular that whenever he came to visit me on my shift several blocks away, people would jump up and yell “Brad!”. His fan club was bigger than mine and I am much better looking!
Art can take many forms, how do you express your art of bartending? Do you have a flare? Is it your clothes? Is it your conversation skills? Your ability to multitask? Your drink recipes? Hopefully, all of the above on top of your shiney personality, but here are some of my best tips to up your game as a bartender and keep the conversation flowing at the bar.
1. Always have a story to tell and don’t be afraid to tell it loud enough so others sitting at your bar can eavesdrop.
Stories unite mankind. Don’t be bashful, be real: the embarrassing, the funny, the heartaches, the wild and crazy, the lessons learned. Honestly, storytelling is the most important skill to have as a bartender besides knowing basic drinks. I like to be mostly funny, with a little sadness/frustration at times, maybe some crazy drama once in a while. Keeps them guessing
2. Tell the story backwards. Punchline/ending first.
I like to tell my “crazy” stories backwards to get the listener’s attention; meaning, I tell you the ending first without too much detail. Example, someone says, I went to “_____” last night. I would say “I got kicked out of there once.” Or I would begin a story with “Last night was my top 3 drunkest nights of all time.” (when it was more like top 10). Just grab their attention, then you can start from the beginning. Hint: Make sure it’s actually a good story to tell, yours or someone else's.
3. Always have a great set of favorited photos in your smartphone for show and tell, this really fills up conversation space.
I like to keep neutral, story telling pictures in my phone. Plenty of pet photos, family photos, friends, projects being worked on, nights out and travel pictures. Brad had a polaroid of his giant cat the size of a toilet….random?? Yes! But I’m still thinking about about him and that cat 10 years later. Anyway, have some good content ready. I save the wild party videos for my good regulars. Favorite/star these in a separate folder so you don’t have to go scrolling through an endless gallery of personal/private photos. Show and tell is GREAT for slow hours and slow hours is a great time to really know your customers. Sometimes I ask to look at my customer’s phone. If they have an iphone, there’s an album called PLACES where you can see on a world map where their photos were taken. Good for vacation discussions.
4. Shamelessly find a way to stay in touch with your customers at a civilized and professional distance (I built this feature into Startender App)
Out of sight out of mind. That’s not what you want. Never underestimate the power of the subconscious mind and social media. Your face coming into view of your customer’s feed makes it more likely they will remember to stop in and visit you… maybe even miss you a little (if you’re that good). Plus a friendly reach out and “hello” goes a long way.
5. Have a perma-grin, pace the bar and do side work while you talk out loud (doesn’t matter who you’re talking to).
I’ve trained myself to have an ever slight permanent smile (perma-grin) at all times, even when cleaning. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been complimented on seeming to have a great disposition at all times, just from training my face to look like I am always in pleasant thought. This tip makes any mundane conversation seem friendly! So whenever someone says something relatable to you, that’s your cue to take over and tell a story or add your own experience to the conversation. It doesn’t have to be anything profound, but just enough to make a connection and make yourself relatable. Be sure to STAY OFF the topic of politics by staying neutral along the lines of “I don’t know enough about that to take a stance.”
6. If you didn’t bring your A game to work and you’re not up for conversation, lead your customer to do the talking.
My favorite “you do the talking questions” are: What are you working on, what kind of projects do you have cooking? What are your plans this weekend (or what did you do over the weekend)? Where are you going, with who? So what’s your story, tell me something good that’s going on in your life. What did you think of “____pull something out of the news___”? What are you watching on Netflix these days? Oh yea? What’s that about? Or if they have something interesting on them point it out and say “what’s that?” or “where did you get that?”. While you smile and make eye contact, don’t be afraid of a long awkward silence between conversation, that usually gets them talking even more and adds a nice personable “moment”.
7. If you engage in conversation with you co workers, leave your body language open, don’t make your guests feel like you’re having a closed off private conversation (and if you are, take it somewhere else).
People love to ear hustle. Always assume customers are listening and invite their opinion when appropriate. Scan the bar while you’re chatting to see if you can engage anyone. Engagement and inclusion is key to feeling special. You might even learn something new about your customer, which is key to building your relationships (your tips).
8. Feel like going the extra mile? Write down their birthday
I learned this trick from a co worker of mine and it worked like a charm. She wrote down her regular’s birthdays and whenever that person’s birthday week was approaching, she would say “hey your birthday is coming up!!”. Sometimes she got them a little gift or a card. I have to tell you, it really swooned her customers. I love this birthday idea, because if you’re into horoscopes it opens a whole new topic of conversation around reading each other’s horoscopes at the bar and making jokes about the forecast.
9. Ask the manager or owner for a small comp tab
This is one of the best ways to keep your regulars feeling appreciated and coming back. 3 places I worked for years allowed for a couple drinks or meals a shift to be comped. You can give them to any of your customers and say “hey let me get this one. It’s on me.” It doesn’t matter if they think you paid for it or if they know it’s not really coming out of your pocket, it’s still a drink on the house. Customers appreciate that!
10. Just be like Brad. If you skipped my first paragraph, go back and read about Brad. One of the greatest bartenders Orange County has ever known.
Everyone’s craft is unique to their own personality. Don’t be afraid to showcase your art and for god sake try to remember people’s names. I know we can always remember what they drink and everything that was discussed from months ago, but we can never remember names! And yes! Startender App can manage your customers faces and names for you!
WHAT’S IN YOUR BARTENDER’S PLAYBOOK? Share your experiences and I will feature you! Hey@StartenderApp.com