Floor staff: The unsung heroes of the bar
While a lot of attention is paid to classy bartenders and flashy mixologists, where would bars be without the floor staff and servers that make an evening so memorable? Annie Hayes hails the unsung heroes.
*This feature was originally published in the August issue of The Spirits Business
Tending the bar in 2017 comes with its own set of privileges. There is huge scope for upward mobility, whether it be as a bar owner or brand ambassador. Factor in a young, active, socially conscious community, a plethora of available information and support, improving working conditions and the scope to travel the world, and there’s arguably never been a better time to pick up the shaker.
While this might be a rose-tinted view of the profession – there is still work to be done – bartenders have a voice, at least. But the floor team, the thread that seamlessly stitches the bar together, is barely spoken about. Unnoticed and uncelebrated – often disposable – the host and the floor staff tend to be overlooked by both guests and management. This issue was brought to light at this year’s Tales of the Cocktail festival, which took place at the end of last month. Presented by Anna Kah McLoughlin, former maître d’ of New York’s The Dead Rabbit, The Floor Staff: The Unsung Heroes of Hospitality looked beyond the bar to acknowledge the forces of the floor and the part they play in making a good bar great. So, who are these heroes? And how can the on-trade support them?
For Keivan Nemati, bar manager of The Zetter Townhouse in London’s Clerkenwell, the host and the floor team are “the heart and soul” of a venue. “The host, in a way, is the face of the bar,” he says. “They are the voice over the phone when guests make reservations and the friendly face when they walk through the door. They make the first impression and set the standard for guests’ expectations.”
The floor team, in turn, is in charge of “maintaining and, hopefully, exceeding these expectations,” he explains. Great waiting staff will “remember a guest’s name, their favourite drink and even regular habits. They will speak to a guest formally and politely, but at the same time act like they are old pals”. When it comes to hiring floor staff, personality and work ethic crop up time and time again as the most coveted traits. “Servers need grace, warmth and excitement [to provide] a higher level of hospitality on the floor,” says Sarah Lawson-Stopps, cocktail server at San Francisco bar Wildhawk. Patience, positivity, and the “ability to draw information, interests, and excitement from people” are also key. Yet despite being such an integral part of the customer experience, these team members are often perceived to be less qualified to recommend a drink than their cocktail-shaking counterparts. Why? “Bartending requires knowledge of cocktails and spirits and technical skill, which often come with time and tenure,” Lawson-Stopps continues. “People are often wowed by the showmanship of that skill. It is difficult to overcome the perception that a cocktail server may not know as much about the back bar as the bartender.”
However, in certain bars, cocktail servers “do not have the knowledge of the bar staff”, she says, “so the stigma stands”. Tackling this is not only the responsibility of the venue – it’s incredibly important for the integrity of a bar programme as a whole, says Lawson-Stopps. “The more bar programmes emphasise spirits education for their floor staff, and the more cocktail servers show up and perform their jobs with such knowledge and integrity, the less stigma will exist.”
The team at new Singapore bar Atlas believes the issue is “generational”, and agrees that through education this view will change in time. “There are many guests who see the floor team merely as transportation to receive their drink from the bar,” says general manager Nadine Hosford. “The word ‘server’ also implies the wrong sentiment – each team member on the floor is in their own way hosting the guests as if they were guests in their own house. When you look at it from that point of view, it’s clear there is more to it than just bringing a drink to a table, it’s about creating the entire experience from AZ.”
Improvements in training clearly hold the key to altering existing – and dated – perspectives. At Melbourne bar Black Pearl, all staff join the ranks as a bar back, regardless of prior experience. “We’re blessed to have a very intimate venue, so we want to ensure customer contact with staff is always the best it can be,” says general manager Chris Hysted-Adams. “By having bartenders on the floor and behind the bar, we are always equipped for any conversations about drinks that may arise.”
Training new employees in this way serves a duel purpose of having staff equipped and ready to take on any job necessary during an evening – from juicing and preparing ingredients right through to crafting “the nerdiest classics” behind the bar.
Laura Torres, general manager of BlackTail in New York, who was a panelist at the Tales of the Cocktail seminar, aligns herself with this approach. “There should be no difference in training from bartender to bar back to server,” she says. “All positions should be trained fully in the steps of service and point of sales. Although the servers may not know the exact specs for all cocktails, they know all ingredients and what each ingredient is. Similarly, all bartenders and bar backs should understand the specific steps of service that are required from each floor-team member.”
At Atlas, meanwhile, every employee undertakes three-pronged basic training centred on ‘teamwork, value and professionalism’, before progressing to specialised segments. “When the basics are settled… the focus becomes slightly more role-specific,” says Hosford. “The floor team has a higher focus on guest service and the bar back training goes often more into the technical side of bartending.” That said, the bar is committed to ensuring employees experience each other’s roles. “It’s good to stand in their shoes and learn to respect their job,” she adds.
Wildhawk’s Lawson-Stopps echoes the importance of a skills-specific approach. “Servers need a bit more training in being hospitable,” she says. “A guest on the floor finds it proper to sit and wait quietly for you to come to them and offer them another drink, while a guest at the bar is happy to make eye contact and then call you over for another round.” As such, “it’s a very different approach to service”.
Education aside, how can the sector ensure that the best of the best stays in the industry for longer? By empowering your team, says Torres. She references her own career path as “a perfect example of upward mobility” – opening The Dead Rabbit as a server, progressing to head server, then opening BlackTail as floor manager, before receiving a promotion to general manager. “I always felt that I was given the tools to succeed by [Dead Rabbit owners] Jack and Sean,” she explains. “I was patient, and trusted that my hard work and dedication would create opportunities for me. However, without the support and encouragement behind me, I may not have pushed myself as hard as I did.”
In recent years there has been an increasing focus placed on celebrating and supporting our industry peers – something the bar industry prides itself on – and as such it’s important to make sure that everyone has their place. “We have the amazing opportunity, as an industry, to take care of one another,” says Torres. “We need to be our own biggest champions, and look to each other for support. We’re better as a unit than as individuals.”