Words by Simon Difford (sponsored by Be At One)
Training is key to the success of the Be At One chain of cocktail bars but its course is not for the faint-hearted. “Over the nine week training period we invest over £5,000 in every trainee, but you need to be quite fanatical to survive our training course” says Steve Locke, one of the founding partners, adding that they are only interested in employing people with the right character and attitude who want to become full-time career bartenders.
Realising the importance of training to its success, in 2006 Be At One introduced a standardised nine week training program which is split into three separate parts:
1. The first three weeks are spent at Be At One's training academy, run during the daytime when its Soho site is closed to the public. This allows the bartenders to learn and practice their skills in a class room environment with no guests. Much of this time is spent working on what's termed a 'water bar', pouring from bottles filled with water. It's a safe situation where they can make mistakes.
2. During the second three week stage, trainees are put in a real bar situation, serving customers but under the watchful eye of a trainer.
3. Lastly the trainees go into a bar and work on their own, with their colleagues for support. During this phase they are assessed to see if they have acquired the skills to become a Be At One Bartender.
Few other bar groups offer such extensive training and at Be At One this training period is fully paid. With this in mind they obviously aim to recruit the most talented individuals with clear skillsets for the job, to ensure they have a good chance of making it through the intensive course. The training benefits the company, bartenders and customers alike with guests receiving consistent drinks and service, no matter which of the 32 Be At One outlets across the UK they go into, while trainees learn a life skill that will stay with them forever. After all, if you are a highly skilled bartender, then you are unlikely to ever be out of work.
Particular emphasis is placed on Be At One's service ethic, two-hand bartending, accurate pouring skills and learning the top 50 best-selling cocktails. Interestingly, despite his own flair bartending background, Steve Locke says Be At One is "keen to encourage a certain showmanship with stylised pours but flair bartending slows speed of service and is considered out-dated so is not encouraged and does not form part of their training."
As part of Be At One's extensive training and to continue to attract new bartenders, annual competitions are highlights on the Be At One calendar. Aiming to test bartenders' product knowledge, service and bartending skills the annual Bartender's Challenge allows top talent to shine and the Havana Club Championship which launched this year in conjunction with Pernod Ricard UK has created a prestige around expertise in the rum category.
The annual Bartenders Challenge is a company-wide competition that celebrates the talent and hard work of Be At One bartenders, focusing on their skills and interaction with guests. Competitors are tested on their knowledge and practical skills, with the competition including an against the clock speed round and pour test. The final is the biggest event on Be At One's social calendar with live streaming of the event on YouTube giving viewers the chance to see the competing bartenders' pour, flair and most importantly interaction with a live audience. The categories include: Best Newcomer; Fastest Bartender and Best Bar as well as the overall champion who will receive a £1,500 prize fund as well as a trip for the wining team. The 2016 competition will feature two new categories: Best Pour Test and Best Original Cocktail. This year's final will take place on Tuesday 5th October from 2pm until 6pm at Be At One in Greek Street. Visit the Be At One YouTube page to watch the live action and see the 2016 winner crowned.
Havana Club Championship
Pernod Ricard UK has invested in further in-depth training with the launch of the new Champion role. Starting with Havana Club, Brand Ambassadors Meimi Sanchez and Mike Foster put a call out for bartenders to nominate themselves via a 30 second video submission. Eight were shortlisted and invited to a two-day, intense training event covering in depth rum production, the history of Cuban cocktails including Forgotten Classics and challenging blind and competitor tastings. The attendees were then asked to apply all of that knowledge into a 10 minute presentation of a randomly selected classic cocktail.
Winning bartender Reece Davies, from Be At One, Oxford Street impressed the judges with his presentation of a classic Cuba Libre including brand knowledge and research on Cuban culture. As a result he was crowned the Be At One Havana Club Champion, 2016.
Reece took his place on the winners' trip to Havana, Cuba to gain even more inspiration to share with guests and his colleagues. Pernod Ricard UK and Be At One intend to create more champion roles within other spirits categories including Vodka with Absolut & Tequila with Olmeca in early 2017
Be At One service ethos
The Be At One service ethos revolves around hosting guests in Be At One bars as you'd host someone in your own home. Particular importance is placed on what Be At One calls its Five-Sixty-Thirty rule.
It is considered crucially important to welcome guests and make them feel at home as soon as they walk into a Be At One bar, stipulating that bartenders should make eye contact and speak to a guest within 'Five' seconds of their arrival at the bar counter. 'Sixty' refers to 60 seconds, the maximum time it should take to make a cocktail; it's important to make sure guests don't have to wait for long periods to be served so that they are able to get on with their night. Last, but not least, 'Thirty' is the 30 seconds for guests to receive their change - bartenders should recognise when people are ready to pay, as they often want to do this quickly.
Standardised cocktail recipes
Be At One bartenders are expected to know 186 cocktails with some 130 to 150 cocktails on the menu at any one time.
Realising that learning specs for nearly 200 cocktails is tough, Be At One helps bartenders to achieve the goal by testing each trainee to ascertain their preferred or best method for learning - be that learning visually, by actually following the recipes and making the drinks, or by reading and reciting.
Speedy and accurate pouring
Crucial to being able to make cocktails at the speed required to work at Be At One is the ability to accurately free-pour and to do this with several bottles at a time using both left and right hands.
Pour training starts by learning what Be At One calls the Basic Scale - pouring in multiples of quarter ounce from a ¼oz up to 2oz with both hands. The theory is that a quarter ounce of liquid flows through the pourer every second, meaning a 1oz pour lasts four seconds.
Once they have mastered the normal scale with a bottle and tin, trainees go on to master standard millilitre pours for 25ml and 50ml spirit serves. Unlike most bars, Be At One uses standard bottles with faster pour spouts for juices rather than the more usual store-and-pour plastic bottles. Again pouring juices accurately with these wider pour spouts must be learned with bartenders expected to pour accurately from one to four ounces.
Finally, more difficult pours are introduced such as two bottles in one hand and what Be At One terms the 'English Fizz Pour' where a ¾oz measure is poured with one hand and 1¼ with the other before swapping hands and reversing the pour. Perhaps the most difficult pour to achieve with consistent accuracy is the 'Three Bottle Swap Pour'. This requires pouring 2oz with one hand and ½oz twice from two different bottles with the other hand. The idea is to start pouring two bottles and, while still pouring one, swap bottles in the other hand to end up pouring a total of 3oz from 3 bottles with 2oz from one bottle and ½oz from each of the other two bottles, starting and finishing at the same time.
To complete the training a bartender must prove their ability by completing an hour long test comprising of 112 pours with at least 100 of those pours being accurate to pass.
Managers go through the same eight-week training course as the bartenders with an additional four to six weeks shift management to learn everything from the company's music policy to managing bar teams and dealing with the various situations that can occur in a Be At One on a normal night.
If the candidate is going to be a General Manager then there is a further four weeks training on the business side to include back of house, operational tasks and finance.
Be At One's target is to develop more than 50% of its management from existing Be At One bartenders, and presently some 70% of managers have progressed internally rather than being recruited from outside.
As Steve says, the Be At One training program is tough but it is one that benefits both bartenders and guests alike.
Do you want to work at Be At One?
If you are interested in working for Be At One please contact Charlie Freeth