How to run the world's best bar
Words by Jane Ryan
The top ten bars in the world all have a few common threads, most importantly the way their guests feel as they leave the venue: as if they've just had one of the best evenings of their life. Jim Meehan, of PDT, Zdenek Kastanek, of 28 Hong Kong Street, and Jacob Briars of Bacardi, joined forces at Tales of the Cocktail to discuss seven habits of the world's best bars.
The current number one bar in the world by most standards, the Artesian, has made the Piña Colada their hallmark. It might not be a drink you associate with the world's best bars, we tend to think of this as a guilty pleasure drink, but they have stepped outside expectations and said 'why can't one of the best bars in the world serve a Piña Colada out of a slushie machine?'
This is just one example of how the world's best bars push the boundaries and constantly reinvent themselves. However, as Jim Meehan is quick to point out "contrary to our world being driven by liquid culture and cocktails, I don't think it's cocktails that make a bar the best bar in the world."
Many bar owners obsess over what drinks they should list, how many premium spirits they should stock or even how their toilets should be designed. "These are all questions which have nothing to do with a great bar. In fact they're not even the reasons we go to bars," said Jacob Briars.
"A great bar for me," said Zdenek Kastanek, "is the ability to host any occasion."
As for Jim Meehan, when asked which is his favourite cocktail or favourite bar his response is careful "my favourite drink is the one in front of me and my favourite bar is one I'm going to later...for those of us who want to have a good time and seek to have a good time wherever we go, the bars like Artesian, where it's a no holds barred competition to have the most fun as soon as you work in the door, I think it's a blast. In a great bar there's no clock, there's no way to see how time is passing. Ultimately for me it's a show. The bar is a stage, the bartenders are the actors. And a great bar makes you forget about everything and escape for a little while."
All three panellists for the seminar noted they receive emails asking why did a bar not make Drinks International's Top 50 or Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards nominations. The following seven habits seek to answer some of these queries. Why is Artesian number one?
Simply put by Jacob, it's because they don't see themselves in the bar industry or cocktail business, the drinks are immaterial. They're superb but that's not what they're selling. What they're selling for £20 is the chance to live like a millionaire.
1. Have a coherent theme
Having a clear idea of why you're in business is a very important element of running a successful bar. And, as all three panellists iterated time and again during the seminar, making money is a by-product of running an excellent bar, it's a follow on effect and shouldn't be the main objective.
Both Jim and Zdenek agreeded a theme can be an important way to get consumers in the door and to understand what to expect.
"Even in the world's top 50 bars, 90% of people coming in are from the general public and they don't always understand what a lot of the cocktails are or what we're doing or how much passion we have for this. So for them to have a theme which they understand, and which is very easily translatable is important," said Zdenek.
Having a fully realised concept, whether it's a tiki bar or a high end luxury hotel or even a speakeasy, if done well, will mean guests come into the bar and never have to ask what the bar is about. If there's a waterfall in the background and tiki paraphernalia littered around then it's obvious.
"I think identity is equal parts what you think of yourself and what others think of you. As your bar evolves from the place you opened, with all your excitement and energy and time you put into the opening concept, your opening staff turns into your second staff and your third staff, hopefully getting better and better. I think if your vision is too static then your team might not be replaced by another team that can take you to the next level. What PDT was when it opened and what PDT is now is two separate things. And it's not because of the direction I'm giving it - it's allowing something to become what it is and then feeding and nurturing it," said Jim.
It was the same for 28 Honk Kong Street, as Michael Gallahan moved to Singapore from San Francisco, not with a vision of creating the city's most innovative bar but simply to open up a fun venue. That evolved into being the one bar where everyone goes in terms of mixology, and young talent from Singapore who want to learn about cocktails ask for work. "So we let it go, but it doesn't mean how 28 is perceived can't change," said Zdenek.
Jacob gave the example of Dead Rabbit, a duo who when they first opened their bar wanted the best mid-19th century saloon the US had ever seen. Accordingly a lot of their drinks were very historical, from the likes Jerry Thomas, but their initial flood of guests and the media were really interested in Irish whiskey. So they've tweaked their offering slightly while still staying true and coherent to what their original vision was.
"The really great bars have a clear idea about what it is they want to do, but they're not afraid to evolve and always checking back to what was the original vision," said Jacob.
"Getting back to the economics of running a world class bar, when you come to PDT, I'll find some way to lose money serving you so ultimately if you want to make money in this business, having something like a phone booth or a camel at your party is something that gets people talking. It's a great way to bring in guests who couldn't care less about you and your staff, they just want to come there so they can tell their friends they drank in that bar," said Jim.
2. Operate with integrity
Integrity in the way which you treat your staff and customers, your suppliers and your community.
Citing as an exmaple Danny Meyer from Gramercy Tavern, Jim explained the philosophy at core of Meyer's business; in order to take care of his staff he needed to take care of his purveyors. Then he had to take care of his community, starting with the building he was in, from little things such as not keeping the neighbours up late at night, paying rent and taking care of the building to engaging in local charity work and taking care of each other.
Hospitality works as a trickledown effect. If a server isn't treating their guests well chances are there's a manager there who isn't treating him or her well. And then there's an owner who doesn't treat that manager well.
"Your ability to take care of your guests has to do with the support staff that you have to take care of you. You hear horror stories of restaurants running huge tabs with their purveyors and going out of business owing hundreds of thousands of dollars. Integrity is something I think we can all take for granted, we know that the operators of these top 50 bars are doing the right thing and they're doing things which are changing their community," said Jim.
"I think this is the big one," said Zdenek, "pay attention to the way you treat others because it comes back to you. If you have a really good relationship with your supplier then the chances are if you have any issues he'll be there on a Saturday. The other point is be nice to each other within the family, within your bar."
3. Point of view
Make choices for your guests so they don't have to. Have an approach that is unique.
"Your guests are coming to see you, not to have every single product on the market or every single available cocktail - they're putting their financial trust in you, tell them what they should be drinking. What whiskey should they choose, what vodka they should drink," said Jacob.
Having a point of view for Jim was about focusing on what his own team could do rather than what the rest of New York City was up to.
"When I opened PDT my view of what we were doing was always filtered through what everyone else was doing, I was always trying to bring in the best characteristics or the things I loved most about those bars. We opened with a friends and family menu and we had it for the first few menus until Conde Nast Traveller wrote that PDT has a great guest bartending menu. At the moment I thought to myself isn't this sad that my bar is known, not for what my bartenders do, but for the drinks from all these other bars. At that point I stopped focusing on what everyone else was doing and started focusing on who I had working with me, what we did well, what our guests loved, and in many ways that set us free. Understanding what we do was huge for us," said Jim.
"It would make it boring if we all tried to recreate every single bar in our town in our own bar, because guests are looking forward to leaving your bar to see other bars which is absolutely fine. Back in London when I was running Quo Vadis, everyone was doing a Martini trolley with an overload of bitters and I had so many bartenders coming into Quo Vadis and saying how many bitters do you have and I want a Martini with these bitters. We said we're not going to do this," said Zdenek.
4. Great staff
This might seem obvious but there are ways to keep good staff and invest in them that only the best bars really achieve.
Zdenek argued that you have to let a bartender do whatever they want, so long as they always come to you first and discuss their new drink on the menu or how they want to run the night. Leaving it up to the staff, said Zdenek, means they'll believe in what the bar is doing because they've put their time into it.
"The hospitality industry isn't the most organised. I've learnt recently that you should have interviews every six months or every year with staff. We don't do this in hospitality but in every other job it's normal. Feedback is important. It's all written down so everyone can look back and see where they are going and it's much more structured for them, they can grasp that if they stay with you they can have room to grow," said Zdenek.
On the other side to this Jim operates on chaos theory where there is no formal six or 12 month review, no patting on the back, as he puts it.
"It's interesting most of us start bartending out of college where we have classes, tests, essays, As or Bs, but I've realised one of the ways I've been able to embrace management is I think of it as one of the most intimate and important relationships you could possibly have with another person.
"You are literally responsible for their growth and providing them with a place to work, a place to eat, a place to entertain their friends and their way of making money. The impact I want to make on my staff's life isn't the most heart-warming or easy thing to convey, but life doesn't come with grades, life doesn't come with reviews, a lot of us just have to choose our direction on our own and there's not always a Spirited Awards every year for us to get beautiful plates and party like we're members of the academy in LA so for me, creating an environment which rewards people for being respectful and doing their jobs with integrity is important," said Jim.
Zdenek and Jim are both passionate about giving their staff problem solving skills as giving people the opportunity to correct their own mistakes, something they both believe is empowering. Jim has some clear ground rules at PDT, which involves asking his staff to be accountable and do their job with integrity. After the investment in training staff he expects them to stay at least one year.
In the end most stay a lot longer. "I don't hire bartenders I bring them up in the ranks, it creates respect for the place, they understand the culture there and every time you hire someone they become part of a tradition, you hire them to not just uphold that tradition but improve it. Mostly importantly you have to let your staff throw a party for your guests every night. The bars where I've been micromanaged is where that party is not fun," he said.
Jacob turned to one of the great restaurant operators, Charlie Trotter from Chicago, as an example of not micromanaging staff. Trotter was famous for having a policy of every single server being empowered to do whatever was needed to put right any problem that was happening, whether that was comping a $400 of wine.
The main point everyone agreed on was getting bartenders out from behind the bar and onto the floor. Junior bartenders and head bartenders alike.
"If you look at the top 50, or the top 10 bars in the world you will see that's what they do. By doing so, they have to know all the offerings not just how old a Negroni is," said Zdenek.
In PDT, if there's an issue with respect to seating or a bartender wanting to get friend in it's the host, who may be the most junior staff member working that shift, who has the final decision. "It's important to create democracy and for everyone to understand the bar is only as strong as its weakest link. If someone is having a bad night then all the staff have to work harder and help them," said Jim.
5. Offer an experience
What is the experience you can give your guest that no one else can?
"What we've seen recently is a trend with vintage spirits and the truth is that they don't actually taste as good as fresh spirits. But what they are is completely unique, they can't be replaced, and you can't drink them anywhere else. Places like ECC or Pouring Ribbons with its collection of Chartreuse," said Jacob.
In Tony Conigliaro's 69 Colebrook Row is a great example of this. His bottle aged Manhattan programme has various expressions of age, the oldest now well over three years old. If anyone wanted to imitate Tony it would take six months just to get to the first expression and it would take you three years to catch up to the longest standing expression. By then Tony would probably own six other bars and there would be another trend. When you create an experience it's hopefully not something everyone down the street can copy.
But being unique doesn't have to be so large scale, said Zdenek, it can be just having the biggest collection of rye whiskey or something other than the actual liquid you serve.
"It's the little touches sometimes," said Jacob. "The Savoy's cherry programme is evidence of this. Both the Beaufort and American Bar were going through so many Aviations and Manhattans yet weren't happy with the quality of their cherries. Nowadays they take all their staff out of the bar at the end of August, with a full run of the hotel kitchens, and they buy as many cherries as possible and each staff member spends two eight hour shifts bottling and preserving cherries so that for the 12 months they can make it through. It becomes a really memorable experience simply for being the best cocktail cherry I've ever had."
6. Spoil the guest
The most important habit of all, according to Jacob.
At 28 Hong Kong Street they take this notion above and beyond.
"If you come to 28 and fall in love with a cocktail, even just one of the classics, we write it down secretly on a little card, and it comes as you pay the bill in a little wax-sealed envelope and you can take it with you, take to another bar or make the drink at home. We also have birthday gift bags in case guests forget and need something for their present," said Zdenek.
At 11 Maddison Park they send you away with a little jar of granola, so that lasting impression is in the morning and the experience of a great meal is extended for 12 hours.
"What guests want is to get a feeling of being behind the scenes, like a backstage pass for your favourite concert. So much is an attempt to exceed your guest's expectations," said Jim.
7. Constant reinvention
"Build creativity into the process of your bar, ask yourself how can I enable my staff to constantly be pushing the boundaries," said Jacob. "Never rest on your laurels, there's a great quote we use often from Steve Jobs 'if you don't cannibalise yourself, somebody else will.' So if you think you've got to a great point now, you're going to rest on our laurels, then other people will find a way to better you. Artesian is a great example now, they've just won the world's best bar and had a menu which they'd won a lot of plaudits for and they ripped up that menu and spent £85,000 developing a new menu. That's an extreme example, but the idea is that you keep pushing the boundaries. Is this the best possible way we can do something?"
"If you look at Attaboy," said Jim, "which is Sam Ross and Mickey McIllroy who were running Milk & Honey, and they could have kept running Milk & Honey, which was the cradle of the American cocktail bar in many ways, but they made some subtle changes and now they run one of the most famous bars of all time a little bit differently."