Underpants Gnomes: The Craft Cocktail Thing vs Production

My daily internet meanderings led me to this today, which got me to thinking some things I’ve thought a long time, being as I am intimately acquainted with the particular tension that can occur between the time it takes to make a craft cocktail and the number of people a room can accommodate (we’ll leave out, for the present, the x-factor of how thirsty those people are).  I was expecting the usual snark at the expense of the stereotypical craft bar hauteur (was in fact amazed at the subtlety involved), until I came across this:

I was at a hot new spot and the artisan cocktail I eventually ordered was worth every penny. Unfortunately, while the drinks lived up to the hype the poor service staff could only do so much. The place was packed, the cocktails on their menu are labor intensive, and it was really hot out so people were sucking them down faster than they could wash a shaker. Had there been a reservation policy in place, the three guys and one girl on bar would have been in a much better position to be accommodating, and creative.

Most people don’t get this.  Many simply don’t care.  They want what they want and they want it in a timely fashion, and if the staff is too overwhelmed to give them the service and attention they’re here for they’ll yelp your ass in a heartbeat.  So it’s nice to see someone recognize our heartbreak as we soldier on in service to their good time.  Much of the time it’s not our fault when we’re overwhelmed.  The people in charge just didn’t think it through.  I’ll give you a couple of examples:

The last place I worked before my present gig was a hot new restaurant, busy enough to be making money its first year, with fifty-odd seats in the dining room and room for another couple-few dozen people between the patios and the bar.  I was the third bartender they’d ever hired, the first two being the craft bartenders they’d hired during initial staffing to open and run the bar (nobody in management or ownership had any idea how it was done, nor, from what I could tell, did they think much about it until it became dysfunctional).  I have a lot of respect for what those guys tried to do.  They were craft bartenders, and they wanted to do proper craft cocktails.  Craft cocktails are really hot right now, so management and ownership thought it was a good idea.  And they did everything proper craft bartenders should do, using jiggers for every ingredient and only making one drink at a time and microstraining each into the glass so no ice fragments or bits of citrus pulp would mar its transparent perfection, garnishing it just so and making sure to wash the shaker and glass in the dishwasher between each use.  Their cocktails were delicious, interesting, and labor-intensive.  Each one was made to order from as close to absolute scratch as possible, using all the hottest ingredients and the coolest, most esoteric amaros and bitters.  It was a heroic undertaking, and utterly doomed to fail.

Laudable though their methods were, a bartender who uses them makes a drink every three to five minutes, after all is said and done.  There are sixty minutes in an hour, which means that bartender — working at top speed and never stopping to pee or take a smoke break or scarf down a couple of bites of the cold dinner he’s got sitting in the staff area — can make a maximum of twenty drinks in an hour.  It’s not hard to see where you’re going to run into problems, if you know how to look, but to most people, even industry people, the physical logistics of bar production are a black box, the middle stage of the Underpants Gnomes‘ business plan.  When I started it was routine for guests not to get their drinks until halfway through their dinner, and though the food was good enough to keep the place packed, many of those people could have left a lot happier.  That’s a failure of the basic undertaking, to my mind, though the money folk who make restaurants and bars possible might disagree.

Now, I was able to come in and make the place work, but I’m something of a special case.  Lots of people make drinks as well as I do, and lots of people can move as fast.  Very few can do both at once the way I can.  I also, thanks to my personal psychological bent and years of experience in the trenches, know how bars work, at the nuts and bolts level of actual physical logistics.  At that place I was able to make some changes to the infrastructure and work-flow that helped speed things up for everybody, and while in the well myself utilized the make-it-happen tool-kit I’ve developed over the years to speed production up to the point where it was supposed to be in the first place (the particulars deserve their own blog post).  We hired on some extra bartenders, simplified the house cocktail list, and we managed to make the bar functional for a while.  We even made ok money (it is a truism of the craft bar game that you don’t make as much money as someone who works in a neighborhood bar or nightclub pouring shots and opening beers; the only rational reason to do it is because you like it or think it’s cool).

So there’s an example of a place that could be saved, so long as they had the right people.  Other places are so monumentally misconcepted that they create a pocket of hell on earth, a wellspring of misery and unmet expectations and unfulfilled promises.  A person with whom I am closely acquainted recently had experience of such a place.

On paper it looked awesome.  A huge rooftop bar at a downtown hotel, recently renovated to the tune of millions of dollars, the kind of thing where the executives of the company that owns the company that owns the company that owns the hotel are going to show up for the grand opening of, where the moneyed professionals from the firms and offices in the surrounding blocks might go to unwind in a venue befitting their status, and where guests of the hotel could drink and dine in style.  The room was huge, the outside enormous, capable between them of accommodating hundreds and hundreds of guests.  For their cocktail program they hired another acquaintance of mine, a craft bartending specialist in every sense of the term, who wrote them a cocktail program that would do the snootiest mixologist proud.  There were egg-whites and multiple house-made bitters and syrups.  Every drop of juice was to be fresh-squeezed the day it was served.  There were ice-balls carved and then wrapped in the zest of an entire orange, watermelon spears to be cut every day.  Happy hour would run all night, and include an egg-white drink and one that involved a labor-intensive house-made syrup and fresh mint.  They had two wells.

It is a tribute to the power of Underpants Gnomes thinking that absolutely no one involved saw the shit-storm that was coming, when the rubber of theory and planning met the unforgiving asphalt of reality.  To quote my acquaintance (who, wisely, is no longer working there): “It was a g-ddamn disaster.”

I’ll spare you the laundry list of particular failures related to that particular place (which were legion and, many of them, unforgivable from people who call themselves professionals).  The important thing here is to understand the failure that doomed the enterprise from the very beginning, the flaw in the concept.

Craft cocktails are great.  People like drinking them and learning about what’s in them and where and how it was made.  I personally enjoy making them, which is a good thing, as I work at a hundred-plus seat restaurant that makes a point of having them (which was also, before I got there, having some tension between wait and bar staff over ticket times).  They don’t have to be stupidly labor-intensive, at least in their actual construction.  But every step along the way takes a certain, measurable amount of time, and the more steps there are, the more time it takes, no matter who you’ve got behind your bar.  You always run into the problem of production, and you need to find ways to solve it other than having the luck or opportunity to hire someone like me, who can churn out legitimate craft-grade cocktails with the speed of a nightclub bartender.  You have to get the right people, and give them the tools they need to succeed.  The former is all luck and connections and the Kevin Baconesque nature of the Industry.  The latter requires a hard look at your infrastructure and a lot of head-scratching and figuring beforehand, and a willingness and ability to identify the points of logistical friction and ameliorate them.

It’s a tricky line to walk, because when you do the craft bar thing you have to have people who can make craft bar cocktails, and you have to figure out how they (and everybody else) can make enough money for them to stay working for you, so you don’t have to find a new person with those capabilities and train them and integrate them with the rest of the staff and hope everybody meshes well enough to make the magic happen for your guests.  You have to shift as much of the work as possible to before-hand, during prep time, so that all ingredients are on-hand and ready to mix.  You have to rationalize the work-flow and provide the necessary support when the bar’s in the weeds.  You have, in other words, to fill in the black box and answer the question mark in the middle of your plan in the most detailed yet flexible way possible.  And if you don’t know how to do that, ask your bartenders what they need, and listen to what they tell you.

Or, as with the letter above, you have to limit the clientele to a manageable number, so that everyone who does get a seat gets the experience you’re there to provide.  After all, you can’t enjoy the cocktail you ordered until it actually shows up.

3 thoughts on “Underpants Gnomes: The Craft Cocktail Thing vs Production

  1. Geez Dallas, just buy one of those pre-made frozen margarita machines and some daiquiri mix already. 😉 I’ll shut the hell up now. I entirely agree. Nothing as brilliant as taking a perfectly functional, profitable bar and having some jackass add a boatload of coffee, frozen, and high labor drinks to the restaurant menu. I’ve never heard anyone talk about how they love going back to a bar because it’s always different. Bars should be iconic, evolve slowly in only small refining ways. Bar patrons are exceedingly good at telling you what they like and don’t. I don’t know why owners and managers feel the need to change things in a restaurant when they’re doing well. You change when things decline.

    I just regret that i’ve been out of the bar biz during this whole craft thing, i had some pretty tits BM’s and sazeracs in Williamsburg a couple of years ago but haven’t had the opportunity to try anything great since. I can always make my own and have access to some many exotic and amazing things here, but somehow things just sometimes seem better when someone else makes them. I’m not for he whole egg drinks thing, but it’s nice to see some of the classics coming back, Negronis, Sidecars, Rye-drinks. This whole micro-whiskey thing is also quite nice.

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