What The Best Bar Managers Look For In New Hires (Beyond the Resume)…

Behind the Bar

Bartender garnishes a drink

There are a lot of qualities beyond basic resume credentials and skillset that hiring managers should be on the lookout for: think things like a natural bent for hospitality and warmth, humility, and different creative backgrounds that lend themselves well to advanced mixology. (Photo: Gruizza via iStock)

While there is no certified formula for staffing a bar, bar managers from across the country share common strategies in their modus operandi. We spoke with Eamon Rockey, GM of Betony in New York, Kellie Thorn, Beverage Director for Hugh Acheson restaurants in Atlanta/Athens, and Sabrina Kershaw, GM of Deep Ellum in Boston, about successful hiring practices for serving up the best bartenders.

Pedigree

Although an applicant well versed in Jerry Thomas’ bartending guide is nifty, experience isn’t always best for staffing a bar. Rockey typically doesn’t hire bartenders at all. “When I do hire bartenders, they go through a rigorous amount of training before they get to the bar because what we are doing at Betony is a bit more complex,” he says. “In the past, very talented bartenders end up struggling. You take a talented, artistic person and drop them into an environment where they are supposed to navigate guests through tasting menus and wine pairings and they end up being miserable.”

Thorn has also had luck with those with little experience. “You have a slate and they can be everything you want them to be for your team.” She said, “Being passionate about bartending and cocktails is great, but someone that is most concerned with elevating the guest’s experience … those are the people who do best. Positive energy even without experience — we are drawn to you.”

Skillset

Just as Tom Cruise learned to toss bottles in the movie “Cocktail,” drink-making can be taught. But not everything can. There are unteachable personality traits to look for in a suitable team member. For Kershaw in Boston, approachability is a huge thing. “Having the ability to hold a conversation without looking down or away is almost always a must. We are in the people business, so you need to be able to interact with ease.”

Thorn tells us, “You can instill in someone hospitality and work ethic, but some have it more than others. This job is to be humble and serve people. You can tell when that is what someone does, when they live and breathe it.”

For Rockey, it’s almost spiritual and boils down to empathy. “I have learned over the years how other people are integral to one’s success. I look first for a desire to work with others that is greater than what each could do independently … those that think less of themselves and more of their colleague.”

Establish a culture

In a nutshell, the success of a bar program is contingent on collaboration. Whether your hire has zero experience or can shake a Ramos gin fizz with one hand and stir a Manhattan in the other, they need to embody the core values of your establishment. Thorn describes creating a family where everyone is on the same page. “Everyone brings a strength. We are all different and we all bring something. Our team is based on mindful service. What matters most is our philosophy of hospitality, being intuitive, being able to read people beyond their drink order and working together in a disciplined way.”

At Betony, Rockey is hell-bent on collaboration. “We don’t necessarily hire people who track for bartender. We hire who would be successful in the entire collaboration. We all do whatever it takes. Sounds somewhat utopian and is not for everybody. You are responsible for doing everything and anything for colleagues. Collaboratively, we take a shared knowledge into something new, fresh, and refined.” A great manager helps the team find its best role.

Beyond the bar

Beyond personality traits and skills are the intangibles each hire brings to their role. The first thing Kershaw notices in a potential new hire is “personality when it comes to guest interaction and interacting with their co-workers. Do you complain about your job, co-workers, guests, etc.? How are you spending your downtime?”

Rockey has a constant desire to hire people with cooking experience. “We are essentially creating a dish in a glass. I look forward to hiring people who have been cooks and are comfortable cooking things then transferring that skillset to the bar. They can play with a different certain toolbox.”

Thorn seeks out hires that have hobbies outside of the bartending world. “That keeps you grounded. Being tethered to something else enriches them. At Empire State South we tend to lean towards nerds, bookish people. There is a running theme of intelligent people working with us.”

Willingness to learn

A core component to value delivery to the guest is a bartender’s willingness to learn. Thorn likens the process to dating. “We chat, gauge levels of terminology, get to know you. It’s like courting each other. We stage you to find the right fit then there is two weeks of intensive training. If you stick, you’re pretty much in. Most of our hires stayed two to four years and many run their own successful bar programs now.”

Kershaw thinks that those who can’t hang weed themselves out pretty quickly. “If you want to work here, and you want to work hard, I want to hire you. Many parts of this business can be taught or will be learned just from being in the thick of service each day.”

Referring to growing bartenders internally, Rockey notes a slight downside in the short term with not being able to rely on a skillset immediately but in the end they will respect the entire package of the company and be a part of the greater good. “It’s much more what they are capable of and where there heart is than anything.”