Duff Said: Training day

21 August, 2018

The fact is, says Phil Duff, there is very little structured tutorage in the bar world. Will anyone pick up the slack?

Isn’t it odd that we have no agreed training for bartenders and bar managers? Almost every country has standardised systems with governmentally-underpinned qualifications for chefs, and university courses to create hotel managers, but very little formal education for bartenders. Odd, when you think that bars are where the profits are made in a hospitality business, and that a great bar will attract people to stay at a hotel. We just sort of expect bartenders to muddle along, and when they get good, we promote them to being bar managers, with even less training but a few extra keys and a lot of extra hours.

Bartenders, good ones anyway, exude confidence and capability. They appear to have strolled, fully-formed and packed with amusing anecdotes and mixological skills, behind the bar one day and picked up a barspoon. The reality is that almost all bartenders start off by pretending they can do the job in order to get the job, and then getting up to speed as fast as they can. We now live in a Golden Age of spirits, cocktails and bartending books. We have more trade shows, conferences and general knees-ups than ever before, all featuring seminar and workshop education on topics ranging from baijiu to career wellness to the much vaunted Japanese style of drink making. You can get up to speed pretty quick, but without a curriculum to follow, there will inevitably be gaps. We have probably all been served by a bartender who can drone on about minute differences in agave distillation but doesn’t know the difference between Ugni Blanc and Trebbiano. A good manager should aim to fill these gaps by teaching the staff something new every day. Training is a philosophy, you see, not an event. The problem is, as lacking as education is for bartenders, there’s even less for managers.

Promoting a bartender to bar manager based solely on their bartending skills is a classic type of error, like promoting the best car salesperson to be the sales manager. In fact, being a bar manager is only a little about bar-specific knowledge and mostly about classic management, if you ask me. Its about keeping on top of operations, marketing and finance, about thinking and planning and – above all – people management. If 90% of management is correcting hiring errors, in hospitality that percentage is probably more like 99%. This is because managers haven’t been trained to manage, so they make the error of giving bartending jobs to people who have no training or experience. This means staff effectively must be trained from scratch and while on the job, which is stressful and difficult for both parties, and leaves the manager less time and opportunity to fulfil any other managerial responsibilities, let alone fill in their own knowledge gaps as a manager. I know several of the World’s 50 Best Bars which have never had a stocktake, for example, because they don’t know how to. Let that sink in for a moment. We live in a world of Khan Academy and Youtube, of one-minute Instagram instructional videos and online degree courses, and countless bar books and cocktail conferences. Who will use all those resources, many of them free, to come up with a curriculum that covers all the bases and allows a student to learn at their own pace, both online and on the job, in bartending and in management?

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