Back when I was in college I worked in a big three-star hotel in Meath as a bartender, and on my first day of orientation the owner told me about the “secret” motto.
“We’re a three-star with five-star service so make sure you always smile,” she said without a smile.
That was the end of the talk about service. I was shown how to pour a pint properly, how to make a drink and how to serve food. That’s all I needed to know for the two years I worked there. That sufficed. Good enough.
The hotel had about six bars – a lounge, a restaurant, a lobby, a function room, a late bar and a nightclub. In one 12-hour shift I could be swept from one to the other, all with different types of customers.
I could go from serving hot ports in the lounge to an elderly lady, with gentle background music playing, to throwing out pints at a roaring wedding in the function room and then on to the drunken vodka-fuelled depravities of a nightclub, all in the same hour, and nothing would change in my demeanour.
I got the same money regardless. Why would I change?
Working in a bar in America shocked me. You have to learn quickly, and you have to adapt. Your demeanour changes with every customer, let alone every bar. You can go from talking sports and cursing with your typical, young American man to watching your language and reminiscing about the good times with your typical, elderly Irish woman.
In Ireland, you’re a faceless machine in a bar. Put in €5 and get your drink.
But in America you’re the face of the bar, the way actors are the face of a new Broadway show. People go to see you. And you can never disappoint them.
One thing that struck me about bars over here is the amount of people who drink on their own. They expect the bartender to be an instant best friend, someone to introduce them to other friends.
“Oh, you’re in advertising? Go talk to Liz over there, she’s also in advertising!,” and just like that a new friendship is made through the medium of you.
In Ireland, people who come into bars on their own are ostracized and marginalized. “What the hell is that weirdo at in here on his own?”
Such overt friendliness does not come naturally to most people. There’s a reason why budding actors and actresses make the best bartenders.
Being behind the bar becomes a stage, a stage they feel natural on. The lights come on, the curtain drops, the smiles go up.
The smiles go up because they have to go up. It all has to look effortless, even to you.
Bartenders over here are a little like hamsters running on a wheel, unaware that it all stops moving when you stop running.
Acting is about manipulating the emotions of the audience. But bartending is more than that.
You take on many personas in the course of a night -- an entertainer, a comedian, a therapist, a matchmaker, an agony aunt, a guidance counselor.
Instead of flowers at the end of the show, the audience throws money. And actors take to it like a duck to water.
The rest of us have to learn though, and we get thrown in at the deep end, to see if we learn enough to swim in the bartending game. You either learn quickly or you sink.
In Ireland, bar owners blame the layout, the decor, the location, the economy, the competition for the downturn of sales.
But in America, bar owners blame the bartender. You exit stage left and one of the many understudies comes in to take over.
So you have to learn to smile and be nice at all times. You have to learn the icebreaker jokes for new customers, for regular ones or customers returning from a notable absence.
“I thought you were in rehab,” is my own personal mantra to returning customers. They always smile, knowing they were missed.
There is only one real thing to learn about bartending in America, and that is to get to know your customers. Easier said than done.
It’s hard to learn the art of people. I was told in my first interview for a bar over here that any monkey can make a drink, but it takes more than a monkey to reel people in and keep them there. I mustn’t have hid my tail well enough because this monkey didn’t get the job.
But the bar owner did teach me a lesson though, and that was to take notes on people. I took that literally.
People in America love hearing their names spoken when they come in, being asked about their jobs or family, their drink ready for them before they even have to ask. It’s a cardinal sin to forget any of these things.
And so I made lists. Lists that looked like this:
Tommy, fat, brown hair, going bald, banker, drinks Coors Light, hates his wife, wife hates him. DON’T MENTION HIS WIFE!
In Ireland, the customer is always right. But in America the customer is downright infallible.
Every joke they tell hilarious. Every insight they give is genius. Their jobs are the best; their jobs are the worst.
You listen, you nod, you laugh, you anticipate, you carefully joke back. An actor must know the audience but a bartender must be in the audience, mixing with the customers, making sure they come back again even though the show remains the same every night.
Because it’s all about that...bums on seats. Getting people in. You have to doctor the script enough so they don’t realize it’s the same as the night before and go elsewhere.
In Irish bars prices are set. Optics makes sure people get the same amount of liquor. Free drinks are rarely given.
Over here, prices are interchangeable. A good customer who stays and drinks a lot will get a nicer bill than someone who didn’t. Bar owners understand this. You have to spend money to make money.
An owner I worked for once saw a pretty girl leave the bar and called me over to make sure I let her have a few free drinks. I assured him I did.
I was lying. All her drinks were free! When she came back a week later, she was with friends. You have to know your audience.
I was once told a story by an Irish bartender over here in his late thirties, or an old veteran as we call them, despite not being old. Anyone in the business more than a few years over here tends to be an expert.
He told me a story about one of the first bars he worked in when he was in his twenties where he was noticed by an older gay gentleman. He talked to the man for a time and was taken aback when he saw the man left behind a $100 tip for two drinks.
The bartender then remembered that he never mentioned a girlfriend, or even liking girls. The customer was hoping this young Irish man played for his team.
So the next time the man came in, the bartender played up to this by being deliberately vague about his sexuality. The gay man tipped accordingly, unaware that the only thing the veteran wanted to take out of his pants was his money.
As a bartender, your best customers and biggest tippers are always other bartenders. And you are their best customers. They visit you, you visit them, the generous money going back and forth, as if we’re playing Frisbee.
I went to a birthday party at a former regular bar last week after a lengthy break. The bartender smiled as I came in. My absence was noted.
“I thought you were in rehab,” she said after giving me a hug. I smiled back, thinking well played.
The hamster keeps running so the wheel keeps moving.
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