Serious Eats: Drinks

From Behind the Bar: Real Estate

About the Author: You may have seen Michael Neff behind the bar at New York's Ward III and The Rum House. He stops by on Wednesdays to share insights on cocktails and the life of a barman.

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[Photo: Nicci Silva]

What I'm Drinking: 50/50 Fernet Branca/Old Bardstown Bourbon (1 cube)

I have written recently about what goes in to the price of a cocktail. In a bar, the main source of revenue is the drinks themselves, so it's not revolutionary to state that every aspect of the business must be paid for in the cost of cocktails, beer, wine, and whatever food may be on offer. While this may be true on a literal basis, there is another revenue center that every bar must take in to account: real estate.

Bars exist in the real world, and thus have a limited amount of space in which we can offer our services. I currently work at a bar that has fifteen bar stools, which are valuable assets on most nights. I recently had an interaction that highlights the value of real estate, and how it is often not factored in to the equation of what people think they are paying for in a bar. It was early on a Friday. Three people sat down at the bar who were clearly coming straight from work. One ordered a Manhattan, another a red wine, the third, a glass of water.

Water-drinkers are a fact of life in this business. Out of any group of people, there is bound to be at least one who has no interest in participating in what we actually sell. In this case, there weren't many people around, so I was happy to accommodate the water-drinker's request. As hours passed, the situation changed.

More people arrived, most of whom wanted to drink cocktails. Our original group was involved in conversation, and oblivious to the fact that the bar was filling up around them. I offered them another round. The Manhattan drinker ordered another Manhattan. The wine drinker ordered another glass of wine. The water-drinker, predictably, looked at me and said, "I'm fine. Just another glass of water."

If there is no one in the bar and you want to take a bar stool while drinking water, it's fine. But I have a responsibility to the business, and cannot sacrifice the experience of people who want to actually buy things so that you and your friends can finish your conversation. In as polite a way as I could manage, I was forced to tell the water-drinker that, while he was welcome to stay, Friday nights are very busy, and bar stools must be reserved for people who want to drink at the bar, not just sit at it.

The man looked at me as if I had just asked him for his first-born child. "We've been sitting here for two hours," he said. Exactly my point. Two hours, two drinks, and three bar stools does not a business make. When it's early, or a quiet night, there is plenty of space, and we have room to accommodate a person who does not want to drink in a bar. They're welcome to sit and chat for free. But like it or not, those of us who work in bars must commodify the limited resources at our disposal. The primary resource we have is space. Just because we allow you to take that space when the bar is empty does not mean that we have that luxury when the place is packed.

In this case, the man left angry, which I never enjoy. I have written fairly exhaustively about service, and I try to meet my own standard with every customer who walks in the door. That said, the man in this situation was not a customer. He had no interest in drinking or eating, and didn't care that other people wanted to do so. He only wanted to take up space. As time passed, he felt entitled to real estate that he did not pay for, and I was compelled to tell him that others wanted to use that space for what it was intended: drinking cocktails. Just because he didn't like it does not make it less true.

So when you're out in a bar thinking about what goes in to the price of your cocktail, consider this. Part of what you are paying for is being in the bar itself. If it's a good joint, with quality music, good service, great cocktails, and an amazing vibe, the space you occupy is worth something. If you only want a glass of water, do so while standing. Most likely, there is someone right behind you who wants to participate in what that bar has to offer, and is willing to pay for the privilege of doing so.

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