From Behind the Bar

Tales from our resident bartender.

From Behind the Bar: In the Weeds

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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[Photograph: Jessica Leibowitz]

Let's say it's early in the shift and your fellow bartender won't be in for another hour. You've got a few people at the bar, and suddenly ten people come in and they all want cocktails, and then the waitress puts in a few tickets. People who have been sitting at the bar already are waiting for another round. You start one order, talk to new customers, pour a couple of beers, and suddenly you realize that everyone is staring at you because they all want something and there's no way you'll be able to get to them until you get caught up. There's a phrase that we use to describe this kind of scenario: being in the weeds. And being in the weeds is never pretty.

When you're in the weeds, you're on the other side of busy. Busy means merely that you're working at capacity. When you're weeded, you've got more to do than one person can possibly handle. It's a fine point, but one that anyone who has ever worked in a bar can tell you is vitally important.

The best thing you can do when you're in this horrible place is to set your priorities, tackle everything as efficiently and quickly as possible, and keep your wits about you. Making mistakes will kill you when you're in the weeds, because you have to take precious time handling complaints, cleaning up a mess, or re-making an order that you would have gotten right if you were thinking straight.

I was working the bar a few weeks ago on a Friday, and we were beyond busy. I had twenty different orders in my head, people were waiting for drinks, for tabs, for tables, and my co-workers and I were shaking cocktails like madmen.

The long, amorphous line that forms around a bar is difficult to manage, and some people just don't understand that there are other customers in the bar who want drinks as badly as they do. On busy nights, someone will invariably push their way through the crowd and start screaming out drink orders to me, oblivious to the fact that there are hordes of people who have been waiting patiently for a lot more time than they have.

When this happens, I say as politely as I can manage, "I'll be with you as soon as I can." You can see the consternation on their faces; I'm standing right there, after all. What's so hard about making drinks for someone who is right in front of you? It is a characteristic of impatient people to assume that I have nothing else to do at any moment but cater exclusively to their needs, which is an unreasonable expectation at any bar, let alone one with a lot of people waiting at it.

The problem is that I might have literally thirty drinks in my head already. I know that one guy wants five beers, the group in the corner is waiting for a round, someone just shouted out six cocktails, and I've got a list from a few one-offs who are scattered throughout the bar. Yes, it's easy for me to make one drink, but I can only keep so many drinks in my head before some of them start to slip out.

The best thing to do when you are waiting at a busy bar is know exactly what you want, and have your money ready. If you notice that the bar is packed and the bartender's in the weeds, consider that it might take awhile for him to get to your Ramos Gin Fizz. If your heart is set on that drink and you're willing to wait, sit back and enjoy the show. If you're thirsty, though, a nice, cold beer might serve just as well in the meantime.

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