The rush comes in like a tidal surge. It breaks relentlessly against the storm walls of the bar, throwing around orders like sea foam and pieces of kelp. The bartenders make eye contact with every guest they can, adding each new order to the long line of drinks to come. Words fly over the heads of those seated. According to my late-night, amaro-infused calculations, the sheer amount of work performed by a bar crew during a busy shift can rival the energy density of gasoline, or at least it feels that way. And by feels that way, I mean it feels like someone set you on fire with gasoline.
I'm convinced that as soon as you let your guard down, perfect strangers somehow all get together on a street corner near your bar, and after doing a headcount to ensure that at least fifty people are there, they walk directly into the place and all order at the same time. But the whole point is to be busy, right?
A cocktail bar is a particular kind of beast. The goal is to crank out amazing drinks—and fast enough to keep people happy—so that the entire room full of people is joined together in a community of boozy carousing. The crew must manage a crushing influx of business with aplomb and grace (maybe not like a ballerina's grace, but it's grace of sorts.) At a high-volume bar, the drink list needs to balance sound mixological theory and practical considerations. Nobody should have to wait 15 minutes for a drink, simply because the cocktail is complex, and for the record, simpler is usually better.
If you can't make it simple, you have to find another way to make it work.
We once put a drink on a menu that was an eleven step pick-up. We thought we were so smart. Eleven steps, and each drink had to be made in its own shaker. It went like this: Measure and add 1 ½ ounces bacanora, ¾ ounce fresh lime, ½ ounce ancho chile liqueur, ½ ounce pineapple gomme, 1 ounce egg white, and ¼ ounce simple syrup. Dry shake vigorously to froth egg white. Measure and add 1 ounce coconut milk. Wet shake to combine and emulsify. Double strain into a Nick and Nora glass. Garnish with flamed Tiki bitters. It was a delicious cocktail. It perhaps (not perhaps, it totally) was too many steps.
But people loved it, so we developed a system to spread those drinks around to the available bartenders to make it work. As soon as the bartender serving the dining room received orders for more than two of this drink at a time, the third one would go to one of the other bartenders working the bar. If orders kept coming in, we just kept going around the horn. It also had the added benefit of every bartender constantly having to make the most difficult cocktail on the menu, which is good for keeping everyone up to speed. Sharing the workload allowed us to keep the complicated drink on the menu, and everybody behind the bar got their turn setting things on fire with a DIY bitters torch, which is good for morale.
Caveat: do not light your co-workers on fire. As much as you'd like to light a not-so-proverbial fire under their ass, this is not so good for morale. Yes, this has happened.
Efficiency is the key for handling a rush. The following strategies should be considered fundamental to managing peak hour business.
Mise en Place
It all starts here. Not being bogged down by constantly having to stop and find things will keep the drinks going out at a fast pace, and will help service at the bar stay attentive and orderly. All liquid ingredients in the well should be full with backups bottled and ready to go. All liquor should be stocked and accessible. All the tools and garnishes necessary to assemble the menu items should be within arm's reach when standing at your well. The goal is to build a well station that can quickly produce great drinks all night long.
To minimize time to service many bars are batching cocktails, or portions of them. This technique has inspired some debate in the bartending community. Batching a cocktail means combining the appropriate ratios of all spirituous ingredients (and sometimes sugars), making a whole bottle of pre-measured, premixed liquor.
Some people feel that this can take some of the charm away from the process of cocktail assembly. In my experience, the batched bottle is usually only a portion of the full ingredient list for a drink, and the process still requires the visible steps of measuring and pouring fresh ingredients, adding tinctures or bitters, shaking or stirring, and straining. It can take a eight-step drink down to three or four steps, allowing for greater flexibility in cocktail creation, and for more layered flavors without slowing down service. Batching is a compromise between high-volume service and exquisitely crafted cocktail offerings. Some may see it as taking away some of a bartender's essential acts, but in fact, the tactic can allow bartenders more time to interact with guests.
Behind a great bar, everyone should be checking in with their co-workers and helping each other out. If you overhear your fellow bartender take an order for the same drink you're currently building in a shaker, double up on that cocktail and expedite the time to service for that order. It does your partner a solid and allows them to move on to the next order. There's nothing like giving a guest a freshly shaken cocktail just 30 seconds after they order it. That's the kind of service that exceeds expectations and makes guests into regulars. Constant, open communication between team members allows bartenders to respond immediately and seamlessly to guest input. Seamless service looks effortless.
You know what else makes service look effortless? Restraint. When we're talking about efficiency behind our bar, we use the maxim, "Slow is smooth, smooth is fast," meaning that if you take the time to do your job perfectly, you will eventually reach an operating speed at which everything feels under control. It's a matter of training yourself in the habit of being efficient, accurate, and complete. During the rush, you see, you can't rush. A perfect example of this is not checking the POS screen for accuracy before firing a group's meal. Let's say one entrée is accidentally left off the order; the meal can be ruined for everyone, right? Spend fifteen seconds, save fifteen minutes. Paying close attention to detail requires discipline, but it pays huge dividends during a busy service.
You can recognize a good bar by the way they handle a rush. The bartenders' eyes are up, not down. They seek out drink orders instead of reacting when the order comes in. The best bars manage to produce high quality experiences regardless of the pace of business, because they stay ahead of the curve. When the rush happens, they welcome it.
About the Author: Alfie Turnshek has been working in the San Francisco Bay area restaurant industry for almost 20 years. He will pickle anything once, and is currently the bar manager for The New Easy in Oakland.