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The business of bartending

Published:  11 January, 2023

The evolution of the bartender during Covid and beyond continues to define a role that calls not only for impeccable drinks and cocktail-making skills, but commercial savvy, too. Clinton Cawood reports

The hospitality industry is dynamic and ever changing, but its adaptability has arguably never been tested quite like it has in recent years, under an array of external pressures, with one challenge after the next. The Covid pandemic has had its effect, not only through lockdowns, but enduring changes to consumer habits, too. Brexit has impacted recruitment and economic pressures are significant, to say the least, from business rates to the cost-of-living crisis.

It’s no wonder that one of hospitality’s core roles, that of the bartender, has evolved significantly over the past few years, both as a result of these pressures on the industry, and also in response to the way that bars and restaurants were already evolving.

There has always been a business component to the role of the bartender – there’s an element of salesmanship to the job, after all. But pressures on hospitality businesses have led to a broadening of this remit. Not only is it beneficial for operators to have employees that are mindful of the profitability of the business, but at a time when recruitment and staff retention are serious considerations, a bartender’s progression will usually involve greater responsibility when it comes to the business side of things.

“The role has evolved considerably,” says Leni Miras, food and beverage operations manager at The Beaumont Hotel in London, who likens the role to that of a head chef, not only responsible for the flavours and methods for creating a drink or dish, but being responsible for pricing it appropriately. “A bartender should be accountable for the profitability of their bar,” she adds.

“It is very important that the bar team has a full understanding of the business’ needs,” agrees Damian Zalomski, general manager of London pub, The Chelsea Pig, who considers a bartender’s responsibilities to include stock takes, meeting new producers and maintaining efficiencies.

For Danilo Frigulti, senior bartender at NoMad Hotel in London, there are various ways to be involved in the business side of the operation.

“We don’t make decisions when it comes to purchasing, but we can recommend products to be purchased and we’re involved in making sure that the GP of a drink is balanced,” he says.

For those bartenders wanting to gain a better understanding of the business side, the opportunities are there, he adds.

“We don’t get standard training for it, but if we’re interested, the management team is more than happy to involve us in the process. I think this is essential for a better understanding of a bar’s operation and helping you to grow in this industry,” he says.

At Manchester’s Schofield’s Bar and sister venues Atomeca and Sterling, bartenders are included in these practical considerations. “We are quite transparent with our team about the business side of running a bar, as we feel it’s important for them to know,” says owner Daniel Schofield.

“Firstly, they have more of an understanding of how much it costs to keep a bar running, but more importantly it helps set them up for the next stage of their career. I feel there is a real lack when it comes to sharing this side of knowledge in our industry.”

Broader view 

Beyond the business side, Schofield takes a broad view when defining a bartender’s responsibilities in his venues, including them in all aspects.

“We don’t have traditional bartenders who just make drinks. Our bartenders spend time back of house and on the floor serving guests, too.”

The role has evolved in a similar way at The Chelsea Pig. “They’re no longer just behind the bar, but also helping the rest of the team on the floor,” says Zalomski. “This really helps with team building, and also elevates the overall service experience for our customers.”

Bartenders at The Beaumont Hotel, too, are increasingly working the floor. “They can interact so much better with the guest because they know and make the drinks,” says Miras. “A bartender needs to know the history of drinks to make it more interesting for the guest; and as they become more senior, they need to be able to design cohesive drinks menus, too.”

NoMad Hotel senior bartender Davide Leanza has also seen the role broaden. “In recent years, the role of bartender has changed and evolved from just taking care of the guest interaction and the cocktail making, to taking care of the whole guest experience, as well as menu creation, being involved in the choice of products that are going to be used for the menu and the whole back-of-house organisation.”

As the role of the bartender evolves to encompass more aspects of hospitality, well beyond the creation of drinks, there remains the role of mixologist to consider. In bar circles, this is often a controversial term, as many believe it fails to place enough importance on the service aspect of the job.

For Zalomski, the two ideas are intertwined, with one being a component of the other. “Being a mixologist is a craft and passion of all bartenders. Creating new cocktails and experimenting with new ideas is essential, but this must be balanced with maintaining an efficient operation,” he says.

Leanza, meanwhile, believes there isn’t much between the two: “The term came with the evolution of the bar industry, but it doesn’t

differ at all from the term ‘bartender’ nowadays. The tasks required to do both are often exactly the same, and the knowledge that both need to have in order to give a great experience should be the same.”

Schofield acknowledges that the word ‘mixologist’ has done some good, at least in terms of legitimising the industry in the eyes of consumers. Ultimately, however, he prefers the term ‘bartender’.

“It means more than somebody who just makes a drink. They care about every aspect of a venue – from music, to lighting and atmosphere – with the overarching aspect of hospitality more important than the liquid in the glass,” he concludes.