By Khalid Williams
Can you imagine a place that accepts all adults regardless of color, gender or religion, where everyone can create their own destiny and style a personal paradise that exists in harmony? Political affiliations mean nothing. Your income is far from the most important factor and admission is free, though spending a few dollars without being asked is surely appreciated.
The only thing that can get you expelled is being mean to the others that are present. The people in charge say what they mean and mean what they say. Promises made by the leaders are promises kept, and faith in the goodwill of others is at the core. Happiness is the measure of success and smiles are always present. If it existed, would you go? I assert that you already have. Further, if you’re reading this, you’ve probably created this oasis of human connection.
The moment we open our bars for business, we create a space for memories, an outlet for creativity and a melting pot of cultures, customs and expression. Check out those bottles behind you. You can almost write an accurate history of civilization based on alcoholic drink. The beer and mead that can trace its roots back to Egyptian dynasties. The gin that was produced for the British Royal Navy. The India Pale Ale that was created to preserve abstinence on long journeys. The wines that with one whiff can magically transport the drinker directly to the place they were created. The rum brand that once was a product of oppression, now an asset owned by the descendants of slaves.
Each bottle has an origin story that tells of human progress. Each pour sings a freedom song of the artisans that put their soul into fermenting and distilling the elixirs that act like a current for the electricity of human connection.
Think of the last shift you worked. Even if you opened up and ran lunch by your lonesome, the shift was a collaborative effort. While we serve, our guests tend to only think of us, the person right in front of them, but it takes a village to make a cocktail. If the bartender had to do it all, it would be physically impossible to stay focused on our guests. The craftsman that made the glass, the cheerful liquor delivery person who was nice enough to wait for someone to let them into the building to drop off the order, the rookie foodrunner who had to summon up courage to interrupt the chef who’s working in a 110-degree kitchen because they need to know where the balsamic vinegar is located. Without them, we would just be walking back and forth behind a piece of wood, with confused and annoyed patrons saying, “You really could use some help.”
Other’s efforts give us the peace of mind to stay focused on guiding our guests through one of the most important, personal and sensitive experiences: the service of drink and food. It’s all an act of faith, built on trust. To run a bar, at least 10 people have to be trusted to do the right thing while nobody else is watching. This collective conscience is the beating heart of life — inside a bar and in the world at large.
I reckon back to my last shift. The guests at the bar are like a cast of a really good movie. Rarely is the crowd homogeneous. The leaders of a sales team integrate seamlessly with the landscaping crew, who are laughing at a naughty joke told by the group of teachers that are now making big and burly contractors blush. People who would normally not cross paths end up as fast friends, sometimes for life. If the same thing happened outside of the doors of the bar, oh, what a world this would be.
Now, think about the guest that is unhappy. They give full vent to their frustrations about their experience and what do they receive in return? A sincere apology, listening ears and an empathetic spirit. They are transported from feeling unheard to being offered a measurable solution. Whether it’s a new drink, a gift card or just a few minutes of focused listening, a problem is met with demonstrable effort to correct it. Words are brought to action in order to make the guest happy.
How often do we not do what we say we will do out in the world? A heck of a lot more often than a bartender does. What is promised gets delivered. “If I don’t deliver on what I said since there ain’t nowhere for me to escape” is the little quip I usually give to the guest that is exceedingly grateful to simply be heard.
Working behind the bar takes a lot of everything. One must put aside weekends and holidays for the sole purpose of helping others enjoy what we rarely get to experience. The hours are long and the work requires constant training and improvement. For our efforts, we are given the gift of a slice of heaven on earth where expression is embraced, people from all walks of life enjoy the company of others they wouldn’t have otherwise encountered.
Each day presents a new chance to change the experience of other humans for the better and see the fruits of that labor on full display in the currency of contentment on the faces of happy patrons. That, my friends, is the hospitality industry as told from behind the bar. A little slice of heaven, right here on Earth.
Khalid Williams is a bar manager, spirits brand representative and program consultant specializing in marketing, engagement and data. His passion is for exploring the “why” behind consumer decisions. He loves Old-world wine, New-world rum and Connecticut beer. Follow him on Instagram @thebarrelage.