Tending bar is more than making drinks

The business class lounge at SFO wasn’t exactly buzzing with activity. But having flown budget airlines, red eyes and commuter flights my whole life, this was a new experience for me. So, I really didn’t know what to expect.

I had worn slip on shoes as per normal, only to not have to take them off. What a weird dividing line. As if the cost of a ticket, precluded someone’s ultimate actions. It was also a reminder of how 9/11 changed so much, and so little, as my shoes stayed firmly on my feet. Two hours early to the airport is what they recommend, but with premium check in I now had one hour and 40 minutes to waste.

It must have been the shift change, because one minute I was talking to a 24-year-old male bartender with curly brown hair and the next minute I wasn’t.

He hadn’t been unfriendly, but that doesn’t mean he was friendly. Perfunctorily friendly might be the best way to describe it. He had been just friendly enough. And his abrupt departure with no notice or indication was a great example of that.

Not all bars serve the same purpose nor the same people. And it’s the people who you do serve that usually attract your bartenders, or vice versa. But airplane lounges are not seeking to attract people. They are going to get the people that they get, regardless of what they do.

The bartender’s replacement smiled a smile that didn’t really engender warmth as much as it just showed her teeth. Nice teeth to be sure, but nothing more.

“How are you sir? Do you need anything right now?” she said, smiling and moving the metal cocktail shakers the previous bartender had put on the right side of the drain mat to the left side. His spoon and strainer soon followed.

“Where did the other guy go?” I asked.

“He left, sir.”


“Do you need anything right now, sir?”


“Very good sir.”

Another traveler bellied up.

“How are you, sir?” she asked. “Do you need anything right now?”

A bottled beer and he was on his way.

“Do you need anything else, right now sir?” she again asked me.

“No, thank you.”

Regulars are the cornerstone of the bar business. Building them, keeping them and taking care of them. People don’t want to keep going back to places where people don’t remember their names, or places that don’t care to know them in the first place. The “Cheers” TV show theme song doesn’t say “where nobody knows your name” now does it?

I have worked with hundreds of bartenders over the years and the one thing all the good ones had in common was that they genuinely cared about people. At least a little bit. Trust me, it doesn’t matter how much those slick foodie magazines want you to believe it’s all about the mixology, it ain’t. It’s called “tending bar” for a reason. Tending implies caring You tend sheep, you tend a garden and you tend a bar. People can tell genuineness and they can tell fakery. Unless none of that matters. And at that business airport lounge it really didn’t.

“How are you sir? the bartender asked again.

“I am still fine,” I said, only to realize that she was talking to someone else.

“Do you need anything else right now, sir?”

It took me a second to realize that this time she was talking to me.

An hour and a half is a long time, so eventually I started asking her questions.

“How long have you worked here?”

Twelve years.

“How long have you tended bar?”

Twelve years.

In the customer service business, all it takes is a little interest to make someone’s day. Not a lot, but just a little. Every high-maintenance customer in the world has one thing in common: they just want to be heard. Really heard. Sometimes that is hard to do, other times it is easier and then sometimes it doesn’t happen at all.

“How are you ma’am?” she asked. “Is there anything else you need, right now, ma’am?”

On and on it went, for an hour and a half.

Leaving me with these thoughts:

• Not everybody wants the same thing in the bar business, as true for the customers as for the bartenders

• Tending bar is more than making drinks. Usually.

• Making people interesting is easy. Just show a little interest yourself.

• Another mundane moment in your life could also be the moment that someone else sets off on the adventure of a lifetime.

• Can machines ever replace bartenders? In some places, maybe.

• Better an hour and a half, than say, 12 years