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September 6, 2022

Service with a Sneer

The hospitality business is named as such for good reason. So why do the clichés of the snobby bartender and the condescending waiter persist?

Words: Fred Siggins
Illustrations: Simone Esterhuizen

Several years ago, when my barely-old-enough-to-drink sister was visiting me in Melbourne, I took her to a well-respected wine bar. I wanted to give her a fancy night out and share with her the food and drink culture which has become my life. The venue had all sorts of fun and fantastic options on the wine list, to the point where I couldn’t easily decode them for my inexperienced drinking partner. I encouraged her to ask advice from the staff, which she did, nervously and sweetly. 

The response was terse. “The list goes from light to heavy, reading top to bottom,” the waiter said, and promptly left without the chance for follow up questions. My sister was deflated. I was furious. 

Don’t get me wrong: I’m aware that many instances of bad service are caused by toxic work environments and understaffing. Maybe our server was just having a bad day. For all I know he just got dumped, or had a loved one pass away, or some other customer was awful to him. I know how hard it is to keep a smile on, shift after shift, hour after interminable hour. It’s draining. 

But in a long career in hospitality, I’ve worked in many venues where we pushed the boundaries of what people are used to, attempting to advance the culture of drinks. Every time, a fundamental tenet of those venues was to bring people along on the journey: encourage, explain and never condescend. 

“I was there as a host, an entertainer, a low-commitment friend, a guide on the path to spiritual enlightenment.” 

So why, then, do we in the service industry still have such a tendency to sneer at those less educated than ourselves, whose tastes may not be as worldly or refined? And why is this a conversation I’ve been having for more than 20 years? It’s a stereotype that unfortunately still has much basis in fact: the condescending sommelier, the snarky waiter, the too-cool bartender, the haughty barista. It’s a stereotype I wish had been left in the comedy sketches of the ’80s where it belongs. 

When I was working full-time behind the bar, I would often refer to myself as a booze-mechanic. A craftsperson, certainly, but one fundamentally employed in providing a service – the accurate combination of ingredients to satisfy my patrons’ thirst. 

I also understood that the liquid in the glass was only a fraction of the service I was there to provide. After all, anyone can learn how to make a decent Manhattan or margarita at home, and for far cheaper than the cost of that same drink at a bar. I was there as a host, an entertainer, a low-commitment friend, a guide on the path to spiritual enlightenment. 

“You are not employed to sell alcohol to people,” I would tell my staff. “That’s what bottle shops do. As a bartender, you are now in the entertainment industry.” 

But all too often when the war stories come out, half are about genuinely awful customers (of which there are plenty), and the other half are about people who are simply less educated about food and drink. Which is kind of the point, right? What’s the purpose of knowing your product back-to-front if everyone who comes in the door knows just as much? Why does superior knowledge make us superior beings? (Hint: It doesn’t.) I’m guilty of this wayward thinking myself, though I should know better.

“The true art of hospitality is, of course, making people feel welcome. Not just giving them a drink, but giving them an experience.”

Perhaps there’s still a self-consciousness attached to a career in hospitality, especially customer-facing roles. It’s unlikely for a chef to be asked, “what’s your real job?” but it still happens to those of us in service. There’s still a social stigma attached to being a “barmaid” or a busboy, and I understand the defensive reaction that’s likely to cause. “You think you’re better than me? You don’t even know the difference between pinot gris and pinot grigio.” It’s a fair enough reaction. Many of the people I know working front of house jobs are some of the most intelligent, most well-educated and most dedicated professionals I’ve ever met. The idea that we’re somehow less-than also needs to die in a fire. 

But our job-specific knowledge isn’t that special. In fact, it’s just a baseline for our profession. After all, how often do you hear a baker self-congratulate for knowing how to make bread, or an accountant pat themself on the back for filing accurate taxes? The true art of hospitality is, of course, making people feel welcome. Not just giving them a drink, but giving them an experience. 

Trader Vic Bergeron, one of the founding fathers of America’s mid-century tropicana movement, realised during the Great Depression of the 1930s at his first bar Hinky Dink’s that he was in the business of offering his customers reprieve from the doldrums of everyday life. His regulars would come in, dressed in their best shabby clothes, and spend the last of their meagre pay on a drink and a chat, the happiest couple of hours of their week. Based on this lesson, Bergeron built an international chain of Trader Vic venues, making them wilder and wilder, more fantastical and more transportive, creating for his patrons a fantasy of tropical escapism, with flaming, over-garnished cocktails for all. 

These days there’s a trend towards minimalism in bars. Drinks where the liquid has been fermented and rotovapped and cold-infused to within an inch of its life, but all behind the scenes in a sterile prep kitchen. The drinks presented are in plain glassware, nary a garnish to be found. The bars themselves tend towards sterility, too. No fun design, no escapism, just a laser focus on the liquid in the glass. 

One of the progenitors of this trend was Ryan Chetiyawardana at the now closed White Lyan in London. But there was a hospitable method to his madness. The whole point of the ice-less, citrus-less bar program where everything was pre-prepared, was to give the staff more time to chat with patrons, the distractions of drink construction removed. And chat they did. It was a place of uncommon hospitality, where fun and friendship came before liquid. 

There’s a pub in my neighbourhood, an area with a high density of great pubs, that everyone loves. And it is a good pub. But the hipsters behind the bar, their long hair and beards dangling precariously close to my beer, often act like pouring me a pint is as much fun as a trip to the dentist. My own little local, which I won’t name for fear of letting the secret out, doesn’t have a very good beer selection, and the decor is bland. But you know what? They’re nice to me. And they’ll get my money every time. 

All of this is not intended as a take-down, but as a call to arms. Let us be like Gimlet, recently placed on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants long list, where the drinks are pretty good but the room and the service are spectacular. Let us be like Bar Liberty and Embla, where the genuine excitement of the staff matches the exciting options on the list. Let us be like The Elysian, where the world’s craziest whiskies are decoded by a couple of the nicest guys in the game. Let us be like my local pub; humble, kind, patient and welcoming, and make people like my sister want to come back and fill every seat in this great city of hospitality.

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