Hospitality, straight up, no chaser
By John Henry

Photo by Francesco Tonelli

As the year turns, this long standing brand builder on the street feels a certain responsibility to dispense with the usual turn of the year resolution nonsense. Let’s stick to the facts, data and trends as I see them emerging from the ground up. And may I serve you with humble insights and invite impassioned dialogue along the way.

Resolve that people will drink this year. But why, how and where? Perhaps it is our true social responsibility to make every drink and every customer at our bar a special one. Then, at just the right time, send them off their merry way.

We are about to enter a golden age of hospitality in our bar business. And one of individual and professional development and responsibility, I feel. It’s more about the drinker than the drink. Alas the magic is in making them both one in our midst.

Especially in this age of flash and social media there is no substitute for the magical bartender who remembers our name, and perhaps even our drink order, months down the road since we last approached his or her bar. One who makes a drink we like, fast, and with a smile. This is the timeless exchange of our business. If you want to experience it in person, pay a periodic visit to Doug Quinn over at PJ Clarke’s on 3rd Avenue. Though I certainly encourage you to stop by more often.

We have learned trade skills from bar maestros in London and Tokyo and elsewhere. But we still need to master the American craft of giving back warmth and the smile. And keep giving. The patron is the king or queen. It is a responsibility of the true bar professional, I feel, to keep that throne inviting. I promise more on this in future 2011 dispatches from the street as I feel it will be one of the central themes of the craft spirit and bar renaissance.

But, responsibility was a word thrown around much and tacked on often in the latter part of last year, both from major liquor corporations and in local grass roots community efforts. With the optimism of a new decade, let’s look at some shining efforts first.

A gentleman named Sean Combs from the Bronx (aka P Diddy) and his associated vodka brand Ciroc ( led a campaign with pre-paid ATM cards and MTA rides home on New Year’s Eve in NYC. The same type of Safe Rides program was put into place by the Ciroc teams in Las Vegas, as well.

Staff from a Hudson Valley New York Funeral Home, TJ McGowan Sons ( , commissioned one of their vans to take folks away from the wheel and safely home citing the mantra of their own recently expanded Safe Drive program, “Let us drive you home now rather than later”. Bagels and water were offered. I was delighted to see the press that this local effort garnered.

Dana Distributors ( and Heineken USA ( continued their longer standing own safe ride programs this holiday season as well.

Long Island, New York has seen a rash of wrong way highway driving incidents lately, most if not all due to severe intoxication. The horrific crash in the summer of 2009 on the Taconic Parkway in Westchester, killing 8 including 4 children, still gives me chills as a father and purveyor of non-prescription medicine. Especially as one who is always on the road.

Statistics show that someone is killed in an alcohol related driving crash every 45 minutes in the United States, accounting for 32% of all traffic fatalities.

As professionals in this industry we have a mission to get our guests (or in corporate parlance “clients”) out the door and home and, at best, feeling better than when they came into our hands. Not cause their family and loved ones any undue suffering, as well.

As a working bartender, even in New York City where public transportation is a granted gift, 24-7, I often wrestled with the right way to gently and efficiently send that over-indulged customer home. Without judgment or pretense. I wanted them back again.

Judgment is the key here. And it turns back to that core concept of hospitality—a two way street. For us to be truly successful as bar professionals we owe ourselves to submit to the credo, calling and practice of true hospitality. Building a bond with over the bar. To take each customer through the beginning, middle and end of a truly special experience unfolding in front of us. Not just wow them with our stoic expertise and mixologist mastery– but to glide them in, make them feel like the only person at our bar and then send them home safely with a smile. Wanting more. Looking forward. And confident that the next time they are lucky enough to step up to our bar, the magic and the tale will continue.

We have a lot of listening to do to make that timeless and spirited connection. Maybe that magic is the message. The spirits served just the messenger. Or perhaps to better paraphrase Tip O’Neill, with a twist, “All bars are local.”

I hope this year brings us all a working coda where we learn to treat and embrace our guests as same. Locals, as soon as they walk in– new long term regulars we just met. Served straight up or on the rocks, they can someday return to connect right back up again. Call it /hospitality 2.0/ in this time of digital and social media. A continuum of time and service.

I will soon report on efforts by Dushan Zaric, Aisha Sharpe and Gaz Regan to combine their powerful forces and lead a hospitality training effort for our industry. I for one welcome and will help blaze the trail.

A revival is alive in the local cocktail, wine, beer and craft spirits culture. May it ignite our branding into the popular fold and mainstream much as the foodie culture did this past decade. Cheers to hospitality heating up those branding irons. Make those customers ours. Our magic theirs. We need that magic shot across the bar now more than ever.