“PDT didn’t become one of the best bars in the world because it makes the best drinks,” relates Jim Meehan .
Meehan is the founder of the East Village mainstay Please Don’t Tell (PDT) and author of the PDT Bar Book. He’s doing a Q&A in front of a room of Vancouver’s top bar talent. Jeff Bell, the current GM/Head Bartender of PDT, is by his side.
“We all have different palates, so some of you would go there and be like, ‘These drinks suck!‘, and in a way you’d be right”.
The point he’s making is that PDT made its global mark because of its concerted vision and focus on giving amazing service.
He laughs, “We worked so hard on hiring hospitable Bartenders, instead of ‘mixologists’, that Jeff and I are still creating most of the new cocktails on the PDT list”.
“We have a challenge at our cocktail driven bars where some bartenders don’t want to learn the classics, or the drinks on the menu, they just want to spend their time pushing their own drinks” – Trevor Kallies
Mixology run amok.
A real gem from the Q&A session that resonates in the room is when Meehan and Bell provide an aphorism to drive home the point.
“Bartenders serve people drinks. We don’t serve drinks to people”
Meehan now resides in Portland. He relates his observation to his new home.
“There’s a focus in the bar scene in making things and developing creative drinks,” but it’s not always equaled on the back-end of actually learning how to, “properly sell it to a guest.”
“At PDT we sell drinks that people ask for”, says Meehan. “Keep in mind that you are a salesperson. Don’t get bent out of shape because someone asks for a drink that you personally think is shitty”. The bar is not a temple to a bartenders ego.
“If you never learn how to make a Mojito how will you learn to make a better version,” says Trevor Kallies.
This is a lesson the consulting side of justcocktails.org often mentors into eager bartending staff. Give a guest the drink that they want to have and then bridge that sale towards the cocktail you believe they should be drinking.
It requires building trust and a recognition that PDT didn’t become wildly successful because they were too cool to serve anything but the drinks that they personally liked. A clear example of this is the Vancouver industry hangout, Gringo.
Opened by noted Bartender Shoel Davidson, “Gringo doesn’t draw industry types because of a wild selection of vermouth,” says Shoel. “We made it fun and we made it affordable”. Judging from how busy a bar that’s hidden in a scary alley is, he focused on the right concept. “I really appreciated the message Jim Meehan had for the room,” reflects Shoel. “Being a great bar because you center on the guests experience allows Gringo a shot at being great even without having much of a cocktail list.”
A second lesson from Jeff Bell:
“You are training your replacement”
It’s a point that makes Meehan laugh, “Oh shit, that’s what I did, didn’t I?”
It puts a serious responsibility on the more experienced Bar staff. Bartenders teach their apprentices the classics and technique. Newer Bartenders need to respect the freedom they have.
“A cook in the kitchen doesn’t get to run out to the floor and tell guests not to order from the Chefs menu so they can push their own take on a grilled cheese sandwich,” illustrates Trevor Kallies.
“I’ve had staff that don’t sell a single cocktail on the list all night, constantly overturning orders and pushing their own drinks on guests. You don’t learn anything that way,” says Kallies. “And you’re not centering the experience around the guest”.
As a new bartender properly learns classics and executes a list created by someone like Jim Meehan, Jeff Bell or Trevor Kallies – they are ultimately learning how to be better when their time to be creative comes.
For the record, I thought the PDT drinks did not suck. They were delightful.
Special thanks to Talia Kleinplatz of www.twoforthebar.ca for the cover image. Check out her awesome work.