By Louise Oakley
Passions flared at a recent bartenders roundtable, which revealed a need to focus more on getting the classics right in order to achieve a higher level of customer satisfaction.
Bring together 16 of the UAE’s bartenders and one would think the conversation would steer around the latest ingredients, top brands and who has devised the most flash cocktail creation. But the reality was very different for those at a roundtable held in Bar 44 at Grosvenor House last month. Organised by Fresh Express and Monin, the roundtable revealed a young, dynamic and small industry that is desperately striving for further development and international recognition — but which needs some support in order to grow.
This support could come from a variety of sources, with the bartenders urging more understanding from F&B directors and general managers, as well as help from the International Bar Association (IBA), particularly in establishing a Dubai or GCC arm of the body.
According to the bartenders and suppliers at the roundtable, one of the main issues is training, with most feeling that a step back to the basics is necessary for many bars. This will be vital in order to meet the needs of guests — and assure their faith in the talent of the bartender. The consensus is that too many bar professionals have gone into flaring or mixology, without first getting the fundamentals of cocktail and mocktail creation, from balance to brands, right.
“People want to go back to the basics. More are choosing tried and tested options. I’m not going to spend AED 50 on a drink if I don’t understand what it’s going to look or taste like,” said Ulric Nils, brand ambassador Middle East for Focus Brands.
“We have to be very careful not to alienate consumers. If you want to make a quick buck out of a trend then go for it, but we are not supporting that. We may call ourselves mixologists but at the end of the day what matters is the consumption of the consumers. What gets repeat business is a bartender’s knowledge and skills. That’s why they will come back — for that bartender and that bar. The more we alienate people, the more we are stuck in our own little bubble,” he observed. To avoid alienation of customers requires both staff training and guest education.
“We are all bartenders,” said MMI beverage training manager Giovanni Depergola. “Mixologist is a big word. To be a bartender, the classic is the minimum you have to do.
"At the moment, the customer is requiring the classic because we don’t have people well trained to explain to the guests how [they create a drink].This is the major problem we have in Dubai. In Dubai, there a lack of personality behind bars, they should go to the table and explain what they do. What Ulric is saying is correct; how can I spend that amount of money if I don’t know what is inside?”
Fresh Express sales manager — beverage Ghaith Zeidan also supported the sentiment.
“I need to agree with Ulric on the sense that it is important to have our trendy drinks and complicated recipes, but to get to that stage we need to start at the basics,” said Zeidan.
Dominik MJ Schachtsiek, bars manager for Voda Bar and C Club at the upcoming Jumeirah Zabeel Saray hotel on The Palm Jumeirah, said that he had not witnessed such a demand for classics, but emphasised the importance of education — following the example of the role sommeliers play in educating guests.
“I think the most important factor before we take step two, step three, step four with molecular gastronomy, is we are supposed to get back to also educating or ‘edutaining’ our guests and explaining what [a cocktail] should actually taste like,” explained Schachtsiek.
“I blame a lot on that word mixology — because of that we have started taking ourselves sometimes a little too seriously. ‘I’m no longer a bar tender, I’m a mixologist, I’m going to tell you what to drink,” he added.
Schachtsiek said it was “very seldom” that a cocktail in a Dubai bar was was even “agreeable”, claiming that “99% of drinks were too warm”.
“A drink for me needs to be at -5°C. It’s just 20 seconds of shaking. It’s a big problem that first of all people don’t know [to do this] and then that the customer gets their drink and it tastes horrible so they opt for the “creamy passionfruit and strawberry thing,” said Schachtsiek.
Coping with competition
According to Jakob Yamac, 1897 bar manager at Kempinski Mall of the Emirates, the reason behind the lack of focus on the basics in bars has been due to the ongoing issue of outlets having to cope with frequent new openings.
“In Dubai, the competition is so high because we have so many bars in Dubai and they each try to top the other bar. As a bar manager, when you start new you just want to top the other bar, forget the classic cocktails, get everyone to create special drinks and so the classic ones are getting forgotten. Let’s teach our guys first what a classic drink is, why we create that drink and why they are good,” said Yamac.
“It’s the Dubai syndrome,” agreed Simone Hopman, manager at The Exchange Floor, Fairmont Dubai. “So many new bars are opening up, so what they do is they focus on attracting guests, and they don’t focus on retaining guests. You won’t attract guests by making a good classic, you’ll attract them by making a good mixology with 27 ingredients. When we opened up, we had one drink which had 15 ingredients, that’s how you attract and get the media attention.”
Yamac said the responsibility for training rested with bar managers and Schachtsiek added that sometimes, F&B managers did not know what to look for in a proper bartender.
“I think the management get more excited about bartending and see the value, but they still don’t have any clue what the good bar guys are doing,” he said.
Food Express brand manager — beverage Sasha Milovanovic commented: “I’ve been here seven years. I can tell the trends are changing. The way the management is looking at the bartenders is changing; it’s far away from the ideal position we would like to be in but there are improvements”.
As Depergola pointed out, GMs and even F&B directors are not expected to be experts on something like cocktails. His question, however, was how much senior management value, and how much they invest in, bar staff.
“Regarding the training, unfortunately — and I’m part of the training department and profession — at a general manager convention a few weeks back, [they said] that the expenses on training in Dubai were cut by up to 85% in certain places. No-one believes in training. For us, when we organise training, we need to organise transport, time off, all from Dubai’s hotels. This needs to come from the top decision makers. Bartenders are not decision makers. How much freedom do they have to let a supplier train a new product?” asked Depergola.
These gaps identified in the level of expertise of bartenders, the quality of the training given and the knowledge of recruiters means that the bar industry here faces huge challenges, but with this comes great opportunity for improvement. With such a passionate group of bartenders, who are prepared to protect and drive their sector, there is certainly no doubt this will happen, but the question is how long it will take. Considering how significantly beverages drive profit for Dubai's hotels, surely it’s time that the bartenders pleas were heard and acted upon sooner rather than later?