5 Essential “Soft Skills” for Great Bar Managers

By Loren Bornstein


Loren Bornstein

April 19, 2017

Posted in Restaurant Management, Industry & Culture

The cocktail revolution has been here for quite some time.

More bartenders are capable of executing good versions of classic cocktails, and many are finding innovative ways to take cocktails to the next level. But, the hospitality industry isn’t just about the technique. Most of all, it’s about the people.

After all, hospitality isn’t something one accomplishes alone. It takes a team to execute (or fail at) great service, and it takes great management to lead the team. All too often, we promote senior people to management or those who demonstrate the most technical prowess. As a former hiring manager, I can speak to the issues I’ve seen when it comes to promoting for seniority or technical ability as the foremost quality.

By and large, the best leaders and managers I’ve found and worked with are those whose empathy and compassion were on display and handled well.

Cue the eye-roll and internal groan. You’ve all heard it before, “soft skills.” Yet, what is the major complaint we still hear from bar staff that isn’t about money? You guessed it: management and their inability to communicate and relate to the team.


A good manager will make or break a restaurant, more than any other role. A manager should be willing to do or have done all of the tasks they ask of their staff. Take out broken glass and garbage? Wash glassware? Make syrup and juice? No task is above a manager.

At my first bartending gig, I worked in a massive high-volume chain. Being left to my own devices became tedious after I’d explored as much as I could creativity-wise. I soon approached management and asked about moving into a different position or helping out in other areas, but those ideas were shot down with nothing to replace them.

If I called them for help or they were around, and I needed something, the usual response was to get a different staff member to do it instead of them, or they’d just ignore me. I decided if I ever became a manager, I’d never do that. Move forward two years of busting my ass (and a little luck), and I scored my first manager position.

Since then, I’ve identified five traits I find make for particularly skilled managers:

1. Trust

Perhaps, this is the most important trait of a good manager. You cannot build a team without trust. A manager should have good communication and trust with the owner. Trust in the vision the owner has for their business. They should then be able to execute that. When a team executes a plan well, take a moment to be proud of that, recognize it, and use that positive momentum to continue progress.

2. Adaptability/Organization

Not everyone responds to certain training the same way. Someone once told me that sometimes people need love and sometimes people need tough love. Figure out what works for each individual and use that. Some bartenders learn best by having something demonstrated for them. Others learn by doing it all on their own. Part of being a good manager is having organized material for training that encompasses these differences. Know your way around the bar and constantly work toward having an ever more efficient mise en place that sets up your bartenders and bar for success.

3. Awareness

Good management is being aware of what’s going on. Being aware of their own behavior and aware enough of their employees to know when something is off. You don’t have to be everyone’s therapist, but a good manager makes time to spare an ear or pull an employee aside to check in. Checking in with employees and going beyond the polite but dismissive “How are you?” makes a difference. As invested as you are in the company, you need to be invested in the team. They’re the ones making the sales and creating the profit. Your job is to be present and able to assist them through their ups and downs.

4. Teamwork

Be willing to demonstrate that you are not above any kind of work. Wiping down tables, organizing menus, taking out garbage. How can you manage your employees if you don’t even know how to do/or won’t do what it is you’re asking them to? You’ll quickly find they lose respect and trust in you as well. And as I mentioned, without trust, there is no team.

5. Passion

If you aren’t interested in the business and product you are selling, why are you even doing it? Good bar managers want to keep learning and want their staff to do so as well. Whether it’s having cocktail books for the staff to read or a weekly educational meeting where you taste through some of the product, continue your own and your staff’s engagement with their job. Encourage creativity. Hire people who demonstrate a passion as well. Technical skills can be taught, but a desire to learn should matter as much. Staff members and managers who want to keep moving forward keep a business exciting. Hone your passion.

These five soft skills are not the end all be all to great managers, but they are essential for great managers. Do you agree or disagree? Are there traits you think are mandatory for a great bar manager that aren’t listed? Let me know in the comments below.

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5 comments so far... Add your thoughts?
  1. Preach! I love this. I teach this everywhere. Passion in each other is should match the passion in our career choice.

  2. I agree with Timothy! All to often I have been spoken to by a Director or a GM telling me that “you’re not here to be their friend, you’re here to manage them”. It’s funny because being there for my team, physically, mentally AND emotionally is what makes me good at my job. No one wants to work with or for a drill sergeant. They should be able to come to us anytime, with anything…so they don’t bring their problems out to the floor…so they know they’re appreciated at work, when maybe at home they’re not. I am a mixologist, a leader, a mentor and a friend, who’s not above jumping in dish pit for 3 hours or answering the phone anytime if someone needs to talk.
    Nothing excites me more then drink development…
    Except maybe personal development ??? ?

  3. Awareness- It’s so much more than asking how your staff are. Ask what did you to today, how much sleep have you had, what did you eat today, how’s your pet/car/parents/car/partner ?

  4. Thank you all of you for providing engaging, supportive commentary. It’s great to see multiple people embracing the importance of soft skills (really, the hardest part of the job–in my opinion).

  5. Be the manager you’ve always wanted to have as a manager.
    Loyal, willing, attentive, firm, fun, helpful, organized, knowldegable.

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