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The crowd is gone. The music’s off. You drop your bank with a gratifying clang.
It’s a satisfying sound: just you and the hum of the walk-in. My one true goal for the shift is to take all the requests, laughter and noise and achieve silence.
But when is silence bad?
When it’s a slow night and the few guests you have aren’t chatting. They’re staring at their phones or watching the TV with the volume off. You’ve said hello and delivered their orders, but you haven’t bonded. You’re afraid they might be…
Not at your bar. We’re not having this. We’re having fun, even if it’s just nonsense chit-chat.
Are You Chatty?
I got into this business bussing tables as a teenager. I’ve been in restaurants and bars ever since. Chatting with strangers comes natural to me. Maybe you too.
Or maybe you got into bartending out of a passion for spirits and mixology. You’re a cocktail nerd, deep into the minutia of drink craftsmanship. You’re a student not so accustomed to being on stage.
How do you turn a room full of awkward silence into one abounding with wit and laughter? It’s much like sending a boulder crashing down a hill. All it takes is some tools, a shove and a little leverage.
#1 Start Strong
How do you greet guests? You should give them an opportunity to share something with you. But drinks first, of course.
After I’ve said hello and asked about a drink, I drop a very open question while pouring. “So how’s it going out there?” is my usual.
They can go any way they want with this. They can take me literally and mention the weather. They can tell me how they’re feeling, where they’ve been, where they’re going after this.
Any response gives me information to use. If they tell me they’re going to a show later, I know they’re on a schedule. If they slur and stumble, I know what that means. Whatever they say, we’re off to a start.
#2 Something in Common
Listen and look. Some part of what they’ve said, what they’re wearing or what they have with them is a conversation starter. See a shopping bag and ask them about the store. See gear from another place and ask them where they’ve been.
Practice active listening. This is more than hearing and responding. It involves eye contact and waiting for a pause to ask relevant questions. It may be tricky to personally connect with a guest while doing the rest of your job, but it will separate you from the ordinary, win you a friend and net you a few extra percent on the tip line.
Now you can find something in common. “Oh, I’ve been there.” “My friend has one of those.” “That reminds me of…”
We’re all humans and we’re all in this together. Our lives intersect in many weird ways.
But don’t forget, you have many things to do and can’t babysit a conversation all day. Now that you know something about this guest and that guest, see if you can get them chatting with one another.
When one guest mentions home improvement, for example, you can say to another: “Didn’t you just do that to you house, Jim?” Now you have the two of them engaged, learning something and sharing experience. Move on.
#3 Next Weird Thing
Sometimes you just need a game. If this was a long boring car trip, we’d play “I Spy with My Little Eye.”
At my place, we like to play “Next Weird Thing.” Odd stuff is always happening at a good bar. You never know what’s going to happen next and it’s fun to speculate.
Pick something, likely or unlikely, that you think is next to go down. You get extra credit for picking something wild and random and you’re a hero if it happens.
“Too drunk to serve.”
“Guy with a neck tattoo orders a foo-foo drink.”
“Flashing police lights, two purses, a pizza and a two-liter of Dr. Pepper.”
That last one happened to me. Long story.
This game gets people looking around and speculating. The regulars recount past episodes of the absurd. And most of all it gets people away from their phones.
#4 Would You Rather?
This game comes from my kids, although we can all play. Pick any two choices: things to eat, give up, visit, avoid, befriend or begrudgingly accept.
“Would you rather never eat pork or beef again?”
“Would you rather visit Paris or Patagonia?”
“Would you rather wash Donald Trump’s feet or Tom Brady’s?”
Beware with that last one. Sports are great but stay out of politics. I also as a rule avoid religion and war. I subtly or actively stay out of those conversations and aim to never accidentally start one.
The “Would You Rather” game gets people to interact, make tough choices and examine their values. Once you get it started it will gain momentum as each participant takes a turn.
While having bold opinions on politics, war and religion (which are often the same thing) is a big no-no while working, you can have big feelings about sports. It’s part of being a fan.
It’s also easy to identify a fan and get them talking. If they’re not already wearing a logo, they’ll give you a clue since highlights or a game are probably on TV. Or just ask: “Seen any good games lately?”
I’m a football fan and can get into an NFL conversation any day of the year. But what if you can name more brands of bitters than starting quarterbacks? How can you speak with authority in this arena?
First of all, you don’t need to know everything. You just need to get chat rolling. Again, be an active listener. You’ll learn something, unless this sports fan is full of crap, which is actually likely.
Follow the fan’s statement with: “Why do you think that will happen?” They’re probably glad to expound upon their prediction. It’s not hard to get fans started.
All you need is a recent event or another’s opinion. Spend a few minutes daily reading or watching and you’ll have plenty of ammunition. Watch a little Sports Center, read the local sports page or go to a popular sports blog. You’ll know enough to start a debate.
#6 Weird Wine Pairings
I was once asked for the right wine with to go with a shot of Patron silver.
Anyone can pick a wine to go with steak, salmon or brie. But what about the tougher choices? I believe there’s a wine pairing for everything.
Cough drop? Bit your tongue? Slapped in the face? Changing a dirty diaper? What’s the right quaffer?
This is especially fun around a bunch of foodies and cork dorks. While an ordinary person may suggest a chardonnay, only a serious oenology dweeb would blurt: “Definitely the 2014 Domaine de la Pinardiere Muscadet”
Oh, and with the Patron? Certainly a Washington Riesling. The pear and tropical fruit would compliment the natural fruitiness of the agave while honeyed sweetness would balance the sour of the accompanying lime wedge.
So get out there and mingle without fear. You can start a conversation with anyone. You just need the right tactics, a good ear and a little charm.