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Why You Should Treat Your Bar Like a Theater

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Your bar is already putting on a show, the question is how good of a show is it?

It’s no secret that great bars and restaurants are often driven by artists. And like any other art form, there needs to be a canvas (glass) a stage (the bar), and a medium (person to person).

Bar theater is a one-to-many medium

But what if you took the metaphor one step further to an entire theater?

We notice that when bar owners and managers treat their operations like a theater, their bar gets transformed. Here’s how.

Your Culture Wakes Up

I can’t tell you the number of bars I’ve gone to where it’s like their team is made up of the living dead. People who are stuck in a prison of ‘good enough’ and no growth. As one bar owner put it, they have “golden handcuffs” often because they can’t conceive of a way to earn better money doing something else.

What many don’t consider is that this is actually a reflection of the organization as a whole.

I think of culture at a bar or restaurant like this:

Creating conditions suitable for growth, so that your people have the tools and freedom to create art that they’re proud of. The art that they create becomes your brand.

When a bar operates like it’s a theatre, there’s a renewed synergy that happens. People are no longer ‘employees’ they’re ‘cast members’, and they’re no longer going into ‘service’, they’re going into ‘performance’. 

The shift is subtle but powerful.

Your Customers Become a Captive Audience (assuming it’s a good show, of course)

When all of the tools that go into creating theater are implemented, guests and customers become a captive audience. 

You might even find that your audience changes and/or grows as the word spreads. 

But the real important shift is simply in how you view your customers. An audience wants a show, so you put the pieces in place to give them a show, keep them captivated, and make sure they want to come back (or at least tell their friends).

There’s a Handy Tool Called a Script

Having a script is powerful because you get to orchestrate what happens.

If you’re a bar or restaurant owner, you can begin writing your script right now. Think of it like you’re writing the story of your bar — with characters, setting, plot, conflict, resolution, etc. 

Every story has a hero, a guide, and a villain. Your team (aka cast members) become the guides, and your guests become the heros. Who are they fighting against? Convention? Status Quo? Ignorance? Boredom?

In the end, your team members and guests will win (unless you’re a sadist…in which case survival is unlikely).

This usually comes in the form of an operations manual, brand guide, or other on-boarding document. Imagine giving a new team member your company literature (usually boring) and it’s a story that they get to participate in (very exciting)!

The most frequent objection we get to having a script is that people think it’s somehow limiting. But this is a paradox — having a script is freeing because people also know when the best times to go off script are. 

And the best part is that you’re enrolling everyone in a journey.

Employees Become Cast Members

I’ve always had a bit of an issue with restaurant staff nomenclature because people are limited from the very beginning:

  • Waiter /  Waitress
  • Bartender
  • Busser
  • Host
  • Etc

While I want to be of service in everything that I do, there’s nothing particularly growth-oriented or exciting about the idea of waiting on people. 

In fact, it makes me feel like a replaceable cog, that anyone can do my job, and that I should not walk, but run in the opposite direction.

But as we all know, when someone is really good at it, they elevate it to art. This is the case with any craft. 

So why don’t we suggest that that’s what our people are going to do from the very beginning?

I’ll leave it to your imagination to come up with alternatives, but I personally like Bar Star for Bartender.

Just kidding 🙂 

Here are some other words you can use for inspiration:

  • Ambassador
  • Characters
  • Stagehand
  • Storyteller
  • Director
  • Players
  • Author
  • Actors
  • Poet

And make sure that when you’re putting your cast together, you’re considering everyone’s unique strengths and abilities. 

(Definitely outside of the scope of this article, but two great resources for this are Unique Ability 2.0: Discovery and Clifton StrengthsFinder assessment).

The Bar Is a Stage

Your bar becomes a theater

I’ve always thought of the bar as a stage because it’s a one-to-many platform.

While we interact with guests individually, if you consider how many people step up to your bar in a given night, week, or even year, we’re talking about thousands of people.

For example, one of our clients did 33,419 covers last year and 7,790 of those were people sitting at the bar.

And they all see you on the same stage. You’re giving a performance to thousands of people.

Think of the bar seats as the front row, and the tables as the nose-bleeds — everyone is seeing the show.

This is why when I was starting out, I got to work sharpening my skills with repetition and study. I knew that it would pay dividends. 

Work Becomes an Exhilarating Performance

Think about how people approach ‘going to work’ versus a ‘performance’.

Generally, going to work is a thing that people have to do. It’s not something that people are generally very excited about.

When you go into a performance, on the other hand, you…

I don’t know about you, but going into a performance sounds a lot more like it’s worth my time.

There’s Actually An Intermission

The idea of a ‘break’ at bars and restaurants is usually a laughable after-thought. 

And eating a staff meal looks something like this…

https://giphy.com/gifs/eating-laff-night-court-l0MYwONBGDS7aPGOk

But what would it do for your cast members and culture if you gave them an intermission ensuring they’re as sharp as possible for the performance?

Part of the reason world-class theater can happen on a daily basis on Broadway is because top performers understand how to rest.

So if that means you have a manager who can step in for people, a host who’s cross-trained,  you add a team member, or even knock an hour off your service hours (aka performance), isn’t it worth it to have the best cast possible?

They’re Mindful of Their Props

Props for bar theater

I know this whole bar theater article is one big analogy, so why not add a bit of magic with Harry Potter.

Just like Harry gets to decide what broom he uses for quidditch, and what wand he’ll use to cast his accio charm spell, so too does the bartender get to choose their tins, spoons, and other tools.

While we have a curated kit of professional bar tools that we love, we actually encourage our students and clients to discover what tools they like best for themselves.  

Your props become part of your personality, and they can make your performance easier and more enjoyable.

There Are Rehearsals

The biggest piece I think most bars and restaurants are missing is this one. I believe that consistent training (aka rehearsals) is the single most impactful piece any bar or restaurant can add to its toolkit.   

This is where the cast gets to connect, collaborate and create art that they’re all proud of. 

And it doesn’t need to be a long-drawn out affair. Consistency is key.

Some examples of ‘rehearsals’ at a bar could be…

  • Get a team member to create mini 5-10 minute presentations on topics they’d like to learn more about. Gin history, or mezcal production, for example.
  • Have monthly team meetings where everyone can collaborate on the improvement of one area in the business. Ideas for how to increase referrals, for example.
  • Have weekly 10-minute Zoom video calls where you can all reflect on what’s going well, and what could be better (bonus: these calls can be recorded for those who can’t attend)

A quick recap on why this whole bar theater thing matters

As you can see, not only is building theater in your bar more fun, it also…

  • Keeps your team engaged and morale high, which lowers turnover rates…
  • Gives a show that people will want to share and stay longer for, which will boost your social presence and per head spend…
  • Makes your bar more unique and differentiated in the market, which will give you more regulars…
  • Having scripts and stories will make word of mouth more effective, lowering how much it costs to acquire a new guest…
  • Simplifies your on-boarding process with a story that your team gets enrolled in…

How about you? What’s your favourite memory of bar ‘theater’?

Kyle Guilfoyle

Kyle Guilfoyle

Kyle is co-founder and CVO of the Nimble Bar Co, where he helps bars and bartenders create theater so that they can be more profitable and have more fun.

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