This isn’t going to be a typical article for BartenderHQ…

A few years ago, after I’d come back from living in Dubai and briefly in Greece, I came back to the UK and was doing some work as a close up magician. In truth, one of my good friends was an excellent close up magician, and he was kind enough to teach me some tricks and provide me with some good props that made me seem far better than I was.

We went, along with two other magicians to perform at a nightclub in Birmingham called Reflex, we had a great night and really hit it off with the staff, and got invited out with them for their staff party the next month in Worcester. I won’t go into the details, but I ended up dating the general manager (and now we live together in our own house, with a beautiful son, but I digress).

I was living miles away at the time, staying with my parents having just come back from the travelling, so we didn’t see each other that often, but when we did, I’d hang out at the end of her bar. Reflex was very typical of British bars in terms of how the service worked (While London and other cities do have some great bars, they are still the exception, not the rule), so the majority of popular spirits were mounted on the wall with the upside down optic measures that are designed to control inventory.

I’ll be honest, I despise the things. I do see why people think (or thought) they were a good idea, but they cause more problems than they fix in my opinion, and are simply an excuse not to train staff well or hire people you trust with your stock. They do give an accurate pour when used properly, but they have many down sides:

  • They force the staff members to leave their stations, so they have to walk more to make a round of drinks, slowing service.
  • Staff also usually turn their backs to operate them, so they loose track of what order guests approach the bar.
  • They’re really, really ugly.

I looked over the bar, and saw that the stations were equipped with speed rails, large insulated and drained ice wells, this was quite a surprise, many British bars still rely on plastic branded ice buckets on top of the bar, so you’ll be lucky to get a cube or two in your drink in case they run out (see this article on my thoughts on the importance of ice in quality drinks). The speed rails however, just had 4 bottles of cordial in them. Two blackcurrant and two lime.

“Jo. Why do you have cordial in your speed rails?” I asked. She looked, and really didn’t know. It was one of those things that everyone was just used to and hadn’t been changed since she’d taken the bar over. It turns out that this one question was the turning point between what Reflex was then, and what it became.

In the following weeks, we stripped the bar out, cleared the back bar and created three back bar stations with premium spirit stacks, went through the cocktail menu and identified what needed to be in the four speed rails and in what order to be as fast as possible, we got in touch with our Bacardi rep and he kindly sent us a care package of bar equipment, including bar spoons, build mats, straw caddies and garnish wells.

When Jo’s staff came in for their next shift, the optics were gone, the bar was looking far more minimal, and they had to get used to pouring the majority of their drinks from the well. While it took a while and they still used jigger measures, they no longer have to run around the bar to get to bottles that have been arranged for look rather than efficiency.

Over a few months, it turned out that the new bar layout was taking the same money on almost half the number of staff hours – so its clearly more efficient. The staff were also able to take part in the party bar’s signature dances as they were able to get the customers served faster, and as a result the atmosphere in the bar improved.

One criticism that came back was that the Smirnoff bottles, now being in the speed rail couldn’t be seen by customers deciding their drink. Well, it turns out, people know that bars sell vodka. You don’t need to advertise your house brands, people will always order a vodka and coke or a vodka Red Bull, even when you’re not showing them the bottle as they walk up to the bar. Most customers won’t even be interested what the house brand is, especially in a party bar – if we were making dirty martinis or serving frozen vodka straight up, perhaps they would be, but not here. Not one person is going to think “Well, I don’t see a vodka display, its clearly something they don’t sell here.”

These bar efficiencies are just one factor in the success of Reflex – Jo’s theories on door staff and managing conflict (read them here) plus her excellent training are also big factors – and they added up to Reflex being awarded the Birmingham Best Bar None Best Nightclub award two years running, and Best Bar Overall!

Take a look around your bar. What’s the cordial in the speed rail for you, the catalyst that will make you change the way you look at your bar set up forever?

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