They say it takes a village to raise a child. We could say the same about running a bar. Sure, the bartenders are the front line, but there is a lot that happens behind the scenes for them to make drinks. Aside from the day-to-day cleaning, staff hiring and training, and menu creation, probably the most important thing is buying the booze that will be served.
It is the bar manager’s job to decide what to buy. In an ideal world, the bar manager has been a bartender in said establishment, and has a good understanding of what is needed to fit their cocktail program. And, ideally, said establishment actually has a cocktail program… meaning a cohesive idea of who they are as a bar, and what sorts of drinks they wish to present, which can run the gamut: classic cocktails, market fresh seasonal fresh fruit drinks, smokes / foams / jellied spheres in “molecular” vein. Or maybe its a shot and beer bar, a nightclub banging out party drinks, an agave spirits tequileria, a whiskey bar or a pure-and-simple dive bar with a pool table and darts.
There are all kinds of bars in the world, and each one has its place. One is not better because their staff does fancy drinks. Sometimes even the “mixologists” who fix those fancy drinks want to chill over cheap beer with loud music in a place where they can just relax. What’s important is that the person buying your booze has a good grip of who the bar is, and who the customer is that goes there. That is their job.
The bar manager buys the liquor from their sales rep. In an ideal world, the sales rep would be able to walk into a bar and identify what sort of establishment it is, and speak immediately to its needs. For example, is their menu tiki-heavy, and if so, what sorts of specialty rums might excite that staff? Or does this place celebrate classic mixology in a high-end dining establishment, meaning they don’t want to hear about that “cool” cinnamon whiskey or vodka distilled 35 times.
Nowadays, a sales rep takes many forms. There’s the dude in khaki-pants who schleps bottles around, not really caring what’s in them as long as he makes his quota. There’s the hot chick a brand hires to go into bars and chat up the bartenders and customers enough that the place might consider bringing her brand in, if only to have her come in regularly with more hot chicks (hot chicks contribute to any bar’s success). There are the Brand Ambassadors / Manager who work in conjunction with the sales reps to present the products to the bar manager, do staff trainings on how to use the products, and be the public face of the brand through fun events designed to connect with bartenders or consumers in a more personal way, hoping to forge relationships. And, there are reps who are doing their best, and want to sell well, but haven’t received training on the products they sell. By the same token, there are some bar managers who can make a restaurant soar to new heights under good leadership, and there are ones who become “drunk” with their newfound power, and expect favors, free bottles and negotiate prices on orders they don’t fulfill, wasting everyone’s time.
The bottom line, though, for both the liquor company, and the bar, is profit. Will customers want any particular product? Why should it go into this particular bar? It is the sales person’s job to explain why they are taking up the bar manager’s time to show him / her this bottle, and it is the bar manager’s job to determine if it is a good fit for their establishment. A good rep will take the placement one step further with follow on with promotions and checking back on how to make this brand successful, ie: earn its place on the shelf, resulting in better tips for the bartenders, repeat commissions for the sales person, moving cases of product for the liquor company, and a show of good decision making on behalf of the bar’s buyer.
As someone who has been a bartender in a managerial role and now working in a Brand Manager role, I see a lot of miscommunication and misperceptions about one another. The bartenders sometime see the liquor reps as irritating door-to-door salesmen who could be selling vacuum cleaners for all they care as long as they make commission. And the reps sometimes have the impression that the bartenders and managers are egotistical prima donnas who follow whatever trend is cool at that moment, blocking the placement of a new product. To be fair, each has some validity.
So, how do we bridge this gap?
The first and most important concept in any negotiation is understanding the other person’s point of view. Many liquor companies send sales reps out into the field with products they don’t understand, can’t answer questions about, and ultimately ignore because they don’t know how to sell them. This is not the salesperson’s fault, as much as it is the liquor company’s fault, because education and training on every product is integral to selling it.
I’ve been finding that a lot of reps tend to be knowledgeable about wine but not spirits. For example, one of the products under my care is a gorgeous, slightly pricey, tequila made in Jalisco, Mexico, and aged in both Cognac and Sauternes barrels, sent over from France. It fits well in higher-end bars, nice restaurants, and tequila-focused establishments. Part of my job is going out with sales reps to help explain this product to the buyers in the bars.
However, I have cringed in mortification when a well-meaning sales rep opens the conversation with something like, “Hey, you need to try this French tequila from Cognac!” For reasons obvious to any well-schooled bartender or spirits aficionado, I immediately jump in to explain that, of course, the tequila is Mexican, not French, and its aged in Cognac barrels, not distilled in Cognac. And, for obvious reasons, this starts the appointment off in the wrong direction, and can block a placement. This is why my personal mission when visiting any new market is to request a sales rep training, if only to explain a few spirits basics, and where the spirits we are presenting fit within that category.
I am well aware that if the situation were reversed, and I got piled on a list of wines to sell, I would not fare well speaking with sommeliers as to why they should pick this bottle over the other. Wine is not my realm of expertise. I have not been a sommelier, or needed an extensive wine knowledge when I worked as a server, or even bartender. I know the basics but that’s about it. I would need some training to make up for my lack of hands-on experience. That’s why I think that when companies hire liquor sales reps, they should look for someone who has been a bartender, or at the very least, has some spirits training to be able to speak the bartender’s language. There are many products available, so being able to explain why this one has a place in that bar means everything in closing the deal, meeting the needs of that new account, and building a mutually-beneficial relationship.
Now, let’s look at things from the other point of view. Salespeople have a job to do. They have a lot of pressure on them to meet quotas, and will often be willing to bend over backwards to make a bar or restaurant happy. It would behoove the bar to understand their perspective as well. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen reps carve out a couple of hours during their personal time to make an emergency delivery, or find a “sample bottle” a bar or restaurant needs for a promotion or special event. I’ve also seen (and had it happen to me) that a bar manager makes an appointment with a sales rep, then leaves them waiting for an hour or more because they “got busy,” or simply forgets that they had an appointment. That kind of treatment will not make the bar top of the list the next time they need a favor.
Its important to remember that just as bartenders live off tips, sales reps live off commissions. The ultimate goal for both parties is to sell something that their customer will like, want more of, and become a regular. Having a little empathy and mutual respect is what makes this kind of relationship hum.
Reps who take the time to learn about the bars they solicit, and the products they present will earn the respect of the bartenders they service. Bartenders and managers who honor the time a busy rep has carved out for their establishment will garner special favors when those opportunities roll around. At the end of the day, its still the hospitality industry, even when before the doors open, and a smile and genuine mutual understanding goes a long way. And, every member of the tribe supporting the village surrounding the bar makes it more successful in the long run.