Life in a Cocktail Backwater

Darcy O'Neil :: May 18, 2008 11:18 AM

The cocktail is going through another "golden age", but it seems to be happening in only a handful of locales. This is understandable, since renewed ideas take time to grow and spread. But, in the city I live, London, Ontario (Canada) the idea of a good, or interesting, cocktail is about as alien as life from another planet. I am literally stuck in a cocktail backwater where ordering anything that is not a Cosmopolitan or Vodka Martini is effectively impossible. If I want to have a good cocktail I can drive two hours to Toronto or possibly 90 minutes to Detroit. Having said that, Detroit probably won't be a cocktail mecca anytime soon. 

Now don’t get me wrong, as I’ve said before, I don’t expect to be able to drive to any city, walk into a bar, and expect to be served a properly made Ramos Gin Fizz. In a bar I don’t know, I’m more apt to order beer anyway, unless there is some attempt at promoting cocktails in the establishment.

My real beef is with managers of restaurants who refuse to accept new ideas. I’m not talking about revamping a restaurant from roadhouse to classic French cuisine, I’m talking about adding a couple of modern drinks to the bartenders repertoire.

Now, the definition of Backwater is : an isolated or backward place or condition. So why is London (Ontario), Canada’s tenth largest city, a cocktail backwater you ask? Well, aside from the lack of any bartenders making a basic attempt at cocktail creation which is more status quo than backwater, its the actual removal of the bartenders that makes it backwards.

So let me explain. In London (Ontario) there is a trend at restaurants to not actually hire bartenders at all, they are just replacing them with waiters and waitresses. That is right, on a Friday or Saturday night, most of the places that you’d expect to have a decent bartender, don’t actually have any bartenders on staff. If you order a Manhattan, then your sever will just jump behind a bar and make one. I know this is common in many places, but here it seems to be a trend.

From a management perspective there are some positives to not employing a bartender, like saving a whole $7.50 per hour. Plus I’m sure there are less sexual harassment issues, since many male bartenders seem to be inordinately horny. 

There are also a lot of negatives to not employing a good bartender. First, that expensive backbar inventory probably won’t move very fast. If you don’t have someone knowledgeable enough to promote it, then nobody will buy it. This is a perfect example of why vodka bars are so popular, there is no need for the bartender to know the products, because vodka is a clear tasteless spirit by definition. Actually, with vodka, you can just make things up and people who buy $60 plus bottles are so gullible that they’ll believe anything you say. This is probably why Jamie Boudreau is thinking about opening a vodka bar.

Next, all those seats at the bar will probably remain empty because with nobody behind the bar who are you going to talk too? A lot of people who travel for business like to sit at the bar and talk.

Inventory control is another important aspect. There are some bartenders who treat the inventory as their personal stock, but given an opportunity the serving staff are no different. A good bartender, as with any good employee, will keep “spillage” costs to a minimum.

Finally, and the biggest reason to have a good bartender behind the bar is to promote sales. If you aren’t promoting spirits, then that leaves you with wine and beer. A half decent bartender will at least have a few drink they can generate sales with, otherwise the restaurant has just limited their sales potential.

In London (Ontario) the Lifford Wine Agency has an effective monopoly on wine menu’s. Good luck on finding a wine list, in this city, that has anything but Lifford on it. As for beer, this is the city where Labatt’s started and the Labatt’s family is still an active part of the community, just recently donating $10 million to the University of Western Ontario nursing program. Coors may have caddies, and Budwiesser may have flight attendants but Labatt’s has nurses. Actually the Labatt’s donation was a completely philanthropic gesture, so get your mind out of the gutter. Anyway, my point being that there is a strong loyalty to the Labatt’s brand.

Basically, London is a very conservative city where change is difficult. I haven’t even mentioned the food on menu’s at the fine dining establishments. Hint, it is all the same and hasn’t changed for years. As a bartender who strives to be on the cutting edge this makes life difficult. I think it is a bit short sighted on the local restaurant owners part, but what can you do.


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