Godot, the waiter

The aspect I hate to most about bars is not the queueing. It is the standing in an overcrowded bar, waiting for the bartender to get to me so that I can order my drinks.

When you are queueing, you can at least talk to people. But when making your desperate grab for the elusive attention of the bartenders, you can’t really have a meaningful conversation at the same time. You turn your head for a second to make a pass on the nice girl next to you, and that will inevitably be the split second where you had a chance to catch the bartender’s attention. (Of course, if the girl next to you is actually responding positively to your comment, you may not need the drink. And then again, it could be a ploy to distract you while her friend squeezes in and orders drinks for them).

For me, this is the worst part about the going out experience. And from the bar’s perspective, it doesn’t make sense either. People waiting means people not being served, money not being made. So what can be done?

Professional bartenders can alleviate the problem. Once you signal your intention to order, a professional bartender will look you in the eye and nod, signalling that you are on his waiting list. Then, you are free to chat to your companions in the bar until the bartender taps your shoulder, ready to take your order. I love professional bartenders. But of course, professional bartenders are expensive, so this may not work from the bar owner’s perspective. The other easy solution – employ more bartenders – is probably not viable either. The problem is that the demand for bartenders vary throughout the evening. Since bartenders normally work a full shift, having the perfect number of bartenders at peak demand time means being seriously overstaffed during the rest of the evening. In this way, many bar owners probably think of it as a binary choice: either good service and high employee costs, or worse service but low employee costs.

Still, I don’t think bar owners are being creative enough in this area. There is no reason why these two things need to be mutually exclusive. For instance, what about fast beer lines? Supermarkets have fast lines for customers with few items. Why not have a similar fast line in bars with the most popular drinks, so that people don’t have to suffer under the specialised demands of other customers? There’s always some discerning woman out there who wants her double-sieved, seven-ingredient margarita, only without the strawberry seeds, because strawberry seeds really aren’t good for her teint. Why do I – wanting to order a simple beer – have to wait in line while her signature drink is being slowly coaxed into existence?

A fast line for beer (or other similarly simple drinks) would solve this problem. You could even make the fast-line beer a bit more expensive – I’d be perfectly willing to part with a little extra to get my drink fast. Put the price at a round number, so you also avoid deling with too much small change. It may also induce more people to order the simpler drinks, which could increase the serving speed further. A simple order like beer takes up far less of the bartender’s time, freeing him to serve other customers. Similarly, you sould also imagine a line where you could only pay with cash, to avoid the hazzle of time-demanding credit card payments.

Of course, in these internet-enabled times, it is tempting to conjure up the idea of automatic ordering systems. Customers would sit at their table, entering their orders on a touch-screen embedded in the table, and would receive their drinks a little later. But I am quite sceptical about this sort of thing. It may sound good on paper, but such systems always hold more potential for trouble than their creators imagine, especially once they are implemented in a room full of inebriated people. For instance, a screen embedded in a table would have to be both spill-resistant and capable of supporting the weight of impromptu table dancing bargoers in stiletto heels. And the implementation issues only get worse if it is a system that people are not used to interacting with; I’m sure it can be done, but it will probably take a lot of experimentation, and may not be worth the cost and effort.

But there may be a more simple solution: what about having beer-o-mats? Like cigarette dispensers, you could have Heineken or Budweiser dispensers, alleviating the pressure on the bartenders. A vending machine is a simple solution that people are already familiar with, and that could significantly reduce the pressure at the bar. At the same time, it would probably reduce the incidents of stealing. In Denmark at least, one of the biggest problems for bars is employee dishonesty: the bartenders hand out free beers to their friends, or simply pocket the money, never entering the purchase into the register. Vending machines don’t suffer from this issue (depending on who empties them, of course).

A related problem is the bar’s challenge with predicting the demand for different kinds of liquors. The demand for specific drinks varies, and a bar may well risk to run out of gin, while sitting on unnecessarily large amounts of vodka. The issue is being exacerbated by the fact that within each type of alcohol, there are many different brands; having lots of normal Absolut vodka is no good if your discerning customers strongly prefer Absolut Cranberry.

I saw a bar in Barcelona that had a clever solution to this issue. All over the bar, they had electronic screens showing the prices of different types of drinks. The point was that those prices fluctuated throughout the evening, so that if they weren’t selling enough gin tonics, they would instantly lower the prices for gin tonics until people started ordering them (and vice versa with the stuff they were running low on). I don’t know if the system worked well for them, but I liked the idea.

Also, there may be a market for temporary bartenders, working in increments of one hour. Imagine a corps of temp bartenders that you can call upon for an hour, whenever the peak demand hits your bar. The problem with this, of course, may be that bars often have peak demands at the same time. Also, the above-mentioned risk of stealing could potentially increase, since the bartenders would not have a regular relationship with the single bar. But still, it may be worth considering.

Finally, I want to relate a story that shows how bar owners can sometimes have their own reasons for providing slow service. While I was studying my MBA in Barcelona, we had a Christmas party at a rented location. As part of the package deal we had negotiated, the owner would include free bar for the entire evening – from midnight till the party ended, we were free to drink as much as we liked.

So, what does a clever (if dishonest) bar owner do, in order to make sure that he doesn’t lose too much money on the free bar? He hires only three bartenders. The evening got slightly surreal, as 250+ people crowded around a small bar with bartenders that were obviously not in any hurry to serve us. And of course, the waiting time got even worse as people resorted to ordering eight or ten drinks at the time. This, of course, is not an example of honest business practices, and would not have worked with regular customers. But the point is that there may be situations where it makes sense for bars to limit the capacity of their bars – perhaps even for honest reasons.

3 thoughts on “Godot, the waiter

  1. Nice observations.
    Of course, the common solution to the people-hate-to-queue – and one not dependent on high-class employees – is to enable people to document the exact time they started waiting. Typically by letting them draw a numbered slip of some kind. You then display the count in a manner visible wherever people might want to await their turn (i.e. not just inside as pharmacies do – I don’t want to wait claustrophobically close to 30 coughing others – I want to sit outside – I want to live!).
    I have no doubt that such a system could be implemented in a classy way.

  2. That’s actually a pretty good idea as well. I haven’t seen anybody do it, but it should be feasible.

    BTW, a lot of studies have been done on the psychology of waiting – I’ll get back to this subject in a later post.

  3. By the way, the bar in Barcelona with the electronic pricing system is called La Bolsa (Spanish for ‘the bourse’). I think there is more than one, but the one I visited is situated near Paseo de Gracia.

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