With experienced staff in short supply, Mike Baxter rethinks the way he trains rookies.

It’s 11pm and we’re out of ice mix! How can this be happening? It’s Freedom Day and people are expecting big things. They want the world back, they want music, cocktails and a dirty dancefloor! “Quick! New kid, here’s 10 quid. Run to the bar across the street and get ice mix now!” Off runs a sweaty-palmed noob, fresh to the industry. Sure, he’s never been in hospitality before but he’s kinda weird and has a few good jokes so we take him under our wing. 

An hour later he comes back without the tenner and a cup of water in his trembling hands. “I got the ice mix!” he says. I look at him incredulously. No one has ever actually come back with the ‘ice mix’. “What do I do with it?” he says in a half panic. “Quick, this way!” I continue. “How do we make ice?” I play along, ushering him to the ice machine. “I don’t know,” he says, looking at me like a deer in the headlights. I open the machine and tell him to quickly throw in the concoction.

“Huh? It just looks like water,” he says. “Yeah,” I say, as I look into his eyes waiting for some sort of lightbulb moment that never arrives.

Welcome to hospitality training... I guess I’m down a tenner.

Hospitality is currently staring down the barrel of more than a staff crisis – we have a training crisis. We’ve lost eons of bar and restaurant experience over the past year. Years and years of grizzled veterans have given up, beaten down by a Brexit process that left them feeling unloved and a delinquent disease that mugged them of every last pound.

So now facing the post-Covid world – he says discreetly knocking on wood – I find myself with a pocket-full of rookies and a few of the last grizzled veterans. I look out at the bartending community and I see the story on repeat. We’re all training people en masse while having to maintain our venues’ pre-Covid reputations. In the past year, venues were open and shut like a much-loved novel, but without any of the affection. No time to hire, no time to plan. How do you write a menu when you don’t even know what season you are opening in? Without the ability to drip-feed in new staff we, as usual, will have to learn, adjust, adapt and rewrite the story.

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So where do we begin when in some cases the whole team is new? First, get organised. I decided to write down every bit of bar knowledge I had, as if an entire history of oral tradition was under threat of extinction. For the first time I realised my venue is big enough to write a training manual. I didn’t know where to begin – I’ve always avoided these corporate-style exercises. However, I realised that the time invested meant multiple people could train at their leisure, streamlining physical training. I also quantified the training. Learn stage A, get a raise, learn stage B, get a raise again.

For years I’ve never understood the bar consultant role, but now I get it and realise the strength and knowledge in group venues that have paid to have these packs produced. It’s worth it – just not right now, with post-Covid finances. So I hacked the system.

I did my spirits WSET. Did I have most of the knowledge already? Yes, thankfully I did. However, what it gifted me was a model from which to take new staff from zero to hero. I realised I could pick from their model and pass that knowledge forward. I also told any staff who excel that if they have learnt it all, I’d pay for their qualifications. People who put the time in are worth investing in, even if they move on with that knowledge one day, it will always come back to you. If there’s one thing we’ve learned this year, it’s swings and roundabouts.

So, get organised. Use the wealth of information of your forefathers and pass it on in turn. Find whatever brand ambassadors survived the industry apocalypse and put them to work as well. Let’s face it, good brand training has been a turning point for many rookie staff members, from “I do this to get me through uni” to “lifer”. Be patient and gracious with our noobs and don’t swing for the fences right away. I expect to see a lot of classics training and simple drinks on the menu while everyone learns, and that’s great as I love a Whiskey Sour and a Mai Tai anyway.

So please, if you’re new to the industry and reading this, remember to keep smiling on the floor, full hands in, full hands out, clean the loos and of course make sure you find a left-handed banana peeler and my ice mix.