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"The Regular" by Justin Stone

Posted by Josh Childs  July 9, 2013 07:52 AM

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I'm stepping out of the box again for a moment, and having a friend take over; it's the literary equivalent of a minor leaguer (me) having Lou Gehrig (Justin) pinch hit.
Justin Stone is a manager at the DiBicarri brother's Tavern Road in Fort Point, 343 Congress Street, Boston. He has worked in the hospitality industry as a doorman, busboy, maître d', server and bartender. He asks you "all to tip vigorously, mind the service bar and say please followed by thank you."

Justin Stone.jpg

The Regular by Justin Stone

In the hospitality industry, we operate on a very simple economic principle authored by a lovely Italian man named Vilfredo Federico Damaso Pareto. Pareto’s economic principle, known commonly as the 80/20 rule, breaks down simply by stating, 80 percent of your business is generated by 20 percent of your customers. Now, you may ask, “How does this relate to bartending?” Well, any bartender will tell you that at the end of any night, if the regulars did not swing by for a drink or two, their take home will inevitably suffer. A bartender doesn’t necessarily rely on their regular customers for sustenance, especially on a busy night, but over time, the economic principles never lie. Frequent and return customers are the foundation of most successful hospitality enterprises and it’s an essential skill of a talented bartender that they identify, cultivate and nurture their “regulars”.

There’s no bartender that will disagree with me on this principle. The next time that you’re at the airport, stop by one of the bars, buy a round and strike up a conversation with the bartender. I guarantee that they have regulars, business travelers who fly a regular route from Boston to Charlotte and stop in for a drink before hopping on their flight. They don’t necessarily wait around on a weekly basis for these people to show up, but remove these individuals from any group of customers over the long term and most bartenders are reduced to piña colada factories instead of service professionals. Every bar has regulars and these people are the coveted jewels for any establishment. Transient guests may drive their budget or fluff the numbers at the end of a month, but it’s the customers who return time and time again, regardless of their purchasing power, that make the difference in a gratuity based service position.

Serving drinks, as I said, is a mixture of sales and technical skill and it’s very physical. The bar is a stage that is under constant surveillance, siege and bombardment. Head over to Eastern Standard on a Saturday night around eight and see what I mean. You have been there, wading into a three deep bar after work, competing with the throng for the eye contact of a bartender in the middle of shaking and pouring or snapping off a pint. In the midst of all of this physicality and dexterity there’s something every bartender is also doing, they’re watching the crowd. What they’re looking for are familiar faces, return customers, even the person they poured a drink for two hours prior who stopped by the bar for one last round. It’s about staying ahead of your tickets. Generally, a regular will have a preferred beverage and if a bartender sees that face amongst the crowd of drink list requests and whiskey smashes, they can at least take that person of the list of those who desire an inquiry.

Acknowledging regulars, delivering great service and being efficient are core bartending skills. It is a simple and beautiful relationship. The bartender stays on top of the ticket wave and the customer feels attended to, remembered and now they’ve got a drink without saying more than “Yes” or nodding. Find me another industry that can deliver that kind of service. Google, with all of their algorithms relating to your search history, will never be able to nonverbally connect with their customers like a good bartender can with their regulars. It’s a human relationship based on mutual understanding and as I said, it’s the foundation of every successful bartender’s repertoire. Everyone likes being remembered just as much as they like to be thanked.

The regular is more than just an easy way for a bartender to stay ahead of their orders. For a business, the regular is a one man public relations machine. True, the guy sitting at the bar five days a week at my beloved Quarterdeck in Hyannis isn’t the kind of PR machine I’m talking about. He’s just a good dude who works at the airport. Here in the city, a respectable establishment counts on their regulars to spread the gospel, invite their friends to join them on their usual nights and expound on the wonders of the hospitality. My bar visitation habits are almost 100% referral based. I won’t trust a person if they recommend at bar that they haven’t visited in the last week. My dollars are precious little things and I’d rather give them to a bartender who I’m counting on seeing from week to week instead of the guy who works at the bar next to the pool serving me a $15 Heineken.

In late 90’s I was a budding regular at a Brookline pub. I’d frequent the place on my own, walking a good 25 minutes up Harvard Avenue from my apartment just because this was a place where people knew my face and my name. This pub seemed full of regulars, somewhat neighborly and above all, geared first towards hospitality. I had a hell of a time convincing my friends to come with me for quite some time. If you made the decision to venture out with me, you had to come live on my hospitality island. I was always welcomed by name. My friends thought this was quite magical. What they didn't know was that I had put in my time, been a generous and patient guest, and now I had the title that we're discussing here, “a regular”. It's an intangible title, with somewhat elusive benefits to anyone other than the person upon whom the title is bestowed.

I need to make a few distinctions before I go further. There are a few customer-related misconceptions that I've noticed over the years from bar to bar. First, there are people who may come to the bar regularly and may often be recognized by name. However, I've found that there's a difference between someone with a mug hanging above the bar and the person who abides by the code of the “regular”. Repeated patronage does not make a regular. Charles Bukowski was a regular customer at a handful of L.A. Bars, but the bartenders probably hated his guts. If you're a bartender, you know these kind of customers exist. I once worked the door at the old Back Bay Last Drop. There were always customers that would come by around 1:55 AM every Friday night, buy a last call beer, and have to have me kick them out when all the chairs were flipped. They'd push back every time and felt slighted when I stood there and “made them” drink their beer while all the lights were on and the drawers were being counted. Were they regular customers, yes, but they weren't “regulars”. Regulars know when to pay, when to leave and they always say “Thanks” to the bartender on the way out if they can.

Knowing the bartender's name doesn't necessarily make you a regular either. This is also a common sticking point with customers I've dealt with over the years. Come into a bar one afternoon, drop a hundred or so with some of your friends and the bartender, out of sheer salesmanship, might introduce himself before handing you the bill. It's common hospitality. You might come back every Sunday afternoon and be this bartender's bread and butter on the brunch double. However, if you truly care about making your mark, come back solo, make friends with other guests, feel the bartender's pain when it looks like they've had a long night. Tip two bucks on your $3.00 High Life. Build the relationship, make it personal.

A couple of weeks ago I announced to one of the Curley's crew that I had left my job in the neighborhood and taken a position over the river. No more jaunts to the bar on the way home from work. Cambridge and Somerville would become my exclusive territory. One of the lovely people at Curley's asked a question that I think every newly minted customer wants to hear, “Does this mean you'll not be coming back?” I said that I'll most certainly be back as often as possible. I was already halfway through the first half of becoming someone of value – we had passed the name barrier and I've seen some of the bartenders out at other joints. Not returning because of geographic limitations would violate an my old model that I developed back in Brookline, when I walked uphill both ways to get to the pub, despite the weather or lack of companions. We're regulars because we love to be remembered. We love to participate in the great hospitality game. We cherish our relationships and do our best to nurture them with our patronage and good graces. In the end, the great karmic wheel spins for both bartender and customer alike. It's the last vestige of person to person relationships built on mutual appreciation. You can't hashtag that, brother.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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