Two experienced managers discuss what it takes to make it behind the bar in local night-life establishments.
By Timothy Ferry
Long-term expats will recall when Taipei’s nightlife consisted primarily of girly bars, karaoke clubs, and a handful of Western night spots. Today, the scene could hardly look more different, with hundreds of bars competing for expat and local patrons both young and old.
With the proliferation of Western-style bars, lounges, and nightclubs throughout Taipei, the position of bartender has taken on new prominence. Taiwan Business TOPICS chatted with two longtime expat bar owners and managers to gain insights into what qualities are needed in a good bartender.
Irishman Niall Clinton has played a prominent role in the development of Taipei’s bar scene, having had a hand in some of Taipei’s most popular bars catering to foreigners, including On Tap, Speakeasy, and DV8. As manager of nightlife stalwart Carnegie’s, he has currently been charged with revitalizing one of Taipei’s best-known restaurant-bars.
Englishman Gary O’Connor came to Taipei nearly 20 years ago after stints managing bars and nightclubs in Germany and the Philippines. As the front man for DV8, he is also being tasked with reviving one of Taipei’s most cherished underground expat bars.
What qualities are necessary in a bartender?
O’Connor: We’re looking for someone who is young and attractive, but that’s easy criteria because the Taiwanese are very good-looking people. They should also be interesting to talk to and have good energy. And if they’re left-handed they’ve got an even better chance because I always think that they are more creative.
That said, the fact is that staffing can be difficult whether you are in England or Taiwan, and it’s probably the same in North America. The reason is that while young people are great and bring new ideas and atmosphere, they are unreliable. Actually, they are so unreliable you have to overstaff because you never know if they’ll show up.
Clinton: Bartenders need to speak Chinese and be relatively decent in English. Beyond that they don’t really need to know an awful lot. Obviously it helps if they have some experience, but if they don’t, there’s already enough experience in the existing staff to help them through the process, and show them how cocktails are made, how to treat customers, and if situations arise – which can happen – how to calm things down. After that, there’s not really much else. But it can be pretty busy in here on Friday and Saturday nights and Wednesdays as well, so you do need a wee bit of energy to keep yourself going until four in the morning.
One thing I’ve noticed over the years is that when it comes to being able to banter with customers, there aren’t too many bartenders that are good at it. The humor, the culture, the conversation–they’re all very different [between Taiwanese and foreigners], so it’s not very easy for them to banter with your expat customers. People who can banter with both Westerners and locals are amazing – and rare.
How do customer expectations differ between Taiwanese and expats and how are bartenders expected to manage these expectations?
O’Connor: They all have different wants and needs and you have to keep them all happy – with a smile on your face. Just look after your guests and make them all feel like they are the king. Be generous with them. As for differences, usually Taiwanese people don’t know what they want to drink, so it’s best to say, “look, this is very good, you’ll like it.” Taiwanese want you to recommend something, while Westerners want a choice. Taiwanese also tend to want food which they can share with others while Westerners just want to drink. Westerners will come in and drink and then order food, while the Taiwanese will start with the food first. Who’s easier to deal with? Depending on how drunk they are, they’re both the same.
Clinton: I haven’t noticed an awful lot of differences. One thing, as an Irishman I do pay attention to how a Guinness is poured, and I do notice certain times across the bar when I would think, well, I wouldn’t be happy with that pint. Taiwanese don’t worry so much about the presentation of a pint of Guinness, but I’m not sure if they would be too happy to wait for two or three minutes for a pint to settle. But on the other hand, a Westerner would probably prefer the presentation to be better and would be willing to wait a minute or two for a better pint. So I suppose if you’re put in a spot, the Taiwanese would prefer a bit more time efficiency.
O’Connor: To create a good atmosphere, you need friendly staff and that’s easy for Taiwanese to do because they are friendly anyway. So you just play some good music that’s maybe a little bit different and then give a fair deal. We’re not overpriced here and we give a very fair cocktail. Our whiskies, you know it’s a whisky, and our vodkas, you know it’s a vodka. Also the way we treat drinks. I think we’re the only bar in Taipei if you ask for a vodka you get it in an ice-cold glass. The vodka is cold, not warm.
Also, DV8 is an old name in Taipei, and it moved locations some years ago. With the decoration, we wanted to recreate the atmosphere of the original DV8, so we painted the walls orange again and every month or so we invite different artists to give an exhibition, so that way it’s something to talk about and the artists bring in their friends, of course.
Clinton: Carnegie’s was a lot more of a happening bar say six or seven years ago, before the Taipei 101 area really opened up. And also when the High Speed Rail was being built, you had literally hundreds and hundreds of engineers based in Taipei City and the vast majority who liked to go out for a drink or two or six would come to Carnegie’s, so when that was finished, we did lose a lot of business. And obviously the newer clubs have impacted us as the younger people like to go the newer, hipper clubs. A lot of the bars around here (Anhe Road) have closed down, but we’re still doing okay business.
Mixology is important up to a certain point, but the vast majority of customers come here to drink their beers and drink their wines. Obviously customers who come in here and ask for a cocktail expect a good cocktail, and I hope in general that we satisfy them.
What are some strategies for motivating staff? What role does tipping play in ensuring good service?
O’Connor: People do tip, especially on the weekend. Expat people will tip a lot.
Tipping is important. Believe it or not, even I get tipped, although most of the time if they’re going to tip, they give it to the girls behind the bar. I think it motivates people and I think it should happen more.
Another thing that motivates the staff is that the bar gives them a chance to practice their English – an English environment. So that helps.
Clinton: I think it’s to do with the two supervisors that stand behind the bar most of the time. They’ve got certain standards and expectations for the new staff that come in, and basically they will not be happy if the new staff don’t live up to those expectations.
A lot of foreigners and a lot of business people are flying in from around the world, especially North America and even Europe, and North Americans in particular will give 15 or 20% tips if the service is good. I think it helps a little bit – if business is good, tips can be quite good and it can add a very healthy percentage to the bartenders’ income. But I would say with local bars and more local customers, it’s not in the culture. If you’re salary is NT$28,000 a month, what you take home will still be NT$28,000 or maybe NT$29,000 if you’re lucky. But here they can do much better.
I think there should be some sort of incentive. I will say here the incentive is that it’s not a small bar and there are opportunities if you do show some initiative. You might get a promotion after two or three years to a management position. The three managers here have all spent between eight to ten years here, so obviously their salaries are a helluva lot better than they were when they started. So if you show initiative, there are opportunities to improve your lot in life.
100 Anhe Road, Section 2, Taipei 106.
Tel: 2325-4433. Hours: 11:30 a.m.-2 a.m.
386 FuXing South Road, Section 2, Taipei 106. Tel: Phone: 2733-9039.
Hours: 6 p.m.-1 a.m.