Ghost Drinker has recently been complaining that the expansion of availability of interesting craft beers in Leeds pubs and bars has not been matched by a corresponding expansion in staff knowledge. Now, he has a point, but I can’t help thinking his expectations are a little unrealistic.
If you are running what is presented as a specialist outlet, then it’s reasonable to expect a good level of product knowledge. In a cheese shop, it wouldn’t be acceptable for a member of staff to say “No idea, mate, I don’t really eat the stuff.” In a pub like the Magnet in Stockport, customers would expect the staff to be able to say something about the guest beers on offer. However, once you get out into more mainstream venues, that level of knowledge and enthusiasm will inevitably be diluted. Plus many bar staff, however hard-working, are only doing it for a short period in their lives.
It’s entirely reasonable to expect staff to be aware of the main regular products and which categories they fall into. For example, surely all bar staff should be familiar with the expected response if a customer just asks for a “lager” or a “shandy”. I’ve had several experiences over the years of bar staff responding with bafflement when I order something clearly displayed on the bar.
But how far should they go beyond that? The average pub stocks over a hundred different varieties of alcoholic drinks – are they expected to be able to give a broad description of all of them? Many pubs have a wide range of malt whiskies, but surely nobody would expect a Polish girl on a three-month contract to be able to explain the difference between Laphroaig and Bruichladdich.
This is why, if you’re offering unusual or specialist products, it makes sense to provide tasting notes, chalkboards etc to give customers some information about them, without requiring a detailed level of staff knowledge. The knowledge will improve over time, especially if some products become regular fixtures on the bar, but it’s never going to match the dedicated specialist bar.
I also can’t agree that a coffee shop worker should be expected to be a coffee drinker. Coffee shops sell plenty of products apart from coffee, just as pubs don’t just sell alcoholic drinks. That’s no more reasonable than expecting all bar staff to be drinkers of alcohol. There are plenty of pub licensees, never mind just bar staff, who are teetotal, and even some who are practising but tolerant Muslims. It doesn’t prevent you from doing a good job provided that you are familiar with the products available and have a positive, enthusiastic attitude. “Meh! I dunno!” is never a good response in any circumstances.