Conversation with Michael Callahan. Part 3.
The last part of Michael's working experience abroad is about the staff' and the guests' mentality.
We started Compound Collective in late 2016 and over the past few years, we've grown to the point that we have done quite a few international projects. So the perspective is interesting. We've done consulting in the US and Europe, and a lot, of course, throughout Asia, from Jakarta to deep in China.
The big difference in Asia, I think, is that staffing expectations here are a little bit different. The staff isn’t really respected as a talent. So trying to convince the owners that we need to pay a better salary to get better talent is very difficult because they have already modeled their business on having very cheap staff. And we say, ‘Okay. But you know the very old saying: “You get what you pay for”. If you pay cheap, you get cheap. If you pay well, you get good quality. And if you want to have a good cocktail bar, you need people to stay and to learn and to grow and to mature. And that means you have to pay them so they want to stay and don't go to another bar later.’
I think the biggest issue in Asia is convincing owners that they need to invest in their staff. Pay more to have more quality, don't pay less to get more. Cause at the end of the day, we always try to tell them, ‘You pay maybe $10 for 10 people. I'd rather get six good people and you pay them $13 — it's the same price.’ Then they're like, ‘No, no, we only pay $10 per person’ (or something like that, it doesn't matter, it's different in every country). But the mentality is often the same. Get cheap staff and if they don't work, get another one. But it takes a long time to master a very good craft bar program. It takes a long time to understand spirit categories and techniques, to master hospitality.
So that's the biggest issue in Asia, and in the US it's arrogance. Americans are so proud, even the staff who are not experienced in craft bars. They're like, ‘I already know this. My drinks are great. My guests love me’. We’re, ‘Your drinks are not that good’. And they're, ‘Well, my guests love my drinks. They come every day for my drinks’. Or like, ‘Listen, we're just trying to show you how to make the drinks even better’. And they're like, ‘I don't need to learn. I already know what I'm doing’. So in the US, we have oftentimes this sense of pride, which is really annoying and hard to breakthrough.
Nobody wants to admit that they're not as good. You know, everyone's too proud. Yes, they work very hard and their level of hospitality is of the best in the world. Americans come with a background in hospitality, it’s almost natural. We're grown up with it. It surrounds us everywhere you go. But the ability to admit that you're wrong is not necessarily something Americans are good at. So it’s very difficult to get them to realize, that they're not as good as they could be or that they're wrong. In Asia at least, the staff is more willing. They're saying, ‘Oh wow, I'm learning something new. Show me more’. Whereas in the US it's definitely like, ‘Fuck off, I'm doing it my way’. You show them something and they smile, and then you turn around and they go back and do it the old way.
So it's really annoying to consult in the US unless you get a really good team, which does happen. If you can hire the team, it's great. But if you get thrown into a team of people like at a hotel who’s been there for 10 years, they don't want to change at all. And strong support from upper management is critical here. We have been lucky to have some great GM's unstick stubborn staff members when working in the US.
And then in Europe, it's actually pretty good. Working there has actually been pretty good. In all of the projects we've done in Europe, most of the staff have been very hungry to learn. They absorb everything you give them and they grow. And you’re checking one-two years later and they've become a bar manager or beverage director. So I think in Europe they take an F&B, especially a bartending, more serious.
They say, ‘This is my career and I'm having a chance to learn from a mentor’. Then they really do show up. They take notes and they implement them. To Europeans, this is a career as it was maybe for their father or their uncle, who was also a barman for 40 years and had a good life.
I think in Europe having a trade, working through that trade and growing on it, is something that people understand. For them, this is the long journey and it’s worth it. You can be a master of your trade over a long time if you stick with it, and constantly learn. In the US they want an immediate return, immediate satisfaction and they get cocky. And then, in Asia, the staff isn't even given a chance. They're not given investments. They're very rarely given the tools and they're not given the incentive. So that's really the difference when it comes to the operation side between the three.
The guest’s side’s not really that different. US people are very accustomed to cocktails. In Asia, people are just exploring cocktails, but they like to go out just as much as in the US. And in Europe, the same thing — people love cocktails. So I think the biggest changes for consulting are really more on the operations and owner side: the investment in the staff, the ability for the staff in each market to adapt and accept what you're trying to teach them.
As for the market differences, it's all just a journey, right? We all start somewhere. You know, even as bartenders, we have to remember when we had our first Old-fashioned or Pisco sour, or when we had a first Daiquiri that was actually good. So everyone has to learn somewhere. And even throughout an experienced market, like London or New York, you're going to have guests when this is their first time ever having a cocktail. It happens less and less in those markets. But it happens. And if you're a destination cocktail bar, it happens a bit more cause people want to have a cocktail and they look up online, ‘What's the top cocktail bars?’ And then they say, ‘Okay, I'm going to go there’. And that's where they get their first cocktail.
The only difference throughout Asia is that you're having more of those guests who are at their first time, first week, first month, or a year of drinking cocktails. And they're still excited about the basics and the classics. They're still trying to figure out what their pallet is and what their style is. And that's great!
I think the hardest thing about leading a guest is getting them through that initial stage of exploration and understanding. But it's also the most rewarding. It's our opportunity to the be the most impactful for a market. It's very great for us to be able to provide that experience for the guests in the US. A lot of them had already been through that journey, so we're just making drinks as they order them. But here we can inspire, we can educate, we can be that bartender who turns somebody on to a classic cocktail that they never had before. You know, if they drank mojitos we can get them drinking all kinds of different rum drinks. Like, Queen’s Park Swizzle or Old Cuban. And they will be like, ‘Wow, what's that?’ You know, it's our chance to really expand their understanding of how beautiful and how diverse our community and our market is. And how talented bartenders can be if they put time and passion into it.
So I find that it's actually the better place for me to be. I don't necessarily enjoy as much being in a market that's fully mature because I don't get to see the sparkle in the eyes of the consumers. Sure, it can get tiring that you have to explain to almost every guest the same basic stuff all the time. But if every time you do it — you do it right, and you do it with passion, honesty, and conviction, then you see the sparkle in their eyes. You can watch a guest start to realize that drinking is so much more than just, you know, Long Islands and Frozen Daiquiris. That's very, very rewarding.
Of course in Singapore, it is happening less and less because the market is becoming more and more educated. So we get less of those people for whom it's their first time, but it still happens and it's still a great opportunity for a bartender to be that person. You know, everyone gets one or two experiences in life that are a gateway and opening of a door. And when it comes to guests who are drinkers, there are only one or two times in their life when they go to a bar and a bartender changes the way they look at drinking. So you will always be that person for them. Here in Asia, we get to be that person a lot more often than I used to be in, say, San Francisco. And that's great. I mean, you are forever going to be the person who made them the first great cocktail and opened their eyes to a whole community. And that's a pretty important and powerful position to be in.
And if you don't have the passion or you don't have the love for our market, then perhaps it's better for you to go to one of the more mature markets. Where you can just be, I don't want to say a robot, but you can just go to work, make your drinks, and then you can go home. But here you have to have the passion to help to guide people so they understand what they're drinking, understand the product, and understand what this means and how diverse it can be.
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