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Functional by Design: Service Bars Ease Bottlenecks, Boost Volume

It’s a simple fact: Drinks have significantly higher profit margins than food, making smooth, efficient bar operations mission critical for most restaurants. The ability to serve more drinks — and to do so more quickly — equates directly to higher profits and that fact makes careful, strategic design the foundation for highly efficient, profitable bars. A cornerstone of that foundation for many is the service bar, an important area of beverage-program support that can help eliminate service bottlenecks and free the bar proper to focus on the business at hand — engaging with and servicing guests at the bar.

Service bars can take a variety of forms, from utilitarian to elaborate, depending on the concept. But their common element is that they’re meant simply to service the servers who, in turn, service guests.

Service Bar Three Dots TheNavyGrog credit JeffMariniThe Navy Grog at Three Dots and a Dash. Photo by Jeff Marini

John Sofio, president of Built Inc., a Los Angeles-based design-build firm that specializes in high-profile restaurants and nightclubs, says the most common and basic type of service bar is an area within the main bar that’s designated for waiter/waitress service only. The main idea: Get those employees what they need quickly and efficiently, avoiding traffic jams and bottlenecks.

To that end, Sofio says a typical three-well bar might have two wells designated for bartenders serving guests ordering at the bar, while the third is designated as a service well. “That station is all about cranking out drinks for table service,” he says. “It’s definitely worth thinking strategically about a service area, particularly in high-volume operations and restaurants that have serious craft cocktail and/or bottle-service programs.”

Design of that station behind the bar, as well as of the pickup area in front, helps ensure service flows as smoothly as the drinks. For the well area itself, creating a station that’s as self-contained as possible helps to avoid confusion and collisions behind the bar.

Designing that station to ensure that it’s dedicated for service is important, says Adam Weisblatt, president of Last Word Hospitality, a Los Angeles-based hospitality consulting and management firm. But, he adds, the ability to do so comes down to budget, space and forethought. When all three of those are in play, he describes his ideal service-bar design scenario as “a four-foot well with a sink right next to it, trash, glassware, ice, booze, mixers and garnishes right at hand [which servers can access] without having to step away or compete with bartenders serving guests for what you need. That’s the ideal.

“Unfortunately, a lot of times you don’t have that luxury,” says Weisblatt. “But even if it’s just a scrappy little area tucked in back and added to an existing bar, it’s really just about understanding what the station’s purpose is, what you expect from it and positioning it so that whoever’s working there is set up for success and can focus on getting drinks out to the floor.”

Positioning requires thinking both about operations and about controlling guest access, Weisblatt adds. “You need to create some sort of visual and physical buffer around the service-bar area. It might be as simple as bar mats and/or the classic brass rail that creates a dedicated space for servers, or, in new construction, it might be actually shaping and configuring the bar itself to allow for a clearly designated service area. If you’ve got an L-shaped bar with a long side and a short side, for example, it makes sense to position the service bar at the short side away from the door and design it in such a way that it would feel odd for a guest to walk up there and try to order a drink.”

When designing The Nice Guy, a buzzy Hollywood restaurant and nightclub opened by Los Angeles-based lifestyle company The h.wood Group in 2014, Sofio learned a lesson about placing service wells that he says he now applies to all of his bar-design projects. His key takeaway: Whenever possible, place the service bar area near the opening in the bar.

“I wanted one area of The Nice Guy’s bar to be this four-person section that would be the best spot in the whole restaurant,” Sofio recalls. “It’s a great spot. But I made the mistake of putting the opening there for employees to get in and out of the bar, and I set up the service bar on the other side. It’s a small opening — less than 2 feet — but it quickly became apparent that the service bar would be wherever the opening to the bar was, even if servers aren’t actually coming in and out from behind the bar. That great four-stool section ended up becoming the de facto service area because it was easier operationally. Now, I always have the opening in the bar where the service area is.”

Freestanding Support

In operations with enough space and volume to warrant the investment, service bars can also be completely separate from the main bar, either pared down and tucked in the back of the house or fully finished and positioned as part of the front-of-the-house show.

A back-of-the-house setup, Sofio says, proves particularly effective in nightclubs or banquet situations where a large volume of bottle service is common. Typically set up as full-service bars, these behind-the-scenes areas require ticket printers, easy access to a lot of ice for filling wine/champagne buckets and for cocktails, and often include simple, low shelving for staging drinks.

While in the back of the house and largely out of sight, such service bars are best positioned as close to the front of the house as possible, Sofio adds, even more so than a kitchen expo station or coffee station. “You want to be able to get those drinks out quickly. And whenever a service bar element is back of house, it needs to be positioned so there’s no cross-traffic between kitchen and bar service,” he says.

At Arnaud’s in New Orleans, this type of service bar has been a staple since Prohibition. Located in an enclosed room between the kitchen and warewashing area, just off the server dining-room entrance, this bar services only the restaurant’s main 170-seat dining room. The restaurant, which today encompasses 17 dining rooms in all, also includes two main bars where customers are welcome.

Yet, because Arnaud’s 250-square-foot service bar struggles to effectively handle today’s cocktail types in its designated area, it is undergoing a renovation. “We’ve done minor tweaks over the years to keep up with demand, as cocktails have become a greater part of the dining experience,” says Katy Casbarian, Arnaud’s proprietor. “But this will be one of our bigger projects and we expect to use the service bar as a commissary for our other bars after the updates.”

The overhaul includes providing additional storage for more ice types, glassware and beverages; replacing and rearranging equipment for greater efficiency; and adding a second service station. The new design, Casbarian says, will maximize service bar space so there are fewer steps involved in making cocktails.

As a tiki bar at which 90 percent of the menu is cocktails, Chicago’s Three Dots and a Dash, part of Lettuce Entertain You’s restaurant portfolio, also has a long history of employing service bars behind the scenes. “Traditionally, back-of-the-house service bars were big in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s,” says Beverage Director Kevin Beary. “Ours also is behind the scenes, yet not completely hidden.”

Service Bar Main Room Three Dots and a DashThe service bar for the main dining room at Three Dots and a Dash remains behind the view of main dining room guests.

It also is not adjacent to the kitchen, which is located upstairs in Three Dots’ sister restaurant, The Bamboo Room. “Our service bar is considered our kitchen, since that’s where the heart of our business is generated,” says Beary. “This bar produces 60 percent of our cocktails as well as all of our large-format beverages, designed to be shared by a group.”

While it does more volume than the main bar, Thee Dot’s service bar is smaller in size, with two workstations compared with the main bar, which has three wells for a maximum of four bartenders. Bartenders prepare all cocktails and servers garnish them. The service bar can produce as many as 2,000 cocktails on a Saturday, according to Beary.

Kitchen designer Elizabeth Kuczera, owner of Chicago-based Equipment Dynamics Inc., (EDI), has worked with Three Dots and a Dash. “Here, the service bar is so necessary for support because of the complexity of its cocktails,” she says. “It keeps speed and quality intact for seamless service.”

An Efficient Engine

Tobin Ellis, owner of Barmagic, a Las Vegas-based bar design firm, agrees the complexity of today’s cocktail programs helps drive a resurgence in demand for separate service bars. “People are chipping their own ice and squeezing fruit to get juice, so drinks are more complicated,” he says. “There’s a need for a more robust engine to drive production of higher volume and more intricate drinks.”

Service Bar Tobin service bar 1Service bars can drive efficiency with a functional design, such as this setup from Tobin Ellis of Barmagic.

In addition, with the industry’s increasing labor costs and availability issues, operators need to streamline operations and improve throughput more than ever before. “This is where a back-of-house service bar comes into play,” says Ellis. “With the right design, these bars can produce three to five times the production of a front-of-house service bar, and I have experienced apples to apples in the same space as comparison.”

For best access for a behind-the-scenes service bar, Sofio notes that integrating “in” and “out” doors — typical in enclosed kitchens — creates the most efficient flow of service. Where space doesn’t allow for that, designing the service bar as an expo pass, with shelves for staging drinks ready for pickup, is the next best approach, he says. “In that case, it’s best to design the station so that it’s wide enough for three people abreast,” he adds. “You don’t want to create a bottleneck with servers having to wait in line or be jammed up in there. There has to be easy in and out, no matter what type of scenario you’re considering.”

When service bars are tucked in back, finishes and equipment can be selected for speed and efficiency versus aesthetics. FRP (fiberglass reinforced panel) walls, stainless-steel shelving and standard versus glass-door refrigeration get the job done.

“With service bars, much of the bar setup frustrations don’t exist,” says Ellis. “You don’t have to worry about line of sight or fancy finishes but instead can make it functional without the aesthetics.”

Stand-alone service bars need not, however, be simply utilitarian and out of sight. Just like open kitchens, they can add energy and showmanship as well as efficiency and speed of service to dining rooms.

“I’ve seen a bit more of this type of service bar being incorporated lately,” Weisblatt says. He notes it can be a nice solution for multilevel operations, with a traditional guest-access bar downstairs and more formal dining upstairs. “You can design it such that the service bar upstairs has no stools and is positioned so that it’s clear that it’s for waitstaff only,” he says. But it can be a very cool-looking feature that adds energy to the room — almost like an open kitchen, but set up to supply drinks to the floor.”

Sofio agrees, noting, “A room without a bar can be a pretty boring space. Even if you can’t order a drink at it, a nicely designed service bar can help to energize a space and bring it to life. Yes, labor can be an issue,” he adds, “but if an operation is doing enough volume to require another well and another bartender, it’s an equal if not more efficient path to dedicate an area for a service bar.”

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