He says it’s all about service, yet once lost his rag with a famous rockstar. He’s dabbled in molecular mixology, but now campaigns for keeping things simple. So, says Alice Lascelles, would the real Wayne Collins please stand up?
Strawberries straight out of a tin! Horrible!’ cries Wayne Collins with a gusto that makes the drinkers on our neighbouring table jump. It’s a Monday afternoon and the man behind Maxxium’s new £3.5m Mixxit bartender training programme is reminiscing about life behind the bar in 1991. ‘Long Island Iced Teas, Sex on the Beach, Attitude Adjusters, Safety Belts and god knows what else. We thought those drinks were the dog’s bollocks. Now we know they were crap!’
Crap they may have been, but in a post-Cocktail era they were the stuff of dreams. ‘Cocktail had been a massive hit in 1988, and you know, any bartender of my generation who says that film didn’t inspire them, well, they’re lying,’ says Collins, ‘although people always make the mistake of thinking Tom Cruise was the hero when in fact it was his mentor, Bryan Brown. All the good bartenders wanted to be Bryan Brown, not Tom Cruise! That film opened a lot of doors – it helped to make bartending be seen as a career rather than just a part-time job.’
Twenty years on, and Collins’s passion for good service has seen him become a mentor to a whole new generation of bartenders, few of whom won’t have attended one of his Maxxium sessions, watched his BBC2 programme or studied his guides at least once in their careers.
‘Good customer service is the route to making money,’ emphasises Collins. ‘It’s important to remember, if someone walks into your bar, they’re not window-shopping. Every person who walks in is a sales opportunity. People say you should look after your regulars, but I always say you should also treat every new customer as tomorrow’s regular.’
The art of the sale
Collins was 12 when he got his first lessons in the art of a good sale, working on a fruit and veg stall in north London. ‘It was hard, days started at 4am and sometimes it was so cold you had sprouts sticking to your fingers, but I really liked it,’ he says, ‘learning how to cut a deal and building up a good rapport with the public, and that’s a big part of what I do today. And you know what? It boils down to something very simple – being polite and genuine.’
Of course, if it really were that simple, Collins would be out of a job, but he maintains that most businesses would do well to pay a bit more attention to some basic tenets of customer service (see box, left).
‘In the last year I have not found a place at any level which ticks all five boxes,’ he laments. ‘The only exception is Salvatore [Calabrese’s bar in Mayfair] – that bar is bang on.’
Get the simple things right and the rest will follow, he maintains. ‘Whatever you offer you should do it well. It annoys me when you go into a cocktail bar and ask for a lager and the bartender rolls his eyes, while if you ask for a daiquiri it’s all, “Which rum? Do you want it blended? Straight up?” He should pour the lager with the same passion.
‘It’s the same with tea,’ he continues, ‘order it and you get a scowl. But you could equally be thinking – what kind of tea? How long does the bag go in? You could make as much of a ceremony out of it as a martini for chrissake!’
Saint or sinner?
‘But people try to run before they can walk. That’s a pitfall for bars, particularly in city centres – they want to be too cool for school.’
Gastropubs, meanwhile, are not being adventurous enough, says Collins, thereby missing a golden opportunity for trading up. ‘Why can’t a decent gastropub make a Collins – you don’t have to shake it, you don’t have to squeeze lots of lemons, it’s just a good squeeze of lemon over ice, a good shot of gin and top with lemonade. Or serve your G&T with half a shot of elderflower cordial – delicious! People won’t mind paying a little more for a well-mixed drink.’
.I’ve been in danger of disappearing
up my own arse sometimes
But surely Wayne Collins, who has been known to dabble in the dark art of molecular mixology, must have been in danger of getting a little too high falutin’ at times?
‘Oh don’t get me wrong, I’ve been in danger of disappearing up my own arse sometimes, absolutely,’ admits Collins. ‘I’ve done all the sins, – but as they say, you’ve got to be a sinner to be a saint…’
One sin that won’t wash with Collins, however, is the failure to adapt to the new drinking legislation. ‘You can put posters up about responsible drinking for the customers, but you’ve got to make the bartenders responsible, too. You’ve got to understand what you’re serving. More and more we’re seeing menus showing the abv of a bottle of wine, or the number of units in a drink, and I’m totally supportive of that. Don’t let yourself be blamed. If we want this industry to progress, that’s something we’ve got to take on board,’ he insists.
As a result, responsible service will form a key part of the new Mixxit programme, which is set to roll out to over 25,000 bartenders in the next three years. Devised with Collins’s fellow trainer, Andy Gemmell, the programme is pitched at three levels – basic, intermediate and advanced – and aims to cover everything from basic drinks making to cocktail history, product knowledge and bar management.
‘The problem I encounter in all sectors of the bar industry is it’s too transient,’ says Collins. ‘Businesses fail to invest in training, they pay low wages and staff leave. The solution is, invest in your staff and they’ll stay around longer. It’s the foundation of building a business.’
.I dumped some glasses and a bottle
on the table and said: do it yourself!
Maxxium is also currently trialling a more in-depth Bar Apprentice programme aimed at training novice bartenders up to fully certified pros in six days. The first class graduated recently and there are now plans to run the programme on a regional basis.
‘My dream would be for this to become the officially recognised industry standard,’ says Collins. ‘It would mean that the qualified people could command certain pay, and the employer would end up with a more professional person.’
And yet sometimes, there are sales techniques that just can’t be taught, admits Collins, harking
back to a night working among the celebs of North Beach, California.
‘It had been a busy evening and Vince Neill [of Mötley Crüe]had been shouting at me all night: “Bourbon! Rocks! Bourbon! Rocks!” I kept serving him until finally I marched over to him, dumped a bucket of ice, some glasses and a bottle in front of him and said: “Do it yourself, fucking rockstar.” And you know what? He burst out laughing and said “Hey! You’re my kind of bartender! I’m partying with you tonight!” He was hardcore…’
Wayne’s five most excellent disciplines of bartending
1 Acknowledgement – When a customer comes in make eye contact, smile, make them relaxed.
2 Recognition – You’ve got the props, so use them. If you’re busy with someone else when a customer comes in, hand them a menu to look at and place a coaster or a beverage napkin in front of them on the bar – this way the customer can look down and think, they know I’m here.
3 Anticipation – Ask them what they’re looking for – get straight in there. A quick reading of your guests is really important. Are they an older couple? Younger? What time of day is it? Will that affect what they’re after? Make suggestions based on their likes and your knowledge.
4 Preparation – Be mindful of your bar set-up, so that you can work systematically without getting flustered. Watching a bartender who’s efficient behind the bar, who’s got that flow going, is part of the pleasure of going to a bar, it’s part of the theatre.
5 Closure – Almost always forgotten – always say please and thank you, when taking orders or credit cards, ask if that’s all they would like, and when they leave, if you have time, make the effort to say goodbye, and next time, welcome back.
Know something else mate…?
London boy Wayne Collins sounds off like a right ol’ sherbet dab* driver
Hampstead, North London
It’s the best corner of the earth – I went to school there, it’s got my new favourite pub, The White Horse, it’s a stone’s throw from Arsenal stadium and it’s got the Heath, which I love.
There’s no such thing – it’s just mixing. I embraced it at first, but I got over it. Is it practical? No. The only things that will have a lifespan are foams.
I’m a lifelong Arsenal fan and I used to be good at cross-country, rugby and the high jump – but I wouldn’t risk it now. Now I could probably just about do the limbo.
I like it with a barspoon of Cointreau, double shot of gin and a slug of Noilly Prat out of the fridge – and stirred, never shaken.
The next big thing
Making cocktails at home – it’s not bad for the on-trade as we’re the ones who are gonna teach them how to do it.
* Cockney rhyming slang: Sherbet dab – cab
Editorial feature from Imbibe Magazine – March / April 2008