Taking time to polish up before taking on bar ownership, but rather than a focus on bartending techniques, the spotlight shifted to customer relations
As an outsider to all of this I thought that the work of a bartender has been the same as it ever was. Would you say that things change ever so slightly in the profession depending on where you’re standing in history?
It’s okay if things don’t change, but bars are based in the service industry, so customer satisfaction cannot be negated. It’s not about what the bartender thinks, but rather what the majority of customers want. That’s the thing you have to prioritize. When you polish things up based on that, different changes will occur here and there. There’s this idea of “stickiness” being characteristic to Japan, which I’ve never heard about from a bartender, but it’s talked about in popular books from abroad. It’s probably similar to how the idea of “glaze” is characteristic to some of the cooking here, like a teriyaki glaze.
It might be a little hard to explain, so let’s use a martini (*3) as an example. If you stir in a little ice you’ll get a silky martini that’s quite intense. But if you delicately stir in large bits of ice and let it slowly dissolve, you’ll get a martini that’s very thick and fragrant at the same time. Differences in viscosity is what creates these little marvels in cocktail making.
These cultural ideas gradually found favor with customers here in Japan, which turned them into standard practice.
In other words it’s less about whether we change or not, but rather change stems from what customers are into. We’re not perfect, and there are other drinks and methods out there that we’ve never heard of. When that’s the case it’s imperative to learn these things right away. Just recently I had a chance to learn from American and European visitors that were here. There are a lot of people out there who have changed how they do things after learning from customers and making novel discoveries based on those interactions.
*3. Martini A landmark gin-based cocktail. It’s sometimes referred to as the “king” of cocktails. One of the theories behind the drink’s origin is that it was concocted by a bartender named “Martini” who worked at a hotel in New York City.
Let’s talk a bit about when you became a bar owner. Am I right to assume that you had already opened up your own bar when you were winning victories at all of those competitions?
No, I actually still didn’t have my own bar.
When I was 24, which was about a year and a half after I took up a position at that long-standing bar in Ginza, I had my first win at a contest put on by an association for scotch whiskey. It was the 4th time I had entered. The 3 times I competed before that the top spot was taken by truly renowned competitors that were considered to be masters of the industry. I came in as a rookie and just moved on from there.
This was between ‘89 and ‘90, right when the Japanese economic bubble burst. Opening up a place of your own wasn’t a casual endeavor. So if you wanted to open a place that was say 15 tsubo (1 tsubo roughly equates to 3.31 square meters) in size with 10 counter seats and a single table, you would have to put up 50 to 60 million yen at the very least. STAR BAR wasn’t exceptionally big as far as bars go, but even so it took 80 million yen. It would soar up to more than 100 million yen if for further expansions.
I didn’t know anything about owning a bar. When I had some high profile guests come in, some of whom were involved in real estate, they asked me straightforwardly about the property and whether it was like getting an apartment or something like that. I told them that it was much different and that once I had ownership I had to pay a high monthly lease.
There are also costs involved with getting your own bar ready to open as well. So I assume you have to be ready for all of that kind of stuff. Is there anything in particular that bartenders need in order to come out of this successfully?
It’s hard to say anything definitive about this, but as far as I know I think you’re better off if you’re more of a customer service type than a technical type. You’ll have a hard time making it if you’re the silent type. Customers don’t find that interesting. Even if your gifted with extreme talent it won’t come through if you can’t relate to other people.
My original mentor, who worked for over 50 years in the bar industry, was a customer service type of course. That same mentor of mine opened up a bar in 1968 at age 34 or 35. In those days a chief bartender earned 30 thousand yen a month. During that time it cost 8 million yen to open a small bar in Ginza with just 10 counter seats. That would’ve been 22 years worth of salary! There was no way to do it on your own.
Things worked out when the bar my mentor was working at closed after the owner decided to retire. The bar’s regulars said their goodbyes and then one customer in particular asked my mentor about maybe going in together to get a bar started. All of this support started coming in from customers to help get the new bar opened up.
Things are much different these days, so it’s impossible unless you find yourself in extraordinary circumstances. I want others to know that you have to take it seriously. That being said, it definitely helps if you build connections with those around you.
A chance opportunity pops up after making crucial connections
How old were you when you opened up STAR BAR? And to add to that, how did things come together to make that happen?
It was in 2000 and I was 35 at the time.
The place I was working at in those days had a really nice atmosphere to it, so I wasn’t thinking too much about opening my own bar. But I had younger colleagues working there with me, and I started to think about how there would be fewer opportunities if I stayed on indefinitely.
That got me thinking about starting something on my own.
A friend of mine opened a place in Ginza’s 1-chome area and said that I should join in by getting involved in the same area to form a bar scene. That prompted me to start looking around Ginza 1-chome. Around 20 years ago there was a tree-lined path that would get pitch black after midnight with no street lights. The real estate office I went were having a hard time finding tenants for commercial properties in that type of environment.
Around that time I had a chance to talk with the relative of the current owner (STAR BAR’s property owner) who inherited it. The space itself was on the basement floor with little room, but there was some storage space there with cardboard boxes, so we talked about making it work by clearing away the boxes.
I talked with the owner about using a company name to write up the contracts under. The owner told me that the contract was already under their own company, so either way it didn’t really matter. In the end I ended up signing the contract as an individual rather than a company. From there things went well for me, and the price never went up for me once over 20 years! (laughs).
And you’ve made various expansions to it as well it seems (laughs). Yet again that president from your bartending school was right about Ginza being a good fit for you. It was all meant to be!
I am truly grateful, that’s for sure.
The people here in Ginza all have their own version of the neighborhood. It’s a natural habitat of sorts. People who make their roots in a place like this have a certain air about them. There’s a glamour to it all, which really captures what Ginza is all about.
It’s not that I think that Ginza has to be like this, but I don’t think I would take to it if it were different.
Truth and honesty as the essential ingredients for serving as a bartender
As you mentioned before up until that point you were not a customer service type. Your focus early on in your career was geared toward creativity and technique. So I imagine that transitioning into a bar owner was a little difficult at first?
Oh yeah, it certainly was. But, after I opened I eventually figured out that customer service was the key to running things smoothly.
Some of my friends in the bar scene had amazing customer service skills. An honest approach also seemed to really work for them. They were good with the technical side of things as well. They could sell anything just by making customers happy. I was amazed by that, and it made me want to do the same thing. I thought to myself that even if I was a different type of bartender there was still something to take from all of this. Even today I still think about things this way.
I didn’t fill up the bar with people right away back in those days, so sometimes I would have extra time to myself. When customers came in on days like that I would ask, “What twist of fate brought you today?” After that conversation starter they would sit and start chatting. I think it caught them off guard a little bit, but all in all it actually ended up being a good way to greet people. Before I knew it I had customers coming in every day (laughs)!
That kind of forwardness in customers service was a big surprise to a lot of people if they hadn’t yet experienced it. When I noticed that there were people who responded really well to this style of service, I felt a boost in confidence and started to think that maybe an honest, straightforward approach was the way to go.
Originally you didn’t take too well to customer service, but you managed to learn and make it happen. Do the types of skills that bartenders need to have change together with the times?
More and more new techniques come out one after another, like vacuum preparation that uses an espuma(*4).
These sorts of techniques have the potential to produce nice results, so the process of trial and error is probably still going on. When it comes to which new techniques are in demand, this is important as far as pushing the industry forward is concerned, but ultimately it’s up to the whole world. It’s a sort of net total.
*4. Espuma A preparation technique that utilizes nitrous oxide to make a mousse-like culinary foam.
A net total?
Basically when you remove all of the extras around something.
This isn’t to say that new ways of doing things are rejected, but right now everything is dependent on service oriented aspects of the profession. It’s like a show or performance. As a piece of entertainment it’s amazing to see awesome cocktail shaking techniques in action. But, what’s really important is when you taste something and see that these different techniques have improved the flavor. There’s a chef I know who saw me shaking up a cocktail and said to me, “If that actually makes the flavor better then I’m going to start spinning my fish like that too!” (laughs).
When I’m serving up a cocktail the starting point for me is rooted in good flavor. A martini for example, no matter how good you make it, will never live up to its potential if the person you’re serving it to doesn’t enjoy its flavor.
What I want the most in a drink is for it to be pleasant and enjoyable. By pleasant I mean an adjustment of sorts, like how they use seasoning in cooking. It’s a lot like adjusting the temperature of your bath. Some want a steaming hot bath, while others like it on the cooler side. The important thing is to be mindful of whether people are fond of something or not.
This of course means that you have to understand what your customers are feeling. That’s the only way you’ll be able to make the right adjustments. I think that both food and drink are the same when it comes to this. They both come down to emotions and feelings. The bar industry has to be especially focused on these things, because there is no way we can compete with food.
There’s an old saying America that goes like, “If you want to commit suicide then go and open a bar.” These are places where you can hear different stories, even if you don’t think much of them at first. More than any other business bars are a real gateway to people’s emotions. Take the word “bartender” and just think of the “tender” in the “bar.” You’re like a mediator who takes a sympathetic approach to hospitality. The implication is that you’re a director or manager. Partly a bodyguard as well.
If a customer comes in and they’re feeling down in the dumps about something then you push to cheer them up. That’s the truth of it. It’s like an American movie where you’re loading up shot glasses and telling them to cut it out and pick themselves back up. It’s really like that. There’s a customer service aspect to all of this, but as a bartender the important things with customers are truth and honesty.
If you fail and there is nothing that you can do about it, then it’s important to separate that out. For instance I remember this one time when I complimented a customer about their jacket and they lashed out at me saying, “What do you know about anything, kid!?” In most cases you would just apologize and try to remedy the situation, but I turned around and said, “I said it cause I thought it was true.” Then I added, “I don’t say things that I don’t mean.” If it comes from the heart then it’s good. It keeps in line with your own sense of truth.
There’s one answer in all of this. You can’t serve customers if you wake up in the morning and start thinking about all of things you regret having said. It’s about being truly honest with yourself, regardless if you’re feeling happy or sad.
What do you place importance on in your pursuit of truth and honesty?
Ever since I was young it’s been about being able to live right. Live in an everyday kind of way. The rank and file corporate workers that come here to Ginza are, from my perspective at least, trying to be successful at what they do. So I think that we have to be there on the other end for them.
I don’t actually like drunkards, but you know there are people who have accomplished great things at their work even though they are here drunkenly rambling on. I’ve told my staff that quite a few times. We’re here on the other end for people like that, so if your life isn’t stable then you’ll run into some really complex feelings. If you go about things that way then it’ll show up in your work and your relations with customers will worsen. But I ground myself in an everyday style of living that means that I’m aware of stuff like this. By doing it that way I can stay truthful.
I had a customer one time that was working as an instructor at a prep school, but they were feeling completely dejected about it all. They told me that up until that point they had never known failure, but once they got into the professional world their self confidence went out the door when they started coming in contact with the best of the best. At first I just said one thing to them, “Are you a fool or something?” Then with nothing less an complete honesty I said, “Hey if you’re gonna just sulk and drink it up then go do it at home. Do you think it’s okay to just throw your hands up after failing? People lose all the time. That’s an obvious fact. There’s always gonna be someone out there with more skill, accomplishments, and the like.”
After I put it bluntly like that they just sank down even further. I started to wonder if maybe I went to far with my honestly, but when they got up to leave they turned and said, “Thanks for getting me back on my feet!”
Maybe you could say that that’s a rough kind of bar (laughs), but in the end it goes back to what I was saying about types. You have the cheerful types that lend an ear with a smile on their face, and then you have the types like me who cut through with honesty. The way you do things are going to be different depending on the type of person you are, but the important thing is less about skill but rather a neutral viewpoint, a perspective for relating to customers. You can dress up the atmosphere all you want, the main thing that’s going to decide the future of your bra is your compatibility with other people.
Are there ever situations where an honest approach is daunting?
Certainly. That’s why sometimes it’s more than just simply speaking your mind.
The first thing I do is get on the same level as them. If I don’t pay enough attention then I’ll end up offending them right from the start. If I level with them then they’re more able to let go and let their guard down a bit. You have to start by paying attention to them. That part is crucial.
On the service end of the things, sometimes you’ll get a customer that asks for Wild Turkey on the rocks, but when you give it them they say it was supposed to be a Jack Daniels. If you retort back that they’re wrong you’ll just spiral into a meaningless argument, so I just apologize in the moment and move on.
Then when I come back with the replacement drink I’ll strike up conversation again by saying something like, “Oh I could’ve sworn that you said Wild Turkey before.” That shows that my ears really are open, and they’ll pick up on the fact that I’m actually lending an ear.
It doesn’t really matter whether the problem is solved or not, it’s just about getting the words out in the air. Also, sometimes it’s more than just leveling with them. You need a degree of self-sufficiency as well.
Sometimes a first-time customer will see me pouring some special whiskey that’s for regulars only and they’ll ask me why they can’t partake in that same bottle. I get where they are coming from, but I can’t offer that kind of service to customers who just walked in for the first time ever. I don’t just flat out refuse them. I apologize and tell them that it’s not really anything to worry about after all. Hopefully they see it that way and just continue on drinking after letting it drop.
These days people don’t really show their emotions all that much. Unlike in the past it’s become impossible to pay lip service. Sorry means sorry. If you can’t do that means you can’t do it. You’ll run into trouble if you don’t go all in.