Editor: Service, Svengalis and Powder Keg Diplomacy

When Sam Fish said she wanted to write something for us about service, I was pleased.

A photo of Powder Keg Diplomacy, which I stole from their website without asking first. Sorry chaps.

Having run BarLifeUK for the best part of three years now, it is rare, in London especially, to walk into a bar and not know someone who works there.

This makes it difficult for us to write about service from an experiential point of view, because having a prior relationship with a member of staff completely skews the experience of being in that bar.

This is a fact that makes me wonder about those who review bars (notice I say ‘review’ here, not ‘describe’) whilst being known to the industry. I don’t think you can trust the results as an accurate description of what your average punter will experience at the venue.

Anyway, yesterday I arranged to meet an old friend for a few drinks and a spot of dinner. I’d heard good things about Powder Keg Diplomacy on St. John’s Hill (5 minutes from Clapham Junction Station), and so decided to take her there.

It’s a beautiful little bar with speakeasy / Victoriana leanings. The food and drinks were excellent, as you would expect from a joint outside of London’s center that charges 8 odd quid for a cocktail (they really were excellent, so no quibbles from me about the prices).

Settling down at the bar, I didn’t recognise any of the faces behind it, and at the end of the night when the bartender and I realised we had some mutual friends, he wore a slightly embarrassed look on his face when I mentioned BarLifeUK… He’d obviously not heard of us before.

This suits me down to the ground, because it lets me say that the service there is the best I have encountered anywhere, and have some confidence that we weren’t receiving the customer service equivalent of ‘mate’s rates’.

What was so good about the experience at Powder Keg Diplomacy? Well, the bartender displayed perfect judgment when it came to engaging us with drink suggestions, having a chat and leaving us alone to catch up.

He also went the extra mile, unexpectedly bringing us various spirits to try because my friend, who is not in the industry, had expressed an interest in them. At the end of the night, as we were settling up, he also gave us some very tasty chocolate brandy that they make in the bar, and we walked away talking about how great it was.

These things in isolation might sound pretty standard, but when you add them to attentive, friendly floor staff and great drinks, well, it was a masterclass… We will be going back to the bar very soon.

The experience made me think of some of the training sessions I’ve sat through recently, held by so-called bar mentors. There are many out there who do a great job, are worth every penny that the brands pay them and who offer genuine expertise to bartenders wanting to grow their skills.

But some of these Svengalis, and the weird, flouncy, pseudo-spiritual claptrap they preach can take a hike. Every time I’ve experienced such a training session, I’ve thought ‘Jeez, I really wouldn’t want to spend too much time in front of your bar’. They make me cringe.

The heart of good service lays in giving a shit about what you do, and the people you are doing it for. If a bartender has this as a foundation, a good manager can teach all the other skills required to keep a customer coming back to that bar time and again, and to tell all their friends to go there too.

If you are a drinks brand, next time you are about to fly someone half way round the world at great expense to train a bunch of bartenders, consider saving yourself some cash. Just take them for cocktails at Powder Keg Diplomacy, or any of the dozens of other bars in the UK who have nailed world class customer service, right here on your doorstep.