Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Early doors (More on the Apothecary debate)

As I noted a couple of weeks or so back, The Drugstore (as Dr Manhattan and I liked to call Apothecary) has been getting a very bad press lately.

I mentioned in that earlier post that Leon Lee, one of the owners, had replied on the City Weekend thread in which much of the criticism of the place had been aired, but didn't seem to me to have done a very good job of soothing anyone's ire. When I last dropped by the bar, I saw that they've pinned up a set of 'House Rules' on the door - seemingly complaining about rambunctious behaviour they've suffered from some patrons. Like the City Weekend 'explanation', this comes across as a bit whiny and self-righteous. I suggested at the end of my first post on this that I had a feeling that it was an attitude problem of the owners/management, a lack of flair for customer relations that was the biggest cause of The Drugstore's sudden slump in popularity.

From Leon's City Weekend post, it would appear that perhaps the bar has simply been a victim of its own popularity: it was starting to get so busy - at least on weekends - that it had been necessary to introduce a 'door policy', i.e. to limit the number of people who could come in.

I am unconvinced of this explanation. Setting a maximum on the number of punters you can accommodate at one time should not equate to a 'no standing at the bar' policy (the major complaint that disgruntled customers have been making, and seem to be continuing to make). If they just mean that they don't want to let people in to stand at the bar while they wait for a table when they're at or close to their supposed capacity, they should make that clearer. (And they should explain it, above all, to their staff, who all seem to think it means that standing at the bar is not allowed at any time for any reason.) Refusing to let people come in to wait/stand at the bar when there is clearly room to do so is naturally going to piss them off. The 'maximum numbers' policy - like so much else at that place - does not seem to be well thought-out or well implemented.

Well, for a start, a numbers cap is not the same as a 'door policy'. If you start talking about a 'door policy', people fret that they're being excluded because of the way they dress, or their age, or their accent or something. I would suggest that the best way of implementing a numbers cap would be to have a sign on the door that says something like: Sorry, we just can't comfortably fit any more people in at the moment. Please try again in 20 minutes or so, or give us a call on.... to see if we're a bit less busy.

Having a guy on the door turning people away for no very clearly explained reason - for reasons that might be part of an unwritten dress code, or a judgement that your 'face does not fit' - is extremely bad for your image.

Moreover, most prospective customers would surely turn away unbidden if they saw that the place was that busy, so you'd think a formal numbers cap would be superfluous (but perhaps not?). A lot of the negative feedback about the place seems to have come from people who had had a hard time of getting in, or at any rate of being allowed to stand at the bar, even when it wasn't all that busy at all.

And they only just realised the need for a numbers cap?? The place is not all that big, so on the basis of space alone there's obviously an upper limit. Leon mentioned a figure of 65, based on the number of seats. I'm surprised they have that much seating, but.... you have to reckon on less than optimal use of your seats most of the time (tables of 4 may only have 2 or 3 people at them, etc.). You can't comfortably get very many people at the bar (standing or otherwise). And my guess is that the place will start feeling uncomfortably crowded - and uncomfortably noisy - with only 40 to 50 people in there. So, your numbers cap ought to be set somewhere around there - and you should have realised that before you opened.

But even that's probably way too many, given that (the last time I looked, anyway) they only have two bartenders. It takes the best part of 2 minutes to make a cocktail carefully, and you can't get your average much below that without putting intolerable pressure on your staff and compromising the quality of your product. You have to figure that most people are going to drink at least 2, maybe 3 drinks an hour (tip: giving larger measures would not only increase customer satisfaction but reduce the demand on your barmen) - so, each barman can only service around 10 customers, 12 at the outside (and you ought to cut your barmen some slack in this kind of calculation, so that they're not continuously working flat out; and so that there's not too much of a wait even if several people place orders in quick succession).

I would say Apothecary is only set up to handle 20 to 25 people drinking cocktails at a time, and if they've been getting significantly over that number, it's no wonder they've started getting such terrible reviews.

I observed in my initial review - during the 'honeymoon period' of their soft opening back in December - that there were a number of things they needed to do to speed up the service: having waitresses or non-specialist barmen who could fill orders for standard mixed drinks, beer, and wine (They don't have wine, I've recently learned - that's just crazy! And they could do with a better beer selection too. You can't insist that everyone should drink cocktails!); and having one or more runners to service the back bar, to keep the cocktail-mixing stations constantly replenished with fresh ice and clean implements, maybe even to ferry the bottles to and fro, etc., to optimise the efficiency of your mixing guys. I should probably add to these tips: get at least one more cocktail barman - for your busiest nights, at any rate.

Leon's whingeing about how "artisanally made" cocktails take so much time to prepare comes off as precious and self-satisfied. And it's BULLSHIT. The cocktail orders are taking too long to be filled because they don't have enough staff, and the bar is not efficiently run. Sort that out, and your customers may start loving you again.

Although I'd suggest you also need to ditch the attitude. And the overpriced snacks. And the misfiring 'homemade' fetish (that ginger beer is just nasty; and the bitters ain't much better). And think about increasing some of your pours. And add some quality beer and wine choices. And lose that service charge.

That's not really so much to ask. But Apothecary's owners unfortunately exude this air of "Oh, but our bar is already PERFECT. You just don't understand how difficult it is to run a bar like this. We don't need impatient, unappreciative, unsophisticated customers like you."

Er, no it isn't. Yes, I do. And you can't disrespect your customers like that and stay in business.

Good luck, boys. I'd say you've got about three months to turn it around. Of course, it's a little unfortunate that summer's nearly here and you don't have a terrace, but.... the task is not impossible.

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