30/08/2023 Cara Devine is the Bar Manager at Bomba Tapas Bar in Australia and the Co-Creator of Behind the Bar, a Youtube Channel that Teaches You Everything About Bar and Booze.
Tell us a little bit about yourself. How did you begin your career and how did you progress into this role?
I have been working in the hospitality industry since I was old enough to have a job! But I started taking it seriously about 10 years ago after seeing some masters of the craft at work and talked my way into working at cocktail bars in Glasgow before doing a working holiday in Australia. When I decided to stay longer in Melbourne I took a job at Bomba, and have been lucky enough to have a lot of career progression within that company, working across both the bar and the floor and in supervisory and management positions.
Define your role and the tasks involved in your role.
I am the Venue Manager for the Rooftop bar. I am responsible for staffing, product buying, menus and costings, overseeing prep and cleaning tasks, liaising with other departments to coordinate functions and events, PR for the venue, and also less glamorous stuff like making sure the beer lines get cleaned! We are not a very big venue so I still do plenty of service hours, usually on the floor, generally overseeing the running of the shift, but I still like to rock the cocktail dispense station every now and then.
What questions would you ask the bar owner before you plan your sales growth strategy?
I think it's important to understand their vision, both conceptually and where in the market you stand.
We've always had quite a clear concept in the kitchen at Bomba - traditional Spanish tapas with a modern Australian twist - so it's easy for me to lean on while making products and menu decisions for the bar and keep it in line with the venue vision. For example, all of our wines are either Australian or Spanish, and that's a good point of difference for us.
I often talk to the owners about value perception - we like people to be pleasantly surprised by the quality of the offering for the price point, but we don't do happy hours/specials, etc. because it just doesn't fit right for the brand.
How can suppliers work with you to drive sales?
Of course, the simplest way is to help you achieve a sharp price point! Sometimes I will go to suppliers with a price I want to list something at e.g. I want our 'house' beer on tap to be $xx, so I need the keg price to be $xx and we work from there to see if it's something they can accommodate. Often you can negotiate volume or longer-term commitments which allows smaller independent brands to compete price-wise with the big boys with the promise of ongoing support.
Otherwise, it really depends on the venue I think; we don't have much space for heavily branded items but things like tastefully branded umbrellas in an outside space can do plenty of subliminal advertising, or help to create interesting serves that make people say 'I want whatever that is!' when they see it go out over the bar.
Give us an example of a profitable bar menu program with examples of names and why you have them.
I think it's important to take into account labor time as well as the cost of goods. Something might not have particularly expensive ingredients but if it has a very time-consuming homemade aspect then you want to price it a little higher to account for that. Similarly, I have no problem keeping easy-to-prepare drinks (spritzes, etc.) at a slightly lower price point because you're always glad when someone orders that rather than another shaken drink in the middle of a really busy service!
I use a lot of local brands because I have a good, direct relationship with them so you can usually reach out to them if you know you'll be using plenty of their product and work out volume discounts, and I try and offer these at a sharp price point to encourage guests to try something new. Bigger name brands tend to sell themselves.
Cara Devine, Bar Manager at Bomba Tapas Bar and Youtube cocktail sensation.
What do you look for items that qualify for house pour?
Solid examples of the style that can substitute into basically any classic cocktail with little to no tweaking, a sharp price point, and public perception of quality.
What are the four main things you focus on daily in your role?
Organization, Guest Experience, Staff Morale, and Problem Solving.
5 ways to upsell drinks at the bar.
Staff training, clever branding/serves, menu/back bar placement, allowing staff to have an input in the cocktail list and/or products listed so they're selling things they're excited about, having suggested replacements for commonly ordered brands e.g. 'sorry, we don't stock xx gin but we do have this really delicious local one which has a similar flavor profile...'
Tips on training new bartenders.
Buy a notebook and write everything down!
Emphasize on No bullshit - you're not going to know everything right away so if someone asks you something you don't know, don't make it up (you never know who you're talking to!). Ask a manager or senior bartender and you'll learn something too!
It's not about You - just because you've learned how to make some obscure classic and are excited about it doesn't mean it's going to be the right thing to make for every guest.
Try to find things they're enthusiastic about and build from there i.e. do they drink beer? Let them suggest some beers they've had recently which could work for the list. Margaritas are having a bit of a resurgence, including Tommy's and mezcal-based ones. Gin is massive - I don't even know how many Aussie distilleries there are these days but it's a LOT, and people love our G&T menu pairing them with different tonics and garnishes. There's a lot of emphasis on drinking local in general, so well-priced substitutions for international styles are going well - things like Starward Single Malt Whiskey, The Gospel Rye, Mr. Black Coffee Liqueur, Applewood Okar (similar to Campari).
What's customer service to you?
So little of a guest's experience is about what's in their glass. Yes, your drinks should be good but smiley service, going out of your way to get them something they'll enjoy, a fun atmosphere all counts much more towards whether they'll come back. Being a rooftop bar in the city center we'd probably be pretty busy anyway, but our motto is to be better than we have to be, both in service and what we are offering.
Define a good bartender.
A proper host - someone who welcomes you into their venue with genuine warmth and makes you feel looked after while you're there. This can be equally true in a huge pub, a neighborhood dive bar, a fancy wine bar, or a high-end cocktail bar.
How do you manage non-performing brands?
We have quite a fluid offering so if something isn't selling or we're not getting great feedback from it we just don't reorder it.
How can you increase your beverage sales with the selection you already have?
Making people want to stay in your venue for longer by offering at least some snacks is always a good idea, and keeping an eye on the temperature, lighting, music levels, etc to make sure the guest is comfortable. Making sure your staff is trained to be able to sell higher-priced items if a guest is interested in them.
Cara Devine enjoying a drink concocted by herself.
How, according to you, has the role of the Bartender evolved, especially now during Covid times?
I don't think any of us got into this industry to say 'no' to people and unfortunately, there's been a lot of that in the last few years - especially in Australia where the health regulations are quite rigorous. We've only been allowed to do seated service, had capacity caps, had to ensure patrons wear masks moving around the venue, etc and while I've been totally happy to ensure everyone's health and safety, I'm really enjoying getting back to a more relaxed style of service!
What else do you look for in a brand before saying yes apart from quality, value, and package?
Does it fit with the style of the venue and is it useful? Something can be delicious but if it makes no sense with your concept or will just sit gathering dust on the back bar then there's no point. Provenance and sustainability are also considerations.
Great view at the Bomba Tapas Bar.
Give us an example of a common problem in the bar business and how you handle it.
We've been facing some logistics problems - going from zero to 100 coming out of lockdown right into the Christmas period meant a lot of suppliers didn't have enough stock in hand, and logistics companies are really struggling with massive demand and lack of drivers. The only thing you can really do is try and get ahead. If you're about to run out of something on tap and your kegs aren't in yet, get as many cases of a packaged equivalent as you can on ice so that at least you have something else to offer people, or consider reprinting menus without things you are very low on before service so you don't have to deal with people being disappointed the whole night.
Your favorite places to enjoy drinks.
The wine bars of Melbourne are so good - Gerald's Bar, Carlton Wine Room, Bar Liberty, City Wine Shop...always happy for a glass of wine and a snack at any of them. The pubs here are good too - The Lincoln always has a great beer selection. I love Union Electric for fun vibes and delicious mixed drinks, and of course, all roads lead to the Black Pearl which is open till 3 A.M on the weekends.
What's the best and worst part of your job?
The best part is making someone's day a little better through a nice interaction and a delicious beverage. The worst are the hours - I'm not getting any younger!
Interviewed By Prithvi Nagpal, Editor & Sommelier, Beverage Trade Network
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