“A smile is something truly beautiful”
An interview with bartender Arnd Heissen on the art of hospitality
Arnd Heissen manages the Curtain Club and the Fragrances bar at the Ritz-Carlton Berlin. Crowned “Host of the Year“ at the Mixology Bar Awards 2013 – followed by “Mixologist of the Year” accolades in 2014 – he is just as famous for his perfume-inspired cocktail concoctions as for his excellent hospitality. We asked him what it takes to make guests happy – and what he loves about his own work.
Arnd, please complete the following sentence: When I go somewhere as a guest, what I value most is …
… the warmth and atmosphere of a space. When everything makes me feel cosy and in good hands …
When does this happen?
Whenever I feel welcome the moment I enter the room. When the lighting and sound is just right; when I get the feeling that this is a great place for conversation.
As a host, how do you create such an atmosphere?
Imagine you’re invited to a party. You ring the bell, the door opens, the host welcomes you with a hug, you enter together, get a drink and chat with other people. In a way, a bar should be like that: Meeting as equals, having a chat. A guest who enjoys a lively conversation, smiles and has fun, is the best possible advertising for a bar.
Because it adds a positive spin to the overall mood of the place.
That’s right. When you see guests leaning forward, moving their arms, caught up in animated conversation, you feel like joining them at the bar. But when the mood is more subdued and guests seem tense, my own behaviour will mirror this atmosphere. It’s our role as bartenders to put a smile on our guests’ faces and fulfil their wishes, which means engaging with them. For most guests, real empathy has become the greatest luxury. All my working life, I have worked towards getting better at understanding our guests with all their different quirks and characters. And the longer I work in gastronomy, the easier it becomes to decipher and unlock them. Each guest has their own door and key, just waiting to be opened.
But how do you figure out which key is the right one? To stick with the metaphor: Working your way through the entire keychain wouldn’t really be an option, would it?
I take cues from the guests’ behaviour and presence, starting with the way they are dressed. While pink suggests a desire for empathy, black usually means they don’t want to share too much. I used to think that grey meant the guest didn’t really care about anything, but nowadays I know that this symbolises a desire for harmony.
Since you mention harmony: Whenever we meet, you seem to be very balanced and in tune with yourself. Where do you draw the strength and motivation to keep doing this challenging job?
I don’t need any extra motivation; this job is simply my passion. Either you love it – or you don’t. When you’ve been tending bar for a long time, you certainly love the job. In terms of harmony or balance, I know what’s important to me, I’m good at taking a step back and viewing certain things from a distance and I tend to think long-term. I love to sow seeds and watch them blossom – I tend to really delve into things and always try to stay focused on what’s essential.
At the same time, and speaking from a guest’s perspective, I imagine that it can’t always be easy: While I head out to a busy bar, have fun, and enjoy a long night with friends, there’s someone on the other side of the counter who might have hoped for a short, quiet shift because he’s feeling a bit under the weather. And he’s required to follow my cue and stick it out until I’m ready to call it a night.
In those situations, there are always guests that surprise you. It’s like a drug: Those people who smile because you’ve made them happy; people who really appreciate your skills and company. Moments like these really sweeten those nights. But to make this happen, bartenders need to put in the work: We need to surprise and delight our guests to reap the rewards throughout our shift. And if a guest has a go at you, just don’t worry about it too much. Usually, it has nothing to do with you at all. Sometimes, we simply think too much or read too much into a situation.
You’re working at an international establishment that attracts patrons from all corners of the world and you also research bars around the globe. Anything you’d like to see more of here in Germany?
Smiles. Smiling is a really beautiful gesture. Welcoming guests with open arms. German hospitality culture has a different focus – here, it’s all about speed and efficiency.
Supposedly, speed and efficiency are what we’re good at ….
I keep hearing that we should ‘educate’ our guests to order certain drinks. I think that understanding the guest is far more important than the perfect cocktail. Paying him an honest compliment. In the early days, I found this hard because I thought it was a sign of weakness. But once you realise just how much the other person appreciates it, how it conjures up a beautiful mood … then you see and experience things you’d love to see and experience more often.
Some time ago, an older couple entered our bar. He pulled out her chair as a courtesy. I mentioned that I thought this was lovely gesture, and she agreed, saying she was very proud of him. Which, in turn, left him beaming. We’d all just met for the very first time – these were the only sentences we had exchanged at this point – but we were all smiling already. You need to show your guests more obvious appreciation for positive details; it’s something other guests notice, too. But at the same time, it’s important that whatever you say comes from the heart.
Do you have any professional icons?
Charles Schumann. Schumann’s Bar was my first ever bar book. Less in terms of drinks, but how work at the bar was structured. I learned a lot about hospitality from my long-term colleague Fatih Akerdem at the Westin Grand in Frankfurt. He jots down everything he knows about his guests, so he knows them inside-out. Another Frankfurt-based expert and former colleague, Manuel Saridakis at Harry’s New York Bar, also knows his own guests extremely well. Their attitude has shaped my own a lot. Even after their shifts were finished, their thoughts and conversations continued to revolve around guests, not specific spirits or the latest bar scene news. Maybe, someone’s birthday or wedding anniversary is coming up – how should we surprise them? Who deserves a bouquet of flowers?
They focus on people, not on the drinks.
To master the skills and craft of bartending, of spirits and cocktails, takes about a year. That’s the foundation. But that’s also when the job of the bartender really starts – with excellent hospitality.
Thank you very much for your insights, Arnd.
Das Interview führte Jan-Peter Wulf
Photocredits: Roland Justynowicz
Please join us for the ART OF HOSPITALITY in Berlin on 10 and 11 of October and REGISTER here .