Our Editor-in-Chief, Kim Choong talked to Junior Johari, W Hotel Liquid Operations Manager about his new role, what is passion, why he thinks a hotel is the best place to start a bartending career and the importance of choosing the right competitions.
The Wet Bar at W Hotel, with the best view of the KLCC Twin Towers, an open deck with cabanas, and a pool that incorporates an underwater subwoofer, is currently the trendiest hangout spot in Kuala Lumpur. Junior looks after the whole beverage program of W Hotel, with the main focus on cocktails, whilst also managing the staff who run the outlets in the hotel.
This is the first time Junior is helping with the opening of a hotel but not the first time working in one. In fact, he started bartending in a hotel. Before that, he had a brief 3-month stint in Emporium, a high volume club on Jalan P. Ramlee back in 2001 as a barback, and part timing in hotels in his hometown Kota Kinabalu.
Junior travelled to the capital in 2004 when he signed up to Westin Kuala Lumpur to work in Qba as a bartender. Caipirinha and mojitos were churned out by the hundreds every night, “No other bar could claim to be the best in making these two classics,” said Junior with pride. Asked what he would bring back from then if given the chance, he said the team. “There were 35 of us, each was strong, smart and sharp. The energy was high and we were very efficient.” It is very unlike the energy he is getting from the new recruits these days.
Work attitude then and now
“We would never ask our boss if it’s time to go home and always made sure all our tasks and prep work were complete before end of shift. But nowadays, I get staff telling me they’re tired and can they rest, a lot. I understand that the job is not easy but if your heart is not in it, maybe this (hospitality) is not for you,” continued Junior.
At times, Junior has to counsel his staff, “When I see my staff unhappy, I’d ask them why. Sometimes it’s a break up, sometimes they’re not well… it could be anything.” Junior thinks that a manager has to be kind but stern and observant, “sometimes you just can’t force them and have to be realistic,” as some candidates are just not cut out for the job. However, there are also candidates from other arenas who can fall in love with the industry. “With these people, train them and teach them everything you can.”
“The young people nowadays learn fast, faster than we were in the past and there is internet where they can pick up knowledge very quickly,” so it is about hiring people with the right attitude and those who want to advance in the hospitality industry.
A bartender’s passion
“To be good at bartending, you need to love your job. Love is about taking care of your passion, not doing it because of pressure. A bartender’s passion is not ‘I like to make drinks’, it’s about putting effort into the things you do and have this drive that you want to do more and do better.” Creating new drinks is cool but Junior stresses that the bartending fundamentals are the most important to start.
The basics in bartending are repetitive, like the classics, mostly simple recipes with three ingredients. “But some bartenders don’t want to learn them. They think classics are boring, not cool. You may think Long Island Tea is outdated, but if that’s what customers want at your bar, you make it!” So the question really boils down to, do you love bartending enough to accept all that you have to do to be a bartender?
Benefits of starting in a hotel
“It gives you a bigger chance to grow,” says Junior. “In Marriot (the group which W Hotel belongs to), there are in-house training programs such as strategic leadership training that teaches how to handle yourself and people around you. This kind of training is hard to come by when you are in smaller or independent bar operations.”
In the hotel service line, there is no tolerance of not knowing about anything asked of you. You have to handle any situation thrown at you and you become a problem solving guru for not only customers, but your colleagues. “There is no excuse. You can’t say, ‘I don’t know’, because your customers depend on you.”
Training is a mandatory task for the hotel to make sure that the staff’s skills are polished and knowledge kept up-to-date to stay relevant. For W Hotel, not only are the staff trained to answer any questions regarding the services and facilities in the hotel but also the latest events in the city and the city attractions.
One thing Junior believes is that if you start bartending, start big. “Work for big corporations, work really, really hard and learn everything. Give it at least 2 years, then you can decide where to move to next. Then, get your speed up in making drinks, even though you have to work in a club to get there.”
Over Junior’s 18 years career in bartending, he has competed and won many competitions. To Junior, competitions are important to bartenders as the experience from there are personal and not something that can be passed on.
“The exposure you get from taking part in these competitions is very important for personal growth as a bartender. It helps shape your personality, a quality that no one can give you other than learning it yourself.”
There are qualities in competitions that Junior would look out for before signing up. “Every competition is about branding but I choose competitions that will benefit my career in the long run. Choose to ride a good horse, not just any donkey, even though you may lack the experience.” A good competition can teach and guide a bartender to the next level, and not doing it just to fulfil their brand’s marketing KPI or drive sales volume.
Brands on the other hand, in Junior’s opinion, should also help the bartending community grow by being more neutral when it comes to competitions. In doing so, opportunities will be given to bars regardless of their sales volume as smaller bars may also have bartenders with great potential.
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