Impertinently Boozing with Francis Balbarin (Part 1 – NSFW)

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“People reading this might say that I’m an idiot and I have no idea what I’m talking about and I’m probably talking out of my ass. Maybe. But a little under 2 decades behind the bar gives me a little credibility, don’t you think?”

 

Snarky people get along well.

Snarky people who enjoy a good drink get along better.

That’s what I thought when I met one of my favorite people, Francis Balbarin: Co-owner of the legendary Burgers and Brewskies (Capitol Commons and Burgos Circle) by day (or 6 months of the year, depending on how his schedule is), talented NYC bartender by night… And an awesomely stylish dad all day long (yes, we even bonded over kicks).

I met him during our Baguio trip where we drank the week away did research on farming and Baguio Craft Brewery.

During the ride to get to a hillside farm, we got to talk… First, about how his fancy orange Nikes would survive the slightly muddy hike (#priorities)… Then, about what he does for a living (both here and abroad).

We got to compare how things are done in the Philippines and in NYC, and his particular disdain (which I share) with the current crop of fresh grads looking to find jobs bartending. This struck a chord with me… After all, I was once upon a time a university professor in one of the best hotel schools in the country.

Here’s the thing: Most kids fresh out of hotel school would boldly go and try to get employment in a bar, boasting about bartending skills when they couldn’t even tell potential employers the alcohol bases of basic cocktails.

But they can flair.

This bothered me.

After the trip, I decided to ask one of my other favorite people for his opinion: Internationally acclaimed, multi award-winning, proudly Filipino flairtender Paul Ceron (also a former colleague of mine in University) his opinion.

Knowing how to mix is the most important (thing), as well as the service procedure and customer relations. Flairing is not a requirement, but there are some bars that require entertainment. I always mention in my seminars that mixology comes first, then bar knowledge and set up… All of that comes first before flairing.”

 

Given that even one of the best flairtenders in the country share our “sentiment”, I decided to really see what’s going on at the other side of the world and get a more detailed insight from Francis himself.

 

How did you get from Bartending to becoming a restaurateur?

It (started with) the typical “move overseas for a chance at a better life” story: The whole family migrated to the States in April ’91 when I was 13 years old.

At 18 I eventually started working at this Filipino club in Astoria, NY as a club promoter/occasional waiter. One day, the owner asked me if I wanted to bartend and of course I said yes.

Little did I know I was going to start that very night because he just fired the resident bartender for theft. Talk about trial by fire. A sea full of people asking an 18 year old for drinks left and right with no experience and knowledge of drinks whatsoever!

*Side note: I actually learned how to pour a shot when I was 9 or 10 years old. We went to a house party with a few of my altar boy friends (yes, I used to be an altar boy) and one of the older ones was a bartender at the Hyatt Hotel. He had set up a mini bar in the backyard where he would make cocktails for people. Curiosity ensued and after a few questions, I was making drinks for people. He also taught me how to pour a proper shot. Naturally, I forgot most of the things he taught me with the exception of the usual Cuba Libres, gin tonics, cape codders, and how to pour from the bottle.

If there were drinks that I didn’t know how to make, I’d ask the guest if they knew what was in them and if I had the ingredients, I’d make them.

On my days off, I took the time to buy books and read about cocktails and proper procedure. Eventually, I got my act together and became very proficient at it.

I’ve tended bar on and off at different places for over 18 years now. I presently work at Dave & Busters in Times Square (whenever I’m in the states). I even won the Stemmon’s Bar Showdown bartending regional championship in 2012, and went on to compete for nationals.

Unfortunately, I lost the competition due to a terrible case of stage fright. At least, I can say that of the 6 competitors, I was the only one that did not know how to flairtend but came close to winning with sheer speed, accuracy, and creativity.

Given all my experience working in bars, it just all made sense that I open one of my own. Two things that I love: a good burger to go along with a really cold one.

So, through numerous R&D and using my friends as guinea pigs, I finally tried (making burgers) during a Manny Pacquiao PPV that my friend hosted in New Jersey in 2007. I decided to do bleu cheese stuffed sliders topped with caramelized onions and granny smith apples and they were a hit. I knew then and there that I had something.

A really good friend of mine asked me to sell them with her at her stall in Salcedo market for a day. She then featured me in her food blog, and eventually a feature in The Philippine Inquirer. That’s when I thought to myself that it could be a pretty solid product and concept: Beer and burgers.

After a few years and few failed attempts at pitching the idea in the hopes of getting investors to finance the project, I finally found a couple of partners who thought the idea could be feasible.

 

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Francis in New York (used with permission from Chris Ordas and Baguio Craft Brewery)

Please share stories about your bartending experiences in NYC.

Where to start? Haha! I could write a book about it (I’m seriously thinking about it!). I’ve been known to post my funny encounters behind the bar. I admit, most of the time I’m snarky with guests, which they actually love. I guess that’s one of the reasons why I love being behind the bar: (having the) freedom to get away with saying or doing certain things. It’s part of the bar culture, part of entertaining your guests.

Here’s one: A 6’4” tall, middle aged man that’s about 250lbs went up to the bar and ordered 2 strawberry daiquiris for his wife and himself and proceeded to pay for it. After I made it and handed it to him, he thanked me and said, “Do me a favor, on the next one, can you give it to me in a ‘Man Glass’?” I said, “Sure, dude. No problem. But next time, how about you order a ‘Man Drink’ so I can put it in a ‘Man Glass’ for you”. He looked at me dumbfounded while the people around the bar started laughing. He shook his head and smiled, and gave me a nod that said, “aight, you got me there”.

Here’s another one: Another middle-aged guy arrived with a bunch of other dads and their kids bearing a trophy of some sort. They looked like their kids just won a football tournament or something. So while the kids were playing in the arcade (Dave & Busters is a huge arcade with a big restaurant and a couple of full bars inside), the dads were hanging out at my bar drinking Bud Lights and shots of Jameson. My bar manager and all the other managers were trying to get us to push these alcoholic snow cone type cocktails with a plastic glowing ice cube called “Glo Cones”.

Now, I’m all for selling novelty drinks, but to try and sell to those pretty chill dads was a no-go. One can try, but you still have to pick and gauge whom you can sell it to.

So, my manager asked me if I tried, and I said, “not yet, still trying to feel them out”. He jokingly told me that I “sucked” and proceeded to talk to one of the men and try to sell a “Glo Cone”. I think out of politeness, the guy obliged and bought one. My manager gave me a look of defiance as if to say, “I told you so”.

In turn, I went up to the man holding this ridiculous cocktail while the other dads were double fisting, holding their Bud Lights and shots of Jameson, and sarcastically asked him (within earshot of the manager of my bar manager who sold him the drink), “So, sir, how do you like that girly glowing cocktail of yours?” He said, “It’s pretty good. I tell you my vagina feels a lot better now, thank you very much.”

With a smug look on my face, I looked at my manager, who was sort of embarrassed; I looked at the man then proceeded to give him a high five.

From that moment on, whenever I would sell one of those Glo Cones, they were referred to as “Vagina Cones”.

It really is a fun and interesting profession. I constantly get to meet and know all personalities, all races. Some are nice, some not so nice. (There are) those that tip… Some are more generous than others, some not at all. Some sadly fit the stereotype, while some of them break the stereotype. Over time, I’ve been able to gauge if people will “take care” of me or not. There are even a few guests that will do anything to try and get stuff “comped” (industry speak for not paying at all).

Some of the easiest and best guests to have are those that work in the same industry. They understand the value of your work and are usually pretty chill and low maintenance as long as you do your job and do it well.

 

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Francis in Action

What would you say are the differences in the bartending scene in NYC and in the Philippines?

There are a ton of differences… From the practices to the way things are run.

The goal obviously is to make money and maximize profits. I’ve worked in both the states and here in Manila and I have to say hands down bartending in NYC is much better. Not only is it more fun, you have more freedom, and it gives the bartender and the proprietor a chance to make more money.

For example, bartenders in the States have certain privileges that they can use to make some money for themselves and possibly the company. One of those is called a buyback. Basically, we have the power to buy someone a drink after they’ve bought and paid for several ones. It’s as if to say, “thank you” (to the guest). This makes guests feel welcome and appreciated and in turn, they spend more on drinks in the hopes of possibly getting another buyback. Not only do they tip well, the company makes more revenue because instead of the 1 or 2 drinks that they initially planned on consuming, guests end up buying about 6 to 8 (and get 2 for free). It really doesn’t cost the company a lot of money to give one or two away, and the added sales and revenue for that particular transaction and the possible future transactions from guests who’ll most likely return to the establishment is priceless.

Here’s a suggestion: Most purveyors will give a case or two of free beer (or a couple of free bottles of liquor) with a big alcohol purchase. Instead of just thinking they’re freebies and just sell them as is (totally nothing wrong with that), use those freebies for buybacks or a happy hour specials on slow days. It’s a great way to market the establishment.

People nowadays forget the culture behind the bar. Being a bartender, we not only serve drinks to our guests, but we also make sure that they have fun and enjoy their experience.

I guess that goes for both bartenders and servers, but working behind the bar has certain perks. We have to talk to our guests and try to entertain them. First, the profit margin for alcohol is much higher than food.

That being said, bartenders actually have the power and should have the skills to upsell and/or make them order more. As long as people are having a good time, they wouldn’t mind spending money (or they’re too drunk to keep track of the tab J). Either way, it’s killing 2 birds with one stone: The establishment is making money, and at the same time the bartender is ensuring future sales… Because the more fun guests have, the likelier they’ll be back (and spend more).

Bartenders don’t even have to know how to “flairtend” or anything like that. For me that is so passé. A bartender could be the greatest flairtender in the world but if he can’t hold a conversation, he is useless to me. I’d take a really fast bartender or a really good conversationalist any day.

Then again, to each his own, right?

Think about it: It takes around 5-10 minutes to get a drink in the Philippines.

Bartender gets order. Bartender writes it down. Bartender gives it to the cashier. Cashier rings it up. Cashier puts the receipt in a bill jacket.

Cashier hands it to the bartender. Bartender hands it to guests. Guest pays for it. Guest gets his change. Bartender cracks open guest’s beer, or crappy mojito, or what have you.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand the reason for the process: Bartenders want to be as accurate as possible, with the paper trail to back it up. It also keeps theft at bay. But playing with all that process and doing everything by the book sacrifices speed of service and quantity, and more importantly, guest experience. The faster drinks are sold, the more money the bar makes.

This is how we do things overseas: Guest sits at the bar, then orders from the bartender with his credit card or cash in hand. The bartender makes the drink, and then hands it to the guest while taking the payment. The bartender rings it up, then gives the change.

At this point, the guest is enjoying his beer or whiskey on the rocks (or both) in about a minute, tops, depending on how busy the bartender is.

A bartender can do that with maybe 34 customers: take orders and payments, and multi task. At this rate, he could help out about 710 people in about 25 minutes.

Compare that to 1 customer in 5 minutes.

Imagine the really busy clubs here in Manila where people have to go through the same thing. For one thing, the establishments here are overstaffed (editor’s note: I completely agree… Bistros in Europe that could seat 40 people are usually run by an average of 2 people). There are 3 or 4 people behind the bar when all that’s needed are 2 good ones.

The constant backlog of orders due to unnecessary waiting at any given night amounts to thousands of pesos in lost revenue.

People reading this might say that I’m an idiot and I have no idea what I’m talking about and I’m probably talking out of my ass. Maybe. But a little under 2 decades behind the bar gives me a little credibility, don’t you think?

I get that the bar culture here is different. People’s mentality here is different. People see bartenders, servers, or anyone serving them anything and what they see are people that are beneath them. It’s generations and generations of that old colonial thinking. I’m sure there are places here that think like me or are trying to do the same thing and break the mold. But as of now, that’s just my observation.


 

End of part one. Will return for more of Francis in the next installment of this article. Cheers! 🙂

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