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Inside J. Rieger’s Front of House Culture: “Support one another”

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By Sophie Brochu

Director of Hospitality Sarah James shares insights on J. Rieger‘s front of house training, fostering a positive work culture, and making the world a better place.

Create a positive work culture 

That’s everything starting with how you treat each other on the day to day. We are really big about making sure that we are showing the level of hospitality we show our guests to each other, and empathy is the whole heart of that.

It’s also education. We do monthly classes for our staff, whether it’s focusing on whiskey components, or we recently had Please Don’t Tell, a very well-renowned cocktail bar in for a pop-up, so we had a staff seminar about cocktail bars in New York and cocktail culture.

We also do different outings and field trips. We went to a local chocolate shop here in town to see how our bourbon balls are made. We want our staff to be not only experts in our spirits and what we do here at J. Rieger, but we want them to be experts within hospitality.

 

Tap into what makes the individual successful 

You want to make sure that you’re doing best by the business—that’s driving revenue and upholding the standards of the company. But it’s also making sure that, if everyone has a different personality or way to learn, that they’re supported. 

The thing that I have to remember is to tap into what makes that individual successful. So how can I take what I’m doing, take what I want them to know, and present it in a way that they will understand? Some are more visual learners, so I’m making sure that in my training documents, I’ve got pictures of the food or cocktail. Some are more hands-on, so I’m making sure they’re more active in the training process, instead of just standing back and shadowing. Learning those different nuances is really important. But once you learn that about your staff, it makes it so much easier.

The Monogram Lounge at J. Rieger & Co.

 

Start from the ground up 

I was working in hospitality before COVID, and it’s been really interesting to see the change. The level of staff, the quality of staff is different. 75% of the staff that left during COVID aren’t coming back, so it’s a new crop. It’s staff that aren’t necessarily as well-versed in spirits, or wine, or food, or hospitality, and so, you have to start from the ground up, lay those foundations early, focus on little things like, “Hey, this is how we do a roll-up.”

It’s also a lot of people that are looking for part-time work. So, the full-timers aren’t really around anymore. It’s a lot of weekend warriors, people who are teachers during the day, and then looking to supplement income in the evening. There are positions that are harder to fill than others, but you stick to it, and when you find the right ones, you do everything you can to keep them on.

 

Support one another

It is a small community, and it’s a lot of independent businesses, not a lot of chains. I feel like the insular group of restaurants and bars is very independent—and we support one another. We make sure that we’re supporting new restaurant openings or new bar openings. Our staff goes out and supports them. These other restaurants and bars come and support us. You have to support one another. It’s the only way we’re all going to survive, you know?

 

Make the world a better place with great hospitality 

I’ve always been drawn to making sure other people are comfortable, making sure other people are happy, and doing that through food and drink brings me the most joy. And I also think the most intimate thing you can share with another person is breaking bread. You can solve a lot of problems with food and drink. We just need to have a large dinner party, and I feel like the world would be a better place.

The Hey! Hey! Club at J. Rieger & Co.

 

The key to a successful pre-shift: ask questions

If you’re just talking at them, I find that most people aren’t going to retain the information.

I like to do these stupid icebreakers. Everyone makes fun of me. It’s like, “Hey, what’s your favorite ice cream flavor?” Or, “What fantasy novel are you reading right now?” We will do that to get everybody loosened up.

And then, it’s basic things, like what are our cheese offerings today? What’s on the meat board? And then we’ll do quick quizzes like, “Hey, can somebody list for me what’s in this cocktail? What special events are coming up?” And you just have to keep them engaged, ask them questions. And then it’s usually, “Hey, these are the large groups we’ve got coming in tonight,” or, “We’re down a server, so let’s make sure we’re flexing in this way.”

 

Keep guests engaged, entertained, and coming back for more

It’s a fine balance of consistency. We’ll change up the menu every quarter, but we want to make sure it’s consistent. We have a dinner series every third Thursday of the month. 

Throwing in a new event every once in a while is super important, because you don’t want things to get stale. So maybe that’s a fun donut and whiskey pairing, or a roller skating party. You want to make sure that you’re throwing in things that will keep people engaged.

I also think laying into pop culture is really important. Last year when Taylor Swift was in town, we had over 1800 people come down to the store the night before her concert for our Lavender Haze. It was the most people that were ever in this building.

 

On the horizon for J. Rieger

We’ve got a new four-year bourbon coming out. We’re really solidifying our line of spirits, which is really exciting. We’ve got our Kentucky Derby party, which we always love. We’ve expanded that to be even bigger and better than the past two years. I know our staff is excited about our patio reopening. We’re changing up some programming and we’ve got a bunch of new live bands coming. I think for them, that’s what they’re most excited about. Summertime here, the distillery is the best.

 

Tock’s reservation platform

It really comes down to the people behind the program. Everyone that I’ve interacted with at Tock has been so incredibly kind, gracious, patient, and helpful. And that is why I like using this platform.

 

Sophie Brochu is a lead copywriter at Tock and the co-owner of Brochu’s Family Tradition, a throwback restaurant in Savannah’s Starland District. Brochu’s was recently named Best New Restaurant by Bon Appétit and The New York Times.
As the Director of Hospitality at J. Rieger, Sarah James has taken all of the best lessons from some of the most respected names in hospitality and applied them to her role at J. Rieger. After 10 years of experience at institutions like Eastern Standard, Island Creek Oysters, The Savoy, and California Olive Ranch she has become a true leader in the industry, and an undeniable presence throughout the distillery. When she’s not on site hyping up the staff, you can find her cheering on her beloved St. Louis Cardinals, taking her beagle Louis for a walk or getting ready for her next big camping trip.

 

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