My first job out of high school was as a busboy at a bar and grill just outside of Georgetown in Washington, D.C. This was not my choice exactly. I was trying to wrangle a job in a record store. But eventually the parent who was hosting me said that the deal was I was out of the high school now and was supposed to start experiencing this thing we call “working.” He said, hey, I know. Why don’t you go to Marshall’s West End?
My Dad tells this story differently. In his memory of this, I found this job busing tables all on my own, and it just happened to be at his favorite bar and grill in all the land.
But as I recall it, my DOD* was not going to have his son spend his post high-school summer in a feckless job hunt for a wussy job anyway, and so he directed me down to one of his favorite haunts where he knew the bartenders were excellent and would mentor me properly. I am eternally glad that he did. Because I got to work for Elliott.
What’s the voice I hear when I hear Elliott’s voice in my head? There’s an actor whose voice rings around there reminding me of what Elliott’s bark was. It’s a familiar voice, a black actor with a strong, solid voice, and I can’t think of his name now. But that was Elliott. My boss that summer was certainly authoritative. And he knew his business. My Dad and I just today were thinking about him, wondering whatever became of him, one of the best bartenders and finest men who ever walked.
The greatest thing Elliott did for me was to teach me the importance of being proactive for your chief. Anticipate when he will need a new tray of glasses and retrieve them from the dishwasher before he asks (this was a BIG one). Anticipate when the barkeep is ready to call it post-last-call and be ready to swoop down and steal peoples’ drinks from their hands. And, perhaps my most valuable lesson from this professor was something he simply called “ambience.”
I mean, all it involved was walking over to where the coffee station was and dimming the lights. But I can still hear Elliott the Bartender barking out “Yo, Aaron! Ambience!” If I was having a good night, my grubby mitts were already on the dimming switch before he asked. And, by the end of the summer, I had nothing but good nights. Elliott exhausted his exasperated trying to turn me into an enviable busboy. But he sure did it. I like to think he cried a little when I left to start college. In fact, he swore to me that I could go to college all I wanted to, but I’d never get the restaurant biz out of my blood.
He wasn’t wrong. I pine to feed people for a living to this day. Just not the path I ended up taking.
But my point here is to talk about ambience. And its importance. And how lost that appears to be on many entrepreneurs.
I heard the song “Rockin’ in Rhythm” recently. This is a Duke Ellington song that is, according to Wikipedia, “credited to Ellington, Harry Carney and Irving Mills.” The version I heard was much more up-tempo; the version I enjoy (from a “the Original Recordings” collection called “Mood Indigo” that has been my go-to Duke for decades) has a much more playful tempo and attitude. But, it was unmistakable, and I whistled right along.
Because I was at the time enjoying lunch with my DOD*. At Sticky Lips BBQ in downtown Rochester. I did something weird and possibly unheard of: I ordered a cheeseburger. It is a delicious, passable cheeseburger, though I doubt I’ll do it again in light of the more authentic offerings on the menu. However, I wouldn’t dissuade another person from doing it. And, P.S. The home-cut fries can do battle anywhere. Fantastic.
But the ambience though. We walked in the door and the dude at the display counter immediately welcomed us and directed us upstairs. And 1940s era jazz played, including the aforementioned Duke Ellington joint that I recognized. And the music was not too loud. It was perfect. And we enjoyed our lunch. And we tipped pretty well.
Now last weekend, DOD* and I were in a little town called Edinboro, Pa. And we first went into the little used book store because that’s my DOD’s gravity. And we went in. And they’re playing the local shitty country music station. And it’s kind of got static.
We went to the Edinboro Hotel for lunch. They didn’t have any music on. Nor did they have any really relevant games on the TV. They had golf on. Golf.
So there is actually a Mexican restaurant in Edinboro. Weird. And their food is good. The chicken is marinated and delicious. It’s not bad for “Tex-Mex” fare. But. The ambience.
We walked in and went to the bar. They have a fabulous bar. Full-on island style. It is one of the reasons I like the place. Most Mexican places have shitty bars. This one is an entire island, with many spacious seats. It should be the most packed bar in Edinboro. But it’s like. Empty.
On a Saturday night.
We gringos were the only ones there. Besides somebody’s kid, who is sitting in the corner, entertaining himself with a coloring book or some such thing.
I noticed on the TV facing us, playing at a medium volume, was a network showing of one of the Smurf movies. On a TV not facing us, there is some Spanish program blaring. Nobody is actually tending bar, instead, a waitress is coming back and forth to take our orders and check up on us.
Now my DOD* and I are sort of frustrated restaurateurs. Could we afford it, and had we collectively the patience for it, the restaurant business certainly calls to us. So we were curious and asked the waitress if business ever picked up for this place. Tuesdays, she said. Taco Tuesdays.
The food was fine, passable Mexican fare; in fact, I recommend a chicken dish there as the pollo is nicely marinated. But these folks failed miserably on ambience, and I think their business showed it.
I mean, ambience doesn’t cost anything. But it sure can bring dollars through the door.
*Dear Old Dad
Postscript: I still have a mix tape Elliott the bartender provided me with, called “More Stuff,” apparently created on Aug. 7, 1987. Here is what a mix tape from one of the best bartenders who ever walked the planet looks like:
“You Are the Woman” by Firefall
“Don’t Cross the River” by America
“Afternoon Delight” by Starland Vocal Band
“Sit Yourself Down” by Steven Stills
“Monday Morning” by Fleetwood Mac
“Good Enough” by Bonnie Raitt
“Give Me an Inch” by Robert Palmer
“Empty Pages” by Traffic
“You Love the Thunder” by Jackson Browne
“Goin’ Back to Miami” by Blues Brothers
“Come on Up” by Young Rascals
“The Shape I’m In” by The Band
“Baba O’Riley” by The Who
“Badge” by Cream
“Aqualung” by Jethro Tull
“Too Many Names” by Eagles
“I Came to Dance by Niles Lofgren
“Fire on the Bayou” by Neville Brothers
“Pressure Drop” by Robert Palmer
“Love Her Madly” by The Doors
“Suffragette City” by David Bowie
“Keep on Growin’” by Derek & the Dominos
“Tell Me Why” by the Beatles