Learning from the game changers
Alex Kratena is one of the most influential bartenders shaping the drinks industry. He has been credited with reinventing the traditional five star hotel bar experience, which led the Artesian, in London, to be recognized as the World’s Top 50 Best Bar for four consecutive years. These days, Alex travels the world consulting and creating exciting customer experiences.
Alex gives us some insight into his story, how important education was in his career and what he looks for when hiring staff.
Tell us more about your career and how you got to where you are now.
I never intended to be a bartender; I became one out of necessity to make money. I’ve always dreamed of traveling so when I was 18 I left the Czech Republic where I originally came from and moved to the USA.
The big change came after I returned to Europe from Tokyo, Japan, where I worked in nightclubs. I didn’t really know what to do with myself so I went for a week to London just to hang out with a couple of friends and I enjoyed it so much that I decided to stay. After a few months, the opportunity to work at the Artesian came up and I decided to make the UK my home for a while.
After 8 years at the Artesian, I decided to leave and set up a small company with Simone Caporale and Monica Berg where we develop new products and cocktails as well as marketing strategies for a portfolio of amazing clients ranging from luxury brands and hotels all the way to cosmetics.
How important was education in your career?
Education is everything, but in my opinion the current educational system is a broken model. Bars need to focus increasingly more developing their staff. This won’t get solved overnight, but I see a lot of amazing initiatives out there such as Diageo Bar Academy, which makes me feel very positive about education in the bar industry. I personally keep on learning myself every day whether that be reading up on new techniques, talking to other bartenders or attending seminars. Our organization grows at a rapid rate, so I am now studying advanced finance, so we can continue to grow our company in a positive way.
During your time as head bartender at the Artesian you won multiple awards including ‘World’s Best Bar’. What do you think makes a bar award winning?
There are many different factors that make an award-winning bar, but exactly like creating a cocktail, the crucial characteristic is balance. I define balance as a harmonious relationship between all elements. Marketing, customer welcome, scent, lighting, music, menu, staff, selection, drinks, atmosphere and timing, all of these elements need to be taken into consideration. It is important to know it will never be perfect. The best thing is to work every day to get closer and closer to perfection.
When you start a project, where do you get your inspiration from for both the drinks and the overall customer experience you are creating?
I always stress about failing with every single project. We try to only choose projects that we are genuinely excited about and that makes it so much easier. For example, I recently worked on a new bar in Kiev where all the cocktails only contain 100% Ukrainian ingredients.
The way we approach things is we write a list of everything that has been done on that subject and look at it as a list. We believe in doing things differently; when we do guest shifts showcasing their repertoire drinks, we go to the destination a week earlier only with tools and equipment and travel around meeting distillers, brewers, farmers and producers and learn about the local culture and produce. Then we create our menu on the spot with ingredients coming only from that destination. It’s obviously time consuming and your brand can’t pop up somewhere every week, but to us less is more.
What about menus—any top tips when creating one?
The most important thing to realize when it comes to menus is that every venue is unique and the menu needs to reflect that. This rule also applies to multiple outlets using the same brand within one city—what is offered in each outlet should reflect the local environment. I personally prefer short, but well curated menus. I am not interested in seeing ten Gin brands, instead I think about what are the top 3 most interesting Gins out there and I stick with them. Long lists and books are sales and profitability enemies. I prefer selling one special Red Wine, rather than a list of five similar variations.
What advice would you give to anyone starting off in the industry?
One piece of advice for anyone starting in the industry is to be patient, determined and passionate. If you want to excel at something, your working hours are not enough. I am not saying drop everything else, by all means you need to live a balanced lifestyle, but remember you need to push yourself and learn nonstop. Anytime, overtime and all the time keep on figuring out how you can get better at doing what you do.
When you were hiring staff what did you always look for?
I really look for passion when hiring new staff. We can teach you pretty much anything, but if you are not passionate, you will never be able to excel.
I also think that both bartenders and service staff should have excellent social skills. After all, you are working with the general public and you want your customers to feel relaxed and at ease, so you genuinely need to be a nice, caring, social and outgoing person with a sense of empathy.
You spoke to DBA earlier in the year about trends. What do you think is the next big thing in the industry?
In my eyes, the best thing to happen to the modern cocktail scene is the drive towards using local and seasonal ingredients. When I travel, I seek local experiences, I want to encounter local culture, produce dishes and, of course, drinks. I don’t want to be drinking Beer I can get anywhere else. Local, seasonal with provenance to me means produce which is in season and also at its best.