At one of my favorite bars in the world, the proprietor and head bartender posts a calendar to social media at the start of each month to share its upcoming schedule and indicate which days the bar will be closed. One month last year, it was 18 days. Another month, it was 15 days. Another, 14. When there were extended breaks, a far-flung destination was often indicated, as the proprietor bounced around the world making full use of the ample opportunities provided by running a globally renowned bar and participating in the Guest Shift Circuit.

The Guest Shift Circuit offers expense-free travel, increased notoriety and recognition, time having fun with friends and the bartending community at large, and myriad other benefits. And the aforementioned bar owner shouldn’t have any qualms about drinking freely from this big brand-backed golden chalice: It’s the fruit of their labors. However, the proprietor of this bar is so synonymous with it — their cocktail creativity and technique the very raison d’être of the establishment — that when they’re not there, nobody runs the joint in their place and the bar remains closed.

Every bar owner has the right to take advantage of every opportunity proffered to them, and to live their lives in the way that they choose, seeking out fulfillment in whichever form it comes. I’m also an advocate for work-life balance and improving the overall health and wellness of the industry. Days off, liberal breaks, and travel are wonderful and essential components to that. Furthermore, as a nomadic freelance journalist, I have absolutely no leg to stand on when it comes to trying to dictate the schedule or time of anyone else.

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But at what point does the Guest Shift Circuit come at the detriment to the bar itself, if it’s not uncommon to be closed for half the month?

Picking Your Battles & Ensuring Financial Viability

Balancing the demands of running a bar’s day-to-day operations while serving local customers at the highest level with the rigors of the road and living the gaudy Guest Shift Circuit life is as difficult a task as balancing the flavors of a Long Island Iced Tea. There’s a whole lotta disparate, heady components in there, and while you might enjoy downing a few of them it doesn’t always mean you should have.

“My 2024 philosophy is to pick my battles,” says Holly Graham, founder of Tokyo Confidential, a new cocktail bar in the city’s Azabujuban neighborhood. “My calendar is pretty much locked in [for the next several months] so if other opportunities come up, I have to ask myself if I have the capacity and what my priorities are.”

For bar owners, determining whether or not to take a guest shift is a classic case of risk versus reward. “Traveling the pop-up circuit is fun, great for publicity, community building and exposure, but it’s not something that most bars can afford to do,” says Nicolas Torres, owner of True Laurel in San Francisco. “It takes a great deal of time, and trust that your bar can run with a shorter line of staff, and less management present.”

I caught up with Torres while he was in Mexico City for a guest shift at Handshake Speakeasy. And for its co-owner and head bartender Eric van Beek, even as he enjoys the roving lifestyle himself, the drawbacks of doing so can be stark. “The fact it takes me away from the bar,” van Beek says. “This is not ideal, and since I’m an owner that still works in service, you know that things will run slightly different when I’m not there.”

Common bar closures are not only a potential detriment for guests and building a strong local community, but there’s also the matter of whether or not a bar will even be able to keep the lights on at all if it’s closed with such frequency. For Alf del Portillo, who runs Lisbon’s Basque-Italian cocktail bar Quattro Teste with his wife, when he opts to take a guest shift the bar closes as a result. The husband-wife duo are the only staff; there’s no other option. “So we need to select the right opportunities, and hopefully ones where you actually get paid,” he says. “How does a guest shift or an award or ranking on a list affect the income of our bar?”

“I don’t know the financial background of those businesses, but for us, it’s something we cannot afford to do. We have to be able to pay our staff and the bills. Plus, our team makes a lot of their money from tips, so we have to open.”

Even so, there’s a hard cap on the amount of travel they’re able to pursue. “We are not going to do more than two guest shifts per month,” del Portillo says. “We need to be here.”

There’s also a sense of needing to fulfill an obligation if rising up international lists is the long-term goal, without necessarily understanding the rhyme or reason of that looming requisite. “We have to do it for the lists, not that I know why or what it means,” del Portillo says with a laugh.

While Quattro Teste will take an occasional day off to pursue the right type of guest shift, and certain bar owner-operators will travel the Guest Shift Circuit for half the month and close their bar in the process, others with larger spaces and staffs are not only able to stay open; they must. “I don’t know the financial background of those businesses, but for us, it’s something we cannot afford to do,” van Beek says. “We have to be able to pay our staff and the bills. Plus, our team makes a lot of their money from tips, so we have to open. We only close under very rare circumstances or certain holidays.”

Del Portillo has heard ample tales of bar managers in Portugal and Spain who prefer soaking up the perks of the Guest Shift Circuit as opposed to actually tending bar and meeting guests. “It’s dangerous, so many people are only interested in that,” he says.

“I don’t know how those bars function; if that was the case with us, we would not do the guest shift,” Torres says.

Building a Strong Bar Team

Every bar is a universe to itself, with different requirements for staffing and different revenue metrics to meet, as well as different types of service in different spaces. For bar owners who do wish to be active in the Guest Shift Circuit while maintaining a thriving, permanent presence for the bar even when they aren’t on site themselves, the key goal is to build and empower a robust team of managers, bartenders, and staff who can thrive on their own.

“Ownership is about training and growing your team, so being able to get them to a level that you can step away and let them take care of the day-to-day is a testament to one’s leadership, and gives them space to grow,” Graham says.

“Personally, while I love that people come to my bar to see me, it’s really the team that keeps the daily wheels turning so I want them to be faces that guests seek out, too.”

“Luckily for me, True Laurel has gotten to a point where we have tight standard operating procedures, and it took us some time to get there but our bar runs fairly smoothly and I have a strong management team, small but mighty,” Torres adds.

Staff may come and go, new menus need to be launched, and circumstances may change on the ground, so it’s less reaching a finish line than it is building a foundation that needs constant reinforcement. “This is where training, communication with your team and management, and trust comes into play,” van Beek says. “It’s not an overnight thing. It constantly evolves, actually. However, we have grown into having a solid base even when I’m not there.”

Building that foundation does more than allow a head bartender or face of an establishment to hit the road; it allows the bar to thrive in their absence for any reason. “Of course I’d like to be everything, everywhere all at once but part of bar ownership is transcending the bar beyond its physical space, meaning you can’t be there all the time,” Graham says. “I’m not just talking guest shifts – it’s important to show up and support your local and global community as much as possible and represent your bar in various forums.”

That strong supporting team can then spread their wings, develop their own reputations and seize the day with their own opportunities. “Personally, while I love that people come to my bar to see me, it’s really the team that keeps the daily wheels turning so I want them to be faces that guests seek out, too,” Graham says. “I love giving opportunities to my team because I want them to experience the world, learn, and grow.”

That includes having them dabble in the Guest Shift Circuit, too. “We just did our first guest shift where I was able to bring more than one bartender with me,” Torres says. “I may be the face of the brand, but we are always trying to promote the team, and our local clientele are more often coming to see them than me.”

The allure of the Guest Shift Circuit is strong, and even those who have reined themselves in see how they could have perhaps gone too far in the other direction. “Some have and some haven’t; this could have been true for myself,” van Beek says. “However, I started traveling less, and everyone runs their business differently, and has different values. For me, I’d rather be in my own bar than on the road.”

In a world where many bars don’t even have bars, perhaps the question for bar owners is what do you want your bar to be?

“Bars are supposed to be communal spaces, for everybody, but most importantly your neighborhood,” Torres says. “The bars out there that push guest shifts and traveling before they have a local following kind of blow my mind. Then again, there are bars that make 50 Best that have been open for a year. So what do I know?”

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