One of the reasons I love working in the booze industry is because of the opportunities it allows me to be out and about. Socializing, traveling, having a cocktail at a nearby restaurant—these are all aspects of my job that require me to interact with other people, both professionally and personally. I love talking to people; it’s always something that’s come very naturally to me. But what a few people have noticed lately is the movement of my eyes, constantly scanning the room for action while we’re engaging. I’m listening, but I’m also observing.
“Are you trying to find someone?” a person asked me at an event earlier this week.
“No, I’m just watching this guy over in the corner while we’re chatting,” I said. “He’s putting on quite a show.”
I love people-watching when I’m out on the town, both because I think human behavior is a fascinating thing and the fact that I’m constantly looking to improve my own understanding of certain personalities. Working with the public requires you to morph into whatever incarnation of customer service your client requires, and there’s no better classroom in my opinion than the public sphere. When you watch people behave in various social settings, you get a better idea of what motivates their intentions and how they expect you to react in turn. From there, you can decide whether you want to play along or not.
For example, there’s a very particular personality out there that I call “too cool for school”—a person who is constantly trying to downplay their enthusiasm, especially in relation to the enthusiasm of those around them. Whatever excites you doesn’t excite them, and what might arouse you will bore them to death. You can imagine my run-ins with these people considering I’m like an excited young puppy sometimes, unabashedly enthusiastic about numerous things in life. What’s ironic is that these folks who are “too cool for school” think that by acting uninterested and unmoved by the scene around them, other people are taking them more seriously as a result—like when someone who tells you they don’t watch TV honestly thinks that: 1) you actually believe them, and 2) that people who don’t watch TV are smarter than people who do. It’s the opposite, however. When it’s an act people can tell instantly, and many of us do our best to run from such behavior—quickly and quietly.
As you might guess, the wine and spirits world is full of such people, but there are just as many honest and genuine folks to balance them out, which is nice. At a party I attended in LA earlier this week I met a prominent restaurateur who just opened his ninth successful establishment in the city. As a theme, his bars are incredibly atmospheric and center around fun rather than the more serious pre-Prohibition approach that’s so popular at the moment.
“I can make you a kick-ass Manhattan. That’s not an issue,” he told me as we shared a drink. “But so can five thousand other guys around the country. Proficiency isn’t enough anymore. It’s expected. What about fun? Don’t you want to have a memorable time when you’re out?”
“What’s funny, is people think you have to do one or the other,” I said, taking a sip of my cocktail. “They think only intensely-straight-faced bartenders are going to be taken seriously. Smiling, showing emotion, and being enthusiastic mean you don’t know what you’re talking about, and that’s the kiss of death for snobby booze people.”
“Everyone’s too cool for school,” he answered.
“Hey, that’s what I say!” I yelled in response. “But you’ve really put yourself out there with your thematic elements. You’re inviting people to make a judgment as to whether they’re going to feel comfortable doing both simultaneously. Anyone who can’t have a good time at your bar isn’t someone I want to hang out with anyway, so I’m sure you bring in a pretty laid-back crowd.”
“I think if you can strive towards quality while having fun, people will ultimately respect you for it.”
“Amen, brother,” I said. “You and I are cut from the same cloth.”
As a retailer, I want people to enjoy coming to K&L. It should be fun, and our customers should feel comfortable, which is why I make an attempt to learn everyone's name who shops there frequently. I remember going to Manhattan a few years back and visiting one of my favorite clothing stores, only to find that the salesman working there was the same guy I had been dealing with in San Francisco for years. He had apparently switched locations, and yet here I was running into him 3,000 miles away.
“Hey, how’s it going?” I asked with a smile. “I didn’t expect to run into you out here.”
“Do I know you?” he replied with a frown. This coming from a guy who clearly recognized me, and who had sold me dozens of shirts, pants, sweaters, and suits on numerous occasions.
“Oh, we’re playing that game,” I thought to myself as I walked off.
“I knew that guy was too cool for school;” my wife said to me as we left.
“I bet he doesn’t watch TV either,” I replied to her with a smirk.
“He should,” she answered, “Because he really knows how to put on a show.”