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WRITER, CONSULTANT AND BROADCASTER SPECIALISING IN BEER, PUBS AND CIDER. BEER WRITER OF THE YEAR 2009 AND 2012

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Sunday, 27 September 2015

A case study of the problem with craft beer bars

I've spent the last few days touring around Seattle and Yakima having one of the best beer experiences of my career. The most hyped bar in the city just spoiled it, and should be avoided. 

The trouble with drinking is that if something goes wrong, you're not in the best position to defend yourself. In relation to the authority figures who are supposedly looking after you, you're somewhat infantilised - there's an assumption that if you're intoxicated, you must be in the wrong. Or at least, there is if you're dealing with arrogant arseholes who have forgotten their position role.

It was such a perfect night. We started by visiting Fremont Brewing. Situated on the northern lake shore of the fractal coastline that makes Seattle so stunning, it was one of those brief moments when you think life simply can't get any better. The beers were stunning, the atmosphere was amazing. It reminded me of the bars on South London's celebrated Bermondsey Mile, but it was more confident, more relaxed, more grown up. We could have stayed there all night.

Instead, we decided to move on to Pine Box, a craft beer bar that had been recommended by everybody to whom I mentioned my impending trip to Seattle.

Before we left Fremont, a few of our party visited the merchandise shop. For as long as I've been writing about beer, I've always thought north American craft brewers have got merch nailed. They make you excited to be around them, and they have a knack of making stuff you'll spend money on. At Fremont, one of out party bought a metal sign to bring home, about two feet tall, embossed, like this:


So then we went to Pine Box. It was OK. It's in a converted space that was once a bank or church or something, and it reminded me strongly of a Wetherspoons, only with better beer. We had a couple of beers, and then called it a night and headed back to our hotel.

Outside Pine Box is a flight of stone steps leading down to the street. We were standing on these steps, waiting for our cab, when a female member of staff came out, snatched the Fremont sign and said, "You are not taking this away, because you stole it from our wall."

Naturally, this provoked a strong reaction from us, and soon a member of security and another male member of bar staff were blocking our way, preventing us from getting my friend's sign back.

The bar staff disappeared back inside, while the security guy prevented us from following them. A minute or so later, the male member of bar staff - tall, with a long, hipster beard and a topknot - came back out and returned the sign, apologising for the confusion. No, of course he didn't, because we're talking about someone who had already accused of stealing without actually checking to see if anything had been stolen. He came back out waving the sharp metal sign, narrowly missing slicing another member of our party across the face with it, and said, "Don't you ever DARE lay a finger on a member of my staff again." He thrust the sign into my friend's hands and disappeared back inside. Needless to say, no one had touched the bartender who stole our sign. We had tried to take it back from her, as you would if someone tried to take something from you that you had just bought. There was no apology. Even with our sign back, the guy had gone out of his way to make us feel like it we who were in the wrong.

The security guy was conciliatory and did what security guys are supposed to do, and often don't - instead of inflaming the situation, he tried to defuse it and calm us down. But from the bar staff, that was it - no apology for ruining our night and accusing us of being thieves, no admission that they had made a mistake.

I can understand why, on a Saturday night, if you see someone walking out of your bar with a big metal sign you might be worried. But if I was in that situation, the first thing I would do is look at the wall where my metal sign was hanging and see it if was fucking missing before accusing a customer of stealing it. (We never spotted a Fremont sign on the wall, but I'm guessing there must have been one. They must have checked this after taking our sign, and that must be why they returned it.) Having realised my mistake once I'd attacked and stolen from a customer, I would then have been profusely apologetic. I certainly wouldn't have swung the sign in a way very likely to cause injury.

This was a serious incident that could have escalated. Making a mistake is one thing, and is understandable to an extent. But having accused a customer of being a thief, upon realising your mistake it's surely imperative to try to resolve the situation and make sure everyone goes way happy. The staff at Pine Box not only failed to do this, they further inflamed the situation by acting extremely aggressively, attacking us rather than apologising for their error. I simply would not feel physically safe drinking in a place run by these people.


***UPDATE***
The owner of Pine Box responded very quickly to this and has issued a full apology to the person who was attacked by his staff. I'm sure our treatment there was very out of the ordinary because so many people recommended the place to me - that's why we went. But I blogged this publicly to make a point about this kind of thing, to see what would happen.

I've changed the title of this blog to be less inflammatory about Pinebox, but it stands as a commentary and a case study on a much wider problem. It's generated some interesting debate. Everyone I know has had surly treatment in craft beer bars. Everyone has been 'served' by people who clearly think they are better than the customers they are supposed to be looking after. But everyone has a voice. Staff really can't afford to treat their customers with contempt.

Next time I'm in Seattle, I'll go back to Pinebox for their phenomenal beer list. I hope we have a completely different experience.

37 comments:

Ed said...

It's the repressed rage from having to force a grin on to their faces all day coming out.

Matthew Curtis said...

Pete - couple of questions. Did you try contacting the bar to resolve it before writing this inflammatory post and why did you feel the need to comment on the male bartenders appearance not once but twice? The way someone looks does not in any way affect how well they can run a bar.

m.lawrenson said...

MC - I've worked in Customer Service for nearly 20 years. If, as a business, you get it wrong (as Pine Box appear to have here), then it's your job to put it right. Because if you don't, then this sort of thing will happen.

Even if there was evidence of Pete's party robbing the sign (which there doesn't appear to be), then they shouldn't have been confronted (and certainly not in the manner described) until the staff were absolutely sure about it.

It's usually better to lose a fifty dollar (?) sign than thousands of dollars of business though word-of-mouth ruining your reputation, as will probably be happening to Pine Box presently. Anyone searching "pine box Seattle" at the moment will soon find this blog post, and possibly think twice about giving them their custom.

Leicesterbeer said...

Not nice being falsely accused , were with Dutch friends in Leicester when it happened once.

Ian Roberts said...

Hi Pete, and others, My name is Ian Roberts, one of the owners of the Pine Box. I wrote Pete a message through this blog but have yet to hear back. Obviously I'm looking into this isolated situation. He also forgot to mention anything about our beer list:
http://www.pineboxbar.com/

Pete please email me at Ian@PineBoxBar.com, I have a few questions.
Cheers

Ian Roberts said...

Hi Pete, Hi all, I am one of the owners at the Pine Box and am trying to get in contact with Pete as I look into the situation. Pete, I've sent you a message early this morning through this website but haven't heard back yet. Pete if you can contact me at Ian@pineboxbar.com, I have some questions for you that would help me address my staff appropriately to correct any future issues.

Cheers,
Ian Roberts
http://www.pineboxbar.com/

lembo said...

To be fair to them, I was there last week and nicked loads of stuff.

liam said...

Nasty, sounds like Luton not Seattle. Will avoid this place when we visit.

Alan said...

Oh my God, Pete. Please don't ever take the aspiring consultant's advice. Keep calling bad behaviour out like a grown up.

Matthew Curtis said...

Matthew - I worked in retail for over a decade including as a GM of a busy store so I'm well aware of this and striving to do everything you can to avoid situations like this from occurring in the first place. I don't agree with Pete's approach to this particular situation but just because I would have done things differently in the same situation doesn't mean I think Pete's done it wrong. It's his blog and he can do with it what he wants, just like we can and do with our own. I think you overestimate the stock of a bad review - I don't think Jay Rayner's slating of Beast did that restaurant any harm for example - in fact it probably did quite the opposite.

I've always wanted to check out Pinebox when I eventually visit Seattle and I still will - In fact Adrian Tierney Jones did so recently and was a great deal more pleased after his own visit: http://maltworms.blogspot.co.uk/2015/09/death-becomes-pine-box.html

Paul Bailey said...

Looks like ATJ had a different, and considerably pleasanter experience on his visit to the Pine Box.http://maltworms.blogspot.co.uk/2015/09/death-becomes-pine-box.html

Paul Bailey said...

Looks like ATJ had a different, and considerably pleasanter experience on his visit to the Pine Box.http://maltworms.blogspot.co.uk/2015/09/death-becomes-pine-box.html

D said...

MC I'm missing the second call out on the male bartender's appearance, unless the first call out was the fact the bartender was a male? Sorry if that sounds naive, just trying to understand your view.
Anyway, thanks Pete for this post, it goes to show you are willing to mention the bad that goes along with beer. You visiting MA, USA any time?

(Also will you be doing those videos again? Enjoyed those.)

Stonch Beer said...

I agree with Matt Curtis apart from on one point: you're British and it's called a shop, not a store.

The blog post is a bit bizarre and reads like one of those one-sided Tripadvisor reviews you see. Clearly Pete Brown's party were wrongly accused but the claim about the staff member "attacking" his companion doesn't ring true. Sounds like the original fault was the bar staff's but the altercation that followed reflected well on no-one.

These things happen. I've been in the same situation myself and felt awful the next day. I didn't write a poison pen blog post about it though. I suppose the difference is I don't always think Im right, particularly when I know I've been drinking.

Arny said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alan said...

Nonsense, Jeff. You've just veered into the booster haze. I can appreciate the view that you bring. I was also brought up in retail and worked behind a few bars, too. This is out of line - especially given they are the sober folk placed there to maintain order. No equivalency in the moment. Maybe not a firing offence but a pretty firm discipline matter. This is a one sided altercation as the owners of the place above pretty much admit. Taking that, however, and suggesting that then the describing a seriously bad bit of staff decision makes for a poison pen is what I'd expect from hangers on not an independent POV. Given how cliquey the craft scene is I suppose it's to be expected.

Arny said...

Thinking about this. Another angle. Perhaps the person who sold you the sign (obviously not the owner) isn't normally in the business of selling signs. Presented with funny speaking and perhaps 'slightly' inebriated clientele waving a fistful of pesos at a decorative piece of metal, a deal was obviously struck.

Bartender #2 obviously was not in on the deal. Bartender #1 needed an 'out' due to his extracurricular financial dealings so he puffed up his topknot and transformed into a knight on a white charger. Personal profit secured, virtue retained, damsel rescued.

Or....bartender #1 is the son of the owner. Then he can do whatever the hell he wants....

Pete Brown said...

"I suppose the difference is I don't always think Im right."

Priceless. Absolutely priceless.

Stonch Beer said...

Well Pete considering you moderate comments on your blog - which we don't at STONCH - I may be typing this for no reason.

But yes, I do think that you believe your pronouncements have some sort of moral force. Personally I recognise that things said or written when under the influence of alcohol - or about things that happened under the influence of alcohol - might need to be reconsidered later.

In this case, I think you owe an apology to the fella who's business you told people never to go to.

Something went wrong. He apologised. But you've been out order too and you might want to consider that.

Maybe that's another "priceless" comment. I don't know. You've changed, bruv.

Stonch Beer said...

Alan, how do you know it was a one sided altercation? You weren't even there, man. Read between the lines. The person who wrongly tried to grab the sign was clearly jostled. By drunk people. It's really unfortunate. The bar staff were wrong but this "NEVER GO THERE" blog post by Pete wasn't fair.

I take no moral high ground - I've acted like an absolute arsehole when drunk with bar staff. But I don't wake up and write blog posts like this.

Again, not sure whether I bothered typing this when Pete moderates comments so only publishes what he likes.

Jeff Alworth said...

It's interesting to see the reactions from those in retail (Stonch, Matt) to Pete's post. I'm sympathetic to their position--every night you have scores of people through the pub, and if any of your waitstaff set them off (rightly or wrongly), you may have a public relations issue on your hand. And I don't think anyone needs a refresher on how many drunks in a bar eventually turn into boors.

On the other hand, Pete's a blogger and writer. We have different roles than publicans. We go out into the world and reflect back what we find. I'd say the only really controversial part of this post is the second sentence of the title--but beyond that, what would you expect a beer writer to do in this situation? If Pete's readers don't trust him to call out bad behavior at bars, they're not going to trust him to write about other things, either.

Pete owns his part in this, and the owner of the Pine Box has now owned his part. This wasn't a casual misunderstanding--the pub staff behaved unacceptably. If Pete hadn't been a writer, he'd have had to stew over the mistreatment. Now everyone knows about it and can proceed accordingly. Wishing Pete had behaved better in the situation and just kept quiet seems like the really bizarre response to all this.

Pete Brown said...

Jeff. You point out that Alan wasn't there. Neither were you. Yet you seem to know "facts" about what happened that neither I and no one else has shared. "Facts" about which you are completely wrong.

And for the record, I only moderate your abusive, anonymous comments. As you can see here, if people aren't being libellous or simply abusive, it goes up.

Alan said...

Having been a bouncer, it is clear or me that this is not a balanced context. Even once out the door the responsibility still lies with the business to explain how the property of a customer was detained. Perhaps, though, best not to read between any lines. Neither of us know who was drunk. Not who jostled who. What was said. That being said, I am all in favour of the open discourse and then the owner speaking up to say as they did. The customer is due the benefit of the doubt. Boo hoo to the poor worry warts who don't want precious craft beer' rep blemished. But if the cameras show it's really kicking out unruly customers, that is good too. Facts are good.

Stonch Beer said...

I've NEVER left an anonymous or an abusive comment on your blog, Pete. I wouldn't do the former because I'm always logged in with this google account, and therefore if I did the latter you'd know about it. I'd say you're a bit paranoid, old bean, but I suspect you don't actually think I'd do such a thing and are merely saying it for show.

And to be fair you've published the comments I've left today, which are probably the only ones I've done so here since my first period in beer blogging. I trust you'll continue to do the same if I should choose to return. You'e always welcome over at STONCH. We don't bite and there's a very big audience - perhaps you'd like to write a guest piece once in a while?

You see, Pete, I'm always disapproving of people who have comment moderation permanently enabled. One should either allow comments or not, but I don't think it's fair to retain the right to pick and choose which ones you like and which you'd prefer to bury. You're just not talking to people on equal terms that way.

Anyway, good night and God bless.

Pete Brown said...

Just to be clear, I turned n comments moderation at a period when I was getting spammed with hundreds of fake comments a week. It's much improved now, but sadly remains necessary for other reasons.

Stonch Beer said...

I see you've also changed the heading of this post to something much more fair and less inflammatory that'll damage the bar far less on google searches - well done. PAX

Michael said...

Pete- Maybe the Pine Box, which I've visited and found to be quite nice, could make a pledge towards your upcoming book when they get to the bottom of what transpired with your party that unfortunate night. Hope the rest of your trip was wonderful.

Professor Pie-Tin said...

" Naturally, this provoked a strong reaction from us "

Only eight words in a much longer diatribe but I wonder if they are the key to this dispute.As you were there perhaps you could outline exactly what this strong reaction was towards a female member of staff.Was it raised voices,pushing and shoving,handbags,threats or just alcohol-fuelled remonstrations ?

I also agree entirely with your right to name and shame establishments but on occasions you,like a number of other prominent beer bloggers, often decline to name places where service and/or beer has been poor.

Be fearless and fair with everyone or posts like this will just read like score-settling.

Kieran H said...

You suggest this is a case study into the problem with craft beer bars? In fact it's more a case study into the problem with yourself. I don't think we're likely to see this problem re-occurring in craft beer bars across the world.

"soon a member of security and another male member of bar staff were blocking our way, preventing us from getting my friend's sign back."?

It sounds like the only thing preventing you getting your friends sign back were yourselves, acting like children. Any normal person would calmly explain the sign was theirs, ask the staff to verify this, and then the sign would be returned. I'd probably also have a good laugh at the situation and by this point the taxi would have turned up.

This is an all time low for your blog.

Pete Brown said...

So you would just laugh off highly aggressive behaviour that was completely unwarranted, Kieran? Is that what you're saying?

Diggler said...

As we're all reading between the lines, I'll have a go. It sounds like in all probability they were being aggressive idiots, but it also seems like your doing what we all fantasise about doing and that's using your clout to punish them. All just feels a tad immature and reactionary

Kieran H said...

Pete,

If I just so happened to be walking out of a bar, with a 2ft metal sign, that just so happened to be identical to one owned by the bar I was walking out of... I probably would laugh it off. I definitely would not blog about it.

If you had an altercation with a stranger at a train station, I imagine you wouldn't blog about it, nor would you call it a case study of the problem with train stations - my point being: it's clear that you're using your position to badmouth a bar.

Anonymous said...

I think this is really sad. Not the sign business, but your reaction.

A female member of staff came walking after you, snatched the sign, and walked back inside, all before you had a chance to protest? And she just 'snatched' it off you? And the security staff just intervened in that split second, allowing her to walk back inside but barring you? And you were provoked into a "strong reaction"?

But you didn't just explain? Right from the off? The phrase "We just bought that from Freemont Brewing" never passed your lips? In the midst of your "strong reaction" nobody thought to make very clear that there was a receipt, there was nothing on the sign they'd just taken to show it was affixed to a wall, that it was pristine, that here's the bag from the Fremont Brewing gift shop, etc??

This isn't a "case study on a much wider problem". It's a case study in little man syndrome - "I'm going to show you who you were messing with. Watch me! I'm going to write on my blog! I'm going to be rude about you!"

It takes quite something to tell a story about being wronged, and emerge sounding like a bit of an oaf. Congratulations. You nailed it!

Pete Brown said...

Anon:

"A female member of staff snatched the sign and walked back inside before you had a chance to protest?"
Yes. But she didn't go back inside before we had a chance to protest. She heard our protests and completely ignored them.

"And she just 'snatched' it off you?"
Yes, she did. Disgraceful, isn't it?

"And the security staff just intervened in that split second, allowing her to walk back inside but barring you?"
As no one in our party laid a finger on her or got physical in any way, she was free to walk back inside. We were stopped by security from following her. Do you think we should have physically restrained her? I don’t.

"And you were provoked into a "strong reaction"?"
Yes, I'm amazed you sound surprised. (BTW the reaction was not physical. There was no 'jostling'. It was shocked and outraged, but entirely verbal. To prevent anyone reading yet more stuff into this that didn’t happen, the verbal reaction was not abusive.)

"But you didn't just explain? Right from the off? The phrase "We just bought that from Freemont Brewing" never passed your lips?"
Of course we did. Several times. What do you think I meant by 'strong reaction?' The staff member simply ignored us.

"In the midst of your "strong reaction" nobody thought to make very clear that there was a receipt, that it was pristine, etc??"
The sign was still covered in the plastic coating it had been sold in - it had obviously just been bought. The person who bought it immediately searched for the receipt, and found it by the time the sign was returned to us. If it hadn’t been returned, we’d have shown the receipt until it was.


So - should I have used my position as a well-known writer to share the incident?

This is a difficult one. Along with every other beer, food or drink writer, I'm often told I SHOULD name and shame bars where I've had bad service. There are also those who disagree.

I honestly can't make my mind up on this issue. I never set myself up to be an ultimate arbiter of quality and service.

This leaves me open to the accusation of inconsistency - why flame one bar for shitty service and not another? I'll cop to that. I am inconsistent on this. And when I decide to have a go at someone, yes, there's probably a personal reason for doing so - it's a personal blog. This isn’t the first time I've done it. As far as I can remember, every time it’s not because I've been snubbed - it's because someone I know and like has been made to feel humiliated and upset, and I wanted to stand up for them. If you think that's an inappropriate use of my blog, that's your call.

For some, the problem seems to be worse because I somehow have the power to harm an establishment or brand that's pissed me off. I don’t. I doubt any beer blogger has that. This blog post brought a swift investigation and apology to my friend from the bar owner, and that's all I wanted. I don’t know if I’d have got that from Pine Box by writing a private email, but past experience elsewhere about different issues made be doubtful.

So having got the apology, is it appropriate to leave the blog up? Is this really an example of a broader problem? I think it is. It's not universal, and it's rarely this extreme, but it's common to get service in craft beer bars that’s aloof, occasionally hostile, and rarely, even aggressive.

I’m leaving the post up because if one frustrated member of staff thinks about taking it out on a customer who’s done nothing wrong and thinks better of it because they read this, then it's worthwhile. I don't think I deserve special treatment. I don't think any punter, whoever they are, should be treated like this.

Sorry, long comment. But with so many people imagining things and filling in gaps that aren't there, I wanted to be as clear as possible, as well as acknowledging the validity of some criticism. I hope this now draws a line under it.

The Drinking Public said...

Pete for it's worth I think it's perfectly reasonable to detail your experience at this bar on this blog.

I see nothing that controversial in detailing an unsatisfactory encounter in a bar on a blog about beer and bars.

If you'd had an extremely positive experience somewhere I imagine you would compliment the place here and share that experience with others, so I don't see why the opposite should be treated any differently.

Certainly some of the reactions in these comments seem far more unreasonable, they read like people 'in the trade' being touchy and closing ranks at one of their own being criticised.

As a punter, it's good to see those guilty of poor behaviour being brought to account.

At the same time, I think we can all acknowledge that it is often a difficult and thankless job for bar staff to be judge, jury and executioner when situations occur with people who have often had a drink or two.

The default reaction of the staff should always be to be the most reasonable people in the room.

In this case it sounds like the staff's behaviour left a lot to be desired.

I find STONCH's reaction particularly illuminating. I have actually had the personal pleasure of being badly handled by Mr STONCH himself in one of his own establishments in the past, in a situation where there was a disagreement between me and another customer who had clearly had a bad day/has some issues in their life.

Sadly I had no course of public redress in that situation, but took the only course of action available to the poor old punter by not frequenting that place again, and advising others to do the same.

Happily, since Stonch appears to no longer be the proprietor of said place, I will happily take my custom there again.

(By the way, it's perfectly normal, default behaviour to have permanent comment moderation enabled on blogs these days.)

Keep up the good work!

TDP

Stonch Beer said...

So you're saying I chucked you out for having an altercation with someone in my boozer and disrupting the peace at some point. That sonds good, it could well be true but suspect you made it up.

The commenter should realise Pete was a fan of the Gunmakers - he visited countless times and wrote it up flatteringly in print, he chose to interview someone rather prominent there for an article, he came with work colleagues when he had a job nearby and had his leaving lunch there - so he clearly didn't have a problem with it. So unfortunately slagging off my business in the context of this particular blog and my disagreement with Pete over his blog post doesn't really help you pal!

The Drinking Public said...

Hello Stonch, pal. Don't get me wrong there, I liked the Gunmakers too, really liked it in fact. I'd also spoken of it flatteringly to other beer enthusiasts, and enjoyed visiting on a fairly irregular basis. My experience of it however was tainted by the above incident, which is a shame. No one is "slagging off your business" (your words) - the business was great, your handling of that situation, however, was not. I have no reason to make it up by the way, but given your wading in heavy-handedly on this subject, it seemed quite relevant.