The Trouble With Trolleys

It is easy to fall in love with a trolley. Those sleek lines, soft curves, the padded hiss as it rolls towards you across the marble floor. The gentle tinkle of the bottles as they jostle to the front going over a carpet bump. The way the light from the cocktail hour refracts across moving polished bottles and surfaces, through hand-carved crystal-ware… if you are lucky you might even see a rainbow.

If you are lucky you might be seated at the Connaught, and have Ago himself glide towards to you and offer a perfect Tanqueray No. TEN martini stirred elegantly with hunks of crystal clear ice and a beautifully presented selection of bespoke bitters made by the elusive ‘Bob’. Effortless charm, fluid movements, and indeed “straight up with style, whilst not forgetting to smile”, to paraphrase the man himself.

Perhaps you are hiding out at Duke’s and Alessandro takes his time preparing a bespoke martini from one of his trolleys, interspersing nuggets of cocktail lore with samples of his latest infusions and casual banter, a knowing twinkle in his eye and an Amalfi lemon always to hand.

Or perhaps you are unlucky enough to be manning an impractical drinks chariot on a busy night, bought on an owner’s whim. Perhaps after visiting one of the above establishments they merrily wobbled home – in love with an idea and a vision which seemed clear through the juniper haze – trawled through the countless listicled love letters to the cocktail cart convincing the public to part with a few grand for a small table with wheels, and perhaps they went on eBay that very night and bought the bloody thing. And now you have to use it.

Maybe they went for the sleek modern look, such as the Fumé: like Goldman Sachs on Fleet Street all curvaceous smoked glass, but with no perceivably elegant way to push it. For two grand you too can experience the joy of pushing a very expensive pane of glass across a member’s club to rattle up a martini whilst avoiding fingerprints, condensation drips or noise in vain.

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For a little less they might’ve got Artek’s Trolley 901, although perhaps less of a drinks trolley and more of a shallow IKEA wheelbarrow. Just remember not to actually put any expensive drinks on it, as you wouldn’t want the good stuff slipping and sliding all over the laminate top every time you pick up and push.

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Or how about this ode to minimalism? Bringing the House Doctor’s Big Table Trolley out to impress the parched masses must feel like bringing a knife to a gun fight: sure, with a bit of luck and a lot of skill you might actually be able to make something on it, but you’ll look like an underprepared damn fool whilst attempting to do so.

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“Wheel those martinis over will you Jeeves old chap, I’m desperately in need of liquid refreshment” says Matt Blatt of their Jackson Table Cart. At a height of 45cm I’m hoping Jeeves is not an old chap at all, rather a very well trained five-year-old child. With a circumference of 40cm, I’m guessing that ‘Wooster’ is referring to nothing more than a neat gin in a warm glass as “martinis”, as it might be a bit of struggle for Jeeves junior to fit anything more on the cart.

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I actually think the Ava drinks trolley is a pretty iconic design, and I can see it complementing a spherical coffee table in a well-considered lounge. But again, I struggle to see it being used practically in a bar; actually generating enough revenue to offset the cost of not just buying one, but making it service-ready and manning it.

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As someone who is supposed to know about such things, I often get asked to recommend a drinks trolley by owners, operators and consultants alike. Much like other fanciful trends such as gin and tonics in copas or splashing out on a grand piano for a tiny member’s bar, I always urge them to approach with trepidation and ask themselves plenty of questions.

What exactly are you making on the trolley? Please don’t say: “Whatever the guest wants”. No amount of prep and planning is going to fit a fully fledged bar on top of a 50 x 70cm surface. Any more than that and you might want to start to consider an in-built motorised engine to drive the weight.

Don’t say: “bartender’s choice”. Bartender’s choice from a trolley is a lovely idea, and a luxury best suited to an environment that not only invests money in hiring seasoned bartenders who are confident, creative and trustworthy enough to instinctively make the right choice for their guests, but also in an environment which is quiet enough to allow time for unhurried guest interaction. If your venue is that quiet, then you will no doubt be charging a premium for that luxury. If you are charging a premium for that luxury, make sure that your environment is indeed luxurious, which includes heavily investing in staff and equipment to facilitate the impression that nothing is ever of any trouble, and everything is easier than it looks.

It is no coincidence that the best examples of drinks trolleys in bars only serve one drink. Even then, every single step of how that drink is being made has to be carefully considered. If paying a premium for a tableside martini, one cannot serve a substandard martini and expect to be excused because it comes off the top of a fancy piece of design statement. If you are chilling your martini glasses (as you should) ask yourself: how exactly? If you are using ice, how is it being kept that cold and dry, and where is that going once you are done with it? The great advantage of a solid, stationary bar is that there are hiding places; places to conceal waste and other unsavourables and do the mundane stuff such as washing up equipment in an actual sink. A beautifully exposed trolley might be a joy to look at, gaze adoringly at the svelte structure touched by the fair hand of a great designer, but also think about what that lovely structure will look like with a slops bucket on it.

Nor is it coincidence that the best examples of drinks trolleys in bars have been made bespoke, often purpose built around the drink with a heavy dose of consultation over a long period of time: a healthy and balanced union of bartender’s, designer’s and engineer’s minds. If off-the-shelf cocktail trolleys are so expensive, you can imagine how much a bespoke one will set you back. So another the question is: how much money and time have you got exactly?

When does the trolley make an appearance and who is manning it? It might be a truism but there is indeed usually a time and a place for everything. Even if the place is accounted for with the venue and guests alike sparing no expense, the time still needs to be considered. A well-managed bar team will be streamlined in such a way that they there are always enough staff to hand, but never too many. Manning a cocktail trolley is a full time position. One can’t expect the bartender to be flaunting their shiny new wheels out on the floor whilst helping cut lime wedges behind the bar; as much as one can’t ask the bartender to leave the bar unattended to ‘quickly nip out on the floor with our darling vintage Priscilla to mix up a bunch of martinis for some V.I.Ps who have just strolled in’.

It is unlikely that there will be a great demand for tableside cocktails at 12:15pm, and having to push the chariot through the thirsty throng when things are getting loose at 12:15am is just going to be annoying for everybody involved. So if we say that the trolley pops out at a very specific time, perhaps tempting guests into the bar before the usual rush, the question remains as to who will be pushing the darned thing around. Save hiring somebody to come in for a couple of hours a day, managing staff rotas around what is essentially a separate bar should be a serious consideration and not just an afterthought.

When the trolley is not in use, where is it? As a separate bar, it will of course need to be set up and broken down every day, whether it makes a brief appearance or not. It seems obvious, but storage space for not just the trolley but also it’s contents and equipment have to be accounted for… you can’t just bosh everything in the disabled loos. If looking to have the trolley out there, proudly displayed as a focal point and laden with fine booze, just make sure that there are eyes on it at all times…

Don’t get me wrong, I love the tableside theatre and personalised service a cocktail trolley can literally bring to the table. On the rare occasion I opt not to sit at the bar, I enjoy the luxury of seeing something constructed right before my very eyes, whilst slumped in a bucket seat and the bartender’s undivided attention on me. It is a rare joy to see bartenders comfortably use their four-legged friends elegantly, but if the above questions are not asked and addressed, that elegance is lost along with the theatre, replaced by inconvenience and theatricality of a comedic nature. Which surely defeats the point. Rather than see an uncomfortable bartender sweat and fumble their way though a limited drinks selection, I would rather have my drink snappily and snazzily whipped up for me at the bar by a relaxed bartender, straight up with style, not forgetting to smile.

By Julian de Ferál

Cover image credit: London Evening Standard

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