Saturday, August 5, 2017

An Italian Tale of the Piano Bar


Every year at this time my friends, Jody Duncan and Nikos Hristodulakis get wound up enough to read aloud a tale they first publically shared here on MIE five years ago today.  It’s one of their unique stories about life behind the bar at the La Cage aux Folles-style cabaret they own together on the Aegean Greek island of Mykonos.  For thirty-five years they’ve run Montparnasse Piano Bar, and this is tale that serves as testament to their business acumen. Staying afloat in the bar business is tough, especially when you go out of your way to treat everyone as family.  Here’s a Jody Duncan Business School example of how to deal with party-minded customers who do not return the respect for your business that you show to them. 

It was 1985, as I recall.  August, of course, and Mykonos was rapidly filling with Italians on their summer holidays.

At the Piano Bar life was normal, with one exception: We were seeing groups of Italian tourists arriving at the bar to spend the evening listening to the show, but only a small percentage of each group ordered anything at all.  The others would simply say, “niente”— nothing.  What we learned was that groups of friends would go out for the evening prepared to pay for only one drink per person per night. 

To achieve that they’d take turns ordering drinks, so that the group could go to three or four bars and still have only one drink per person over the course of the evening.  So, in the ordering process, I was hearing from a group of eight,  “Coca-cola, niente, niente, oranjiatta (orange juice), niente, niente, niente, vino bianco.”  A thirty-six percent rate of sales, not even enough to cover expenses, sadly.

What made things even more difficult was that no one in these groups seemed to understand the business end of our operation, or perhaps they just didn't care.

After a couple of days of this ritual, and faced with another night of  “Niente, niente, coca-cola, niente, hot water with lemon, vino bianco, niente, niente, niente,” I was at the end of my rope and my patience had run out.

I went behind the bar, found some white paper the size of a business card, and began to write:

Our special cocktail for the month of August

A champagne cocktail, featuring vodka, cherry brandy, creme de cassis, and grapefruit juice, generously topped with champagne

700 drachmas

I pinned the cards to the inside of the drink menus and waited for the next group to arrive. I didn't have to wait long.  A group of six arrived. I greeted them, handed each guest a menu, and left them to peruse the cocktail list.  Upon returning a couple of minutes later I asked if they were ready to order.  Yes, they said, and began their “Oranjiatta, niente, niente, coca-cola, niente, niente” routine.

I thanked them, took the menus and went to prepare the drinks.  When I returned to their table with a tray of drinks, an amazed, bewildered look came over their faces.  I handed the first member of the group his cocktail and he said, “I didn't order anything.”

“You certainly did,” I said.  “You ordered a ‘Niente,’ which is our special cocktail for August, and that's exactly what I’ve brought you.  And I have three more for your other friends who also ordered ‘Niente.’  Enjoy your drinks!”

Needless to say, our sales improved, and we still get a laugh out of the memory.

And what other cocktail could properly accompany this tale but the infamous “Niente,” currently listed on the Montparnasse drink menu as a Pink Russian:

In a champagne flute, add ½ ounce vodka, ½ ounce cherry brandy, ½ ounce creme de cassis, 1 ounce grapefruit juice, top with chilled champagne (or prosecco), and serve. Salut!!!

Thanks, Jody, but I’m frightened now to ask you for water.



  1. Well, now the next time Sharon pointedly asks me if I have some comment to make, I'll know what to say: niente.

  2. EvKa, just be careful what you wish for...

  3. I love this story. The Italians got exactly what they deserved - and the bar got a great story AND a fantastic-sounding drink!

  4. Not to say that Italians can't be annoying. Nor that they can't be frugal. But culturally, Italians are not heavy drinkers. They drink wine with food, sometimes at lunch, almost always at dinner. This is a very funny story, and certainly a very clever solution by a person who suspected that Italian visitors had organized themselves (culturally an unlikely scenario under any circumstances) to "steal" the enjoyment of the music and the atmosphere. I would say they were just following their cultural norms and not interested in excessive alcohol consumption. Especially 30 years ago, this cultural norm was holding fast. Nowadays, young Italians are sometimes adopting the "it's fun to go out and get plastered" norms of other cultures, much to the chagrin of people my age.
    In 1985, if I had been in one of those groups, I would have ordered aqua frizzante or niente, not because of organized collusion, but because culturally, I am Italian. I have been drunk exactly never. I have never seen a member of my family drunk. Nor any of my Italian-American friends in the US nor in Italy. It's not a moral choice. Or a heath choice. It's just a... I don't know...a tribal norm. That's why you can't order cocktails in restaurants in Italy--except, maybe, in the hotels, where foreign visitors seem to want to them.

    Could it be because we Italians don't need chemicals to let loose and laugh and enjoy ourselves?

  5. Thanks, Bro. We will toast you. After the food is served.

  6. Absolutely love this!!! I will be ordering the next time I am there, a "Niente" right after I take a 'pee-k' around. . . ;-)