Saturday, August 4, 2012

Tales of the Piano Bar #10, The Italian Tale.

Every once in a while I get Jody Duncan wound up enough to share another of his unique stories about life behind the bar at the La Cage aux Folles-style cabaret he owns together with Nikos Hristodulakis on the Aegean Greek island of Mykonos.  For thirty years they’ve run Montparnasse Piano Bar.  That in and of itself is a testament to their business acumen. Staying afloat in the bar business is tough, especially where 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!”
Thank you for the photos from your films Maestro Federico Fellini

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. Great story, and very nostalgic pictures. But, Jeff, I don't think you're frightened at all :)

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Thanks, Lil. I do feel safer now knowing you're in my corner.:)

  4. What? Only an hour after it posted and you are already having to remove a comment? What must it have been? A nasty comment from Sylvio Berlusconi? Niente problema, Jeff, I can take the criticism. This was a fun story to share, and you illustrated the blog entry as I might have imagined. With great humor and some of the most memorable Italian film references. Bravo, regazzo!

    1. The original deletion was to remove a typo in my reply to Lil. The one I'm contemplating at the moment, Jody, has a more purposeful intent.:) Thanks, glad you liked the visuals.

  5. On the other side of this, I went into one MYkonian bar and asked for a large glass of water and told them to charge me for a cocktail, I was refused. I needed some water. I went home and the bar lost an evening of more drinks from me.

    1. Wow, that's a memorable moment, FOAW: A Mykonian bar owner (not MPB of course) refusing to take money for water! Perhaps because he's used to selling it as shots...

  6. Great story, Jeff! (And Jody...) A fine example of "minding your business." I can't imagine putting up with 30 years of tourists in a bar. Sheesh, talk about double trouble. That'd be enough to make me want to take a permanent vacation!

    1. Everett, there certainly have been moments over the past thirty years that have tested our patience. But with so many friendships developed with tourists and locals alike, we'd not trade our experiences for anything in the world. Now about that vacation, where do I sign up?

  7. Thanks, Everett, and in my humble opinion, the key to longevity in the tourist bar business is understanding as few languages as possible, thus allowing you to smile along in ignorant bliss at one outrageous demand and outburst after another.

  8. Jeffrey, why are you not writing a second series of books set in this bar? If you don't use it, I will, although I'll cunningly move the bar to another country so you won't recognize your idea.

  9. I already have, Tim, under the pen name JR Moehringer. ONLY KIDDING, but I had to say that because I absolutely love his book, "The Tender Bar."

    As for my own bar book, were you perhaps sitting behind me this spring at a taverna in the Mykonos harbor sneaking peaks at moi and my computer screen?

    I've been assembling "Tales of Mykonos" (working title) through conversations with old Mykonos hands--though from the thrust of most of their stories, a different body part would be a more accurate description of their nature (both the stories' and the tellers').

    Then I began work on Andreas Kaldis #5, which, too, is set on Mykonos but addresses the dark side of things. And when I began writing AK#5 in earnest, I had to put the other and its frivolous tone on the back burner.

    I'm on schedule to complete the first draft of AK#5 by the end of August, and plan on returning to the frivolity of the "bar book" as a diversion from my September-October TARGET: TINOS book tour.

    But my time away from the other hasn't been a total loss for I've come up with the perfect title: LITTLE PELVISES. Catchy, don't you think?

  10. Well, it sounds to me like you are working far too hard during what should be a laid-back month of August, but from a selfish standpoint, can hardly wait for the two books to be published. We've read three and I am holding off ordering the fourth only because I want to know there is another one out there waiting for me when I finish it!

  11. Are you guys sure you're not shilling for my publisher?:)) I'm tempted to say what I used to tell my kids when they'd want to know how much further until we'd get to where we were going. "Just over the hill, Jackie and Joel, just over the hill." :)

    Thank you, both, for realizing that while all about me are partying, I'm diligently pounding out 1250 finished words a day. Yes, that's my story and I'm sticking to it.