Cocktails are big. So are craft beers. There is a major drink revival. Bars have long been profit centers, but now they are becoming destinations in and of themselves. Guests are increasingly demanding when it comes to drinks, and smart restaurant operators are getting more creative to meet their needs.
When so much media focus and consumer attention is paid to bar programs, it’s important to differentiate yourself. Defining a clear and unique concept is the first step, and the one most often missed. Are you a rum bar? A vodka joint? Do you skew creative or classic?
These are important questions, but all too often larger restaurants—popular chains and hotel bars among them—try to appeal to too many people and then end up without a clear identity.
Work with your team to identify who you are and what you do. Then do it well! Make sure that if you have a bar as part of your restaurant, the bar supports the restaurant concept. How?
We’ve seen some excellent examples of bars and restaurants that have defined their identity and carved a special niche, differentiating themselves from the competition. Here are a few ideas.
If Looks Could Thrill
Chefs know people eat with their eyes first. Bartenders should take advantage of this, too, by creating drinks that entice people from first sight.
Tiki drinks such as the flaming volcano are the perfect example of this: It’s hard to ignore an extra-large, flaming fishbowl when you see it from across the room. But a unique presentation doesn’t have to be outrageous.
Take the Moscow Mule—a classic drink, to be sure. Traditionally served in a distinctive copper mug, the copper keeps the iced vodka, ginger beer and lime cocktail cold. These days it typically comes in a standard rocks glass. Served in the copper mug, the Moscow Mule gains distinction, and shows your attention to detail. Talk to your distributor—many vendors will help pay for the mugs, which boost sales and raise awareness for both your bar and the liquor brand.
Bottles Rock It
A hot trend now is pre-bottled cocktails. Definitely delivering the novelty factor, these drinks offer convenience and quick service, since they can be premade and bottled en masse.
This is the latest reincarnation of the barrel-aged cocktail as bartenders now are bottling their barrel-aged concoctions. It is also one of the most convenient methods for serving the newly popular carbonated cocktails. Guests love getting their own bottled cocktails, and often they are bottled for two or more.
For instance, the Daily in New York prominently lists a “Bottled Cocktail of the Day” on the top of their menu. Examples have included the Astoria, with gin, dry vermouth, bitters or the Improved Holland cocktail, made with Bols Genever, maraschino, absinthe, and orange bitters.
Interurban in Portland, Ore.,takes this concept further with 15.5-oz. bottled cocktails that serve up to six people. Recent offerings included both a Negroni and a Manhattan for $40 each. Bar manager Jeremy Mielen introduced the large bottle and shared service format in efforts to encourage sharing and create a fun, upscale tavern-like feel.
Drinks In the House!
Bartenders are also making a lot of their ingredients in-house. The cocktail revival spurred innovation and the rebirth of specialty ingredients. It began with fresh-squeezed fruit juices and has grown to encompass everything from house-made bitters to tonic water made in house.
Even universal classics like the Gin & Tonic are being re-evaluated as bartenders are playing with house-made tonic water. Once considered a basic ingredient, tonic water is reaching cult status.
Tonique in New Orleans proudly states, “the only ingredients that we keep behind our bar are things that we can make or squeeze fresh ourselves. We hand make our own tonic water and ginger beer.” One of their signature drinks is Ed’s Tonic and Gin with Bluestrap gin and housemade tonique au quinquina.
Match dot Somm
As more restaurants integrate serious bar programs, many are making money—and news—with dedicated cocktail pairings. Maven in San Francisco pairs every dish on its menu with a choice of a distilled drink (cocktail) or a fermented beverage (beer or wine).
For instance, with Kampachi Sashimi Maven recommends a choice of sparkling wine or the Global Warming, made with aged gin, sake, riesling, lemon, and absinthe sorbet. (For more on Maven’s pairings, see “Pair to be Different” on page 22.) Pairing cocktails with food boosts sales and check averages, while encouraging guests to try more items from your menu.
You can also take advantage of holidays for seasonal promotions and themed cocktails. One client, Cityhouse restaurant at the Parc55 hotel in San Francisco, partnered with Campari America to offer a Little Hot Mess cocktail (X Rated Fusion liqueur, orange juice, soda) in honor of San Francisco’s Pride celebration.
This type of promotion helps create a fully integrated experience and offers another unique feature that customers won’t find everywhere else.