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State of the Cocktail Nation

Posted on  | April 22, 2014   Bookmark and Share
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Erick Castro at Polite Provisionsin San Diego

Now that the “cocktail revolution” has established a new normal, it’s a good time to look at how bars have adapted to an era of cocktail prominence. Successful bars—while diverse in size, ambience and focus—all share a sense of balance. Not unlike a cocktail that requires an inherent sense of harmony in order for its combined parts shine, so do bars need to make sure their moving parts—staff, bar organization, menu offerings, specials, etc.—are in sync. All the better to respond to a thirsty audience.

It’s true in established cocktail bar meccas but also in secondary and tertiary cities where culinary exploration is on the rise: More informed, but less elitist, drinking is the name of the game. And while classic drinks persevere, guests seem less interested in the studious, arm-banded bartender spending five minutes hand-concocting their drinks and more interested in a great drink and a good time.

Size Calls for Speed

Charles Steadman, partner at Jack’s Grumpy Grouper in Lantana, FL, where a casual atmosphere and tight cocktail menu translate to 250 guests per turn, notes, “The consumer is definitely over-educated now, which makes the expectation extremely high. This access they’ve got to the Food Network and programs like Bar Rescue and Hotel Impossible means that we’ve got to translate specialty drinks into something that works [for the guest] and works for volume.”

Volume forces creativity beyond emulating the hotspot down the block. Intriguing cocktails are being produced in a variety of settings, like Houston’s Anvil Bar & Refuge, where Bobby Heugel helms the business. Heugel, who comes from a background of nightclubs and wine bars, credits Anvil’s ability to crank out a ton of drinks to his cocktail-bar virgin status. “When Kevin and I opened in 2007 we had never been to another cocktail bar,” says Heugel. “We set it up the way we wanted to run bars; we set it up to be extremely fast.”

Their approach emphasized streamlining design elements, such as putting the POS under the bar, increasing the width of the bar rail to six inches and building speed racks that hold every bottle needed to make each drink on their cocktail menu. Further, dividing labor resources and elevating the bar back’s role throughout the night wasn’t simply about increasing speed and profitability, but also about improving guest relations. Heugel explains, “If you set up an efficient bar you can spend more time with your guests.”

Designing bars that satisfy both staff and his clients is the goal of veteran bar consultant Tobin Ellis of BarMagic in Las Vegas. “I am so happy the dive cocktail bar has become the next big thing. I relish the day when quality, fresh, balanced drinks are a given behind most bars, not something rarified and glorified by the media. It’s just drinking. Every bar that carries rum should be able to make a simple, fresh kick-ass Daiquiri without a speech or a lot of fuss,” says Ellis. Citing such examples as Broken Shaker in Miami, Attaboy in Manhattan, Trick Dog in San Francisco and Oven & Shaker in Portland, Tobin adds, “The real tastemakers and trailblazers of this movement are doing the most important work there is: making drinking not just better, but more fun and more approachable.”

Prep, Prep, Prep

Increasingly, a bar’s identity is literally built in to its format. A sense of approachability is conveyed immediately by an open kitchen that greets guests as they enter Raines Law Room in NYC. While the bar’s design ups the ante on interaction, it compels staff to stay ahead of the game. Head bartender Meaghan Dorman says, “There is a lot of organization you can do beforehand to make sure your staff is prepped for every night of service. I am meticulous about mise en place, but also about checking the register for change, making sure we have menus ready to pass to guests, dishwasher ready to run and so on. On a Friday, for example, we have people waiting to get in at 5:00pm on the dot, so these things are immensely important.”

Similar efficiencies are what keep Erick Castro’s bar, Polite Provisions in San Diego, putting out drinks when the bar is a more than two deep. He notes, “It’s all about proper set up and prep. If you don’t have a strategy in place for the night, you’re going to go down in flames. Your staff needs to be thoroughly trained in order to be efficient. I’ve seen a lot of bars make sure their staff is knowledgeable of the recipes, but if you aren’t preparing your bartenders for the high volume they’ll be serving, they’re not going to be able to succeed, therefore you’re not doing your job right.”

The Hospitality Mandate

Recipes and efficiency are important, but everything fails if true hospitality isn’t in place. Phoebe Esmon, head bartender at Philadelphia’s Emmanuelle, says, “If your staff think that they are better than—or cooler than—the guests, it is going to queer the vibe of any room, regardless of set dressing. It’s important to be welcoming and willing to answer questions.”

And this hospitality imperative holds no matter how big or small the bar. Colin Anderson oversees a four-seat bar at Cure in Pittsburgh. Though small in size, the bar adeptly accepts on the task of educating Pittsburgh’s diners on craft cocktails. Anderson engages diners by pairing his drinks philosophy with his nationally recognized chef’s menu. “Having only four seats adds to how inclusive people can be. I read a lot of cooking blogs to find out about things from the kitchen I can transfer to the bar,” Anderson explains. “And we’re trying to use the same philosophy of preserving flavors as the kitchen uses.”

Preserving a level of camaraderie is part of what garners so many accolades for Dallas’s nine-year-old Windmill Lounge, which is co-owned by Louise Owens and Charlie Papaceno. Papaceno comments, “I love the fact that we have a bar that is not a special occasion place. It’s a bar they come to all the time.”

Repeat customers happen when bartenders understand their clientele. Michael Neff, who is soon opening Clifton’s, a five-story multi-concept in Los Angeles, says, “You must train yourself to recognize people and what types of people they are. A girl sitting in a corner reading a paper—she probably wants to sit there and read the paper. But the guy sitting there drinking a beer may be looking for conversation. To figure this out bartenders simply have to apply salesmanship 101.”

Selling the drinks, and the experience in a way that isn’t stuffy is where cocktails are headed. If the lines out the door at newly opened Highball in Boston are an indication of this new appealing approach then you might want to steal a page out of Bar Manager Shaher Misfif’s book. He concludes, “I think the success is in the lighthearted experience. We choose to serve our drinks with rubber duckies rather than a pretentious attitude.”


>>Erick Castro: “It also helps if the bar is built right. We logged in countless hours ensuring Polite Provisions is one of the most efficient bars you could work behind. The bar is designed so you’re not having to work against it. Our bartenders move laterally from top to bottom, which makes them much more efficient and extremely quick. Their motions are very intuitive.”

>>Tobin Ellis: “Smaller markets actually tend to have a disdain for larger markets as in ‘This isn’t New York, this isn’t Vegas, we don’t care.’ That is difficult to overcome sometimes.”

>>Meaghan Dorman: “If you have a large space, that usually means bigger staff, and they should be able to work from any service station and execute the drinks. Training is important in these situations, so accuracy and organization are ingrained before the staff hits the floor. They also have to be realistic about what will work for the crowd and the best way to present menu options to these guests.”

>>Bobby Heugel: “First thing people need to do when opening a bar—no matter what city you are in—is to accurately evaluate the price ceiling for that market. That will tell you how many drinks you need to sell on any given week. And that number will tell you more about your design concept and proposed menu than anything else can. Another really important thing: spend a lot of time training your support staff. This is the staff nobody ever talks about.”

>>Michael Neff: “If you are going to be in the community, you have to treat them as neighbors instead of saying, ‘We’re a fine rum bar and know a lot about rum and come hear me talk about it.’ Engage your clientele as a shadow sales force—you want customers telling their friends: ‘You MUST go to this place!’ To achieve that, you have to personally try to get to know as many people as possible. Even on a busy night nobody wants a Denny’s level of service—‘Hi I’m Michael, I’ll be your bartender this evening.’”


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