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20 beverage service tips

So, you figure that your beverage menu is plenty profitable. The bar is full of coworkers sipping after-work cocktails, folks in the dining room are ordering wine, and specialty coffee sales, well, they’re way up. Your beverage program’s doing just great, right?

Not so fast. According to the experts we tracked down, there are plenty of money-saving—and moneymaking—ideas that you might have missed.

“A lot of operators are naive,” says consultant George Delgado of PROmixology.com. “Because they’re making money at the bar, they’re not paying attention.” A well-tuned beverage program, he says, should run costs around 19 percent. “So, those operators are missing out on money—a lot of money.”

How do you squeeze more profits out of a beverage menu? Here are some ideas to help you do just that.

  1. Shop for closeouts: Check your distributors’ listings weekly for wine closeouts and end-of-vintage opportunities. “Space is always at a premium in the distributor’s warehouse,” says Traci Dutton, sommelier and beverage manager at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone. “And often a container is coming from Europe with a new vintage and they’re stuck with cases of the old.” That’s when you can score good discounts. “But you have to act fast,” advises Dutton. So keep up to date with distributors’ offerings.
  2. Watch your diet: Low-calorie syrups for soft drinks have half the shelf life of non-diet syrups. “That’s not a problem with popular diet colas,” says Jeff Elsworth, Ph.D., at the School of Hospitality Business, Michigan State University. “But if you have, say, a slower-selling diet root beer, you might end up having to toss old syrup.”
  3. Do double duty: Everything you buy for the bar should serve more than one purpose. “Look at cranberry juice; it’s used in a dozen drinks,” Delgado says. “The more uses you have for an ingredient, the more profit it’s going to bring back.” Double duty shouldn’t stop at the bar. Cocktail recipe use currants? They can be featured in a dessert, which is then matched with the drink.
  4. Fix the flats: Juggling a lot of sparklers by the glass means having to deal with flat wines. But at the aptly named Swanky Bubbles in Philadelphia, rather than discarding leftover wine, it’s added to Swanky’s sangria recipe, says head bartender Shannon Jackson.
  5. Use block ice: Ice-pick-wielding bartenders chip big blocks of ice. The latest trend not only adds bar-side drama but also makes better drinks to boot. “It’s the way they used to cool cocktails before Prohibition,” says beverage consultant David Wondrich. And, he says, it gives bartenders better control, instead of a one-cube-fits-all. “For shaken drinks, you want fine ice with more surface area to make colder drinks,” he explains. But for drinks that will sit in the glass—like bourbon on the rocks—a big chunk won’t dilute the liquor. That kind of showmanship, the consultant says, builds business overall. “People come in for drinks but stay for dinner. It pays off big time.”
  6. Keep inventory tight: Keep drink list offerings focused, thematic and brief; you’ll cut costs by curtailing inventory. “You don’t need 12 different vodkas, you need two, especially if they’re good quality,” says Wondrich. He suggests a list of five to 10 signature drinks and the standards: martini, Manhattan and cosmo. “Pair the cocktails with apps on the drinks list. That helps sell both and channels customers’ ordering desires to drinks you actually have.”
  7. Raise your prices: Don’t be afraid; just don’t do it all at once. “Say you sell a 16-oz. Coke for $1.25; raise it to $1.29,” says Barry Tepper of Tepper Kalmar Associates, who advocates quarterly price reviews. The bump won’t appreciably change the number of Cokes you sell, Tepper says, “but that four cents times 200 or so sodas a day adds up.” In the next quarter, keep the price of Coke the same but raise the price of another drink. “So coffee goes from $1.50 to $1.60. That’s not going to stop people from buying it.”
  8. Get to know your keg: American kegs hold more beer than European kegs, so don’t go by price alone when buying. “Bar owners don’t understand the difference between a European keg, which is 50 liters, and an American keg, which is more than 58 liters,” gripes Brooklyn Brewery’s Garrett Oliver. “You tell the buyer he’s getting 16 more pints from the keg, so it’s actually worth an extra $85 in his bar. Some people can’t seem to get a grip on that.”
  9. Sell half glasses: “I see a customer who’s finished a bottle or glass with dinner and still has a little food on their plate—that’s an opportunity,” says the CIA’s Dutton. “Sell them half a glass. You’ll increase the check by $4, $5 or $6, and they’ll have a better dining experience.” Half glasses also help customers who can’t make up their mind. Pinot grigio or sauvignon blanc? “I suggest, ‘Get half a glass of each, and you’ll know which works better by the end of the first course.’”
  10. Weigh those cases: Monitor your back bar bottles for theft on a weekly basis. But, instead of eyeballing the liquor levels, weigh the bottles and their contents instead. It’s much more accurate, says Elsworth, and those small increments add up. As an added security measure, many operators contract with a third-party company to periodically verify liquor inventories. “They also test that the liquor hasn’t been watered down.”
  11. Chill those reds: If your wine storage isn’t temperature-controlled, chill down the reds before service—you’ll sell more. “Cellar temperature” is 50 to 55 degrees, 20 degrees cooler than average room temp. “Some restaurants, they pour hot Pinot Noir—I mean, come on,” says Belinda Chang, director of wine and spirits for Chicago area-based Cenitare restaurant group. She recommends a brief plunge in an ice bucket or bottle chiller before serving.
  12. Go high end: Feature luxury glass pours of wine or ultra-premium spirits; you’ll increase your bottom line and margins, says Chang. She cites an experience at Osteria Via Stato, in Chicago. The check came to $60 on a $36 prix fixe. “We made it up with wine by the glass,”she says. “People love the opportunity to taste a great wine.”
  13. Charge for refills: These days customers expect free refills of a fountain drink. Give it to them but don’t make it free. “You price the initial cup of soda a little above what one drink costs you,” advises MSU’s Elsworth. It’s like playing roulette, but the percentages favor the house. “It’s a customer service operators can easily offer thanks to the low cost of fountain beverages.” Coffee and ice tea, he says, work the same way.
  14. Don’t charge for water: Put bottled water on the tables as a freebie, like bread and butter service. Build the cost into your menu prices. “Don’t bother trying to upsell customers,” advises Elsworth. It’s not worth turning them off.
  15. Use more ice: To get the right proportions—and profit—with mixed drinks, pack the glass with ice. “You’re not cheating customers,” says Elsworth, “it’s just the best way to make the best mixed drink.” In a gin and tonic, the most expensive part of the equation isn’t the gin but the tonic, because you use more of it, explains the professor. Use more ice and less mixer and the drink isn’t just more profitable, it will taste better too.
  16. Build a wine bridge: Incorporating a specific Cabernet in a steak sauce or poaching a salmon in Riesling promotes those wines twice. “I call them ‘bridge wines,’” says New York-based beverage consultant Michael Green. They tie the menu to the wine list in a concrete way, and build add-on sales.
  17. Lighten up on the tap: If your tap lineup features the usual suspects of mass-market beers and their lite cousins, take two light beers off and offer them in bottles. This frees up valuable real estate to offer craft beers at a higher markup. “That way you’re grabbing two different customers, instead of serving the same customer over and over again,” says Oliver.
  18. Turn down the heat: High storage temperatures won’t only kill delicate wine and beer, they can also damage spirits and soft-drink syrups. “Keep all your beverage inventory in a cool room,” Delgado says. “When in doubt keep it colder.”
  19. Get with dessert: Half bottles of port and sweet wines pump up the check. “It’s an add-on sale,” says Leo B. Fox of World Shippers & Importers. Few customers will buy a whole bottle of fortified wine because they’re so strong, he notes, but a 375ml of a dessert wine is just right for that deuce after dinner.
  20. Clean those beer mugs: Foam is money, because a good head means you’re pouring less beer. But unless beer glasses are perfectly clean, the beer will be flat. “You want the proverbial ‘beer clean glass,’” says Elsworth, who adds that residues come from using the wrong kind of detergent or sanitizers.    

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