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Bar smarts

There’s a science to using beverages in a restaurant,” says Jon Taffer. “But the restaurant industry doesn’t use science. Restaurant owners use gut.”

As founder and chairman of Taffer Dynamics, a hospitality consulting and business services firm, Taffer has advised numerous clients in the industry on how to execute a cocktail menu that boosts sales. He has spun that success into the role of host and executive producer of Spike TV’s “Bar Rescue,” in which Taffer counsels restaurants and bars on maximizing efficiency and profitability. And he’s not afraid to call it how he sees it.

According to Taffer, a cocktail menu should have 12 to 20 specialty items; standard mixed drinks and classics like martinis and margaritas should not be included. “If you allow people to order what they want, they typically order products that are not as profitable as others,” he says. The most profitable cocktail should be boxed off [on the menu], dead center; the second most profitable drink in boldface and the third most profitable marked as a “chef special.”

Not all of the specialty cocktails need to use premium spirits, either. “Markup is based on perceived value, not absolute value,” says Taffer. “I can make a basic screwdriver, put it in an incredible glass, drop an unbelievable garnish on it and get $3 more for that drink.”

Yet many contemporary cocktail customers are highly brand conscious, and two categories of spirits—super-premium and flavored spirits—are seeing a huge uptick in sales, according to the Distilled Spirits Council.

So, in planning an effective cocktail menu, how does a beverage manager decide what to stock? Is there a formula for the ideal proportion of well spirits versus premium versus super-premium and flavored spirits? We asked Taffer and others for their frank advice, no holds barred.

Balancing inventory

Taffer believes that deciding what to stock depends on the image and aspirations of the venue and customers. “Are they looking for an upscale, premium-brand experience? If that’s the case, then the menu, logos, glassware, garnishes, all the products have to fit into that envelope.”

Steve Olson agrees. Olson is the founder of aka wine geek, a restaurant service consultancy group, and co-founder of Beverage Alcohol Resource. He has helped develop successful programs for the Broadmoor Hotel, Gramercy Tavern and the Borgata Hotel Casino and Spa, among others. “What kind of customer do you have, and what kind of customer do you wish you have?” Olson asks his clients.

“If I have a sports bar then I have different needs for a back bar than if I have a cocktail bar.” Purchasing decisions also depend on the space available to display bottles.

When it comes to specifics, Taffer offers the following: “Our job in the bar business is to keep our back bar to roughly 40 to 50 brands,” he says. “If you get into 70, 80 or 90 brands, you’re getting into huge amounts of inventory that will never sell.” Taffer believes that liquor inventory should never exceed 17 percent of monthly sales. “Every time a liquor salesman walks in he has a new flavor, a new brand he wants you to buy. The first thing you say to a salesman is ‘no’. Then you think about it.”

Balancing logistics

The cocktail menu should reflect the balance of spirits at the bar, but there are practical considerations as well. “The menu shouldn’t be too large for the establishment or the efficiency of the bar,” says Olson. And it should be balanced in its ingredients, techniques and glassware.

Speaking of glassware: “If you don’t have at least one cocktail in a Champagne flute, you’re nuts,” Olson says. Sales climb when customers see drinks that have eye appeal—different shapes, sizes and colors. But there’s the practical side, too. “If all of my drinks go into rocks glasses,” Olson says, “how many rocks glasses do I have to keep in stock if everybody is ordering those?”

Techniques also need to be varied, so that production can be smooth. “If all your featured drinks take the longest, you’ve shot yourself in the foot,” says Olson.

The issue of how long a drink takes to make is an obsession with Taffer, as viewers of his show will attest. “Bars and restaurants typically do 70 percent of their revenue three days a week over about 16 to 18 hours,” he says. “During those peak production hours, do they really think they’re helping themselves by making four-minute drinks?”

The trend, Taffer says, is toward premium spirits and premium juices, “but not prepared in that extreme, stuffy, ‘I’m better than you’ mixology. People are getting tired of waiting four minutes for a drink, and paying $4 more for that drink. One-minute mixology. That’s where this is going.”

Olson agrees that hand-crafting cocktails in most restaurant situations is not efficient. “No cocktail should take more than five steps, period, end of story, and that includes ice,” he says. “Most of my cocktails are less than four or five ingredients, and when I do make more than that I eliminate steps by combining ingredients.”

One drink he created calls for honeydew melon, wildflower honey and fresh lavender from the garden, plus agave syrup. “You can hear how nice that would be. But it takes forever.” So the staff preps a syrup and purée and it becomes a five-step drink. They also use that syrup and purée in a nonalcoholic cocktail and a soft drink.

Balancing the books

As much as possible, Olson cross-utilizes ingredients with the kitchen to minimize waste. “So many bars have 400 ingredients that will spoil,” he says. “All the fresh fruits on my bar have a second purpose.” He ensures this by having one buyer for both kitchen and bar. “All the purchasing goes through one guy. You work together on costs.”

Olson does both a daily and a hand-counted weekly inventory; if there is a problem in his restaurant—could be someone pouring the wrong recipe, overpouring, somebody stealing, or giving drinks to their friends—he wants to catch it on Day One, not 30 days later when serious damage may have been done. “As a result, my numbers are always spot on.”

Every invoice is checked in and validated by the bar manager and no one else. Invoices are paid only by the bar manager. “If my costs are wrong, it takes me 30 seconds to figure out why,” Olson says.

“Some places make money despite themselves,” Olson says. “But one thing like this can bring it down in a second.” He has known managers who are annoyingly hands-on in superficial areas “but never look at those little things that make the difference.” As they say, it pays to sweat the small stuff.

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