Big cities have the demographics and skilled mixologists to support a craft cocktail culture in bars and restaurants. But how can you turn an operation into a cocktail-centric destination—charging $10 or more for a drink—in smaller, less urban locales?
Shawn Soole, proprietor of Clive’s Classic Lounge in Victoria, British Columbia, led a panel of small-city bar owners at Tales of the Cocktail 2016 to address this question. Operators in every size market can benefit from their answers.
1. Price it right
If you’re new to the neighborhood, start by taking a hit, advised the panelists, pricing drinks $8-$10 to attract business. Run half-price happy hours to introduce people to the cocktail list and build traffic, transitioning to higher prices once the happy hour period ends. A year in, prices can be bumped up a dollar or two if business is robust and the market can bear it.
2. Start with the classics, then riff
Creativity doesn’t build a clientele—consistency does, said Soole. Time-tested recipes for the martini, old fashioned, margarita and other classics are foolproof and well-balanced, he said. Once house bartenders master those recipes, give them the go-ahead to riff on the classics. Offering flights is a good way to try out variations—creating three different negronis, for example, or a flight of margaritas in three flavors.
3. Let the menu educate and entertain
A classic cocktail menu doesn’t mean a boring menu. Soole differentiated Clive’s list by organizing it by historical eras and adding a short narrative about each drink. He also suggests having some fun with the menu by naming a few cocktail riffs after regular customers or industry friends to encourage repeat visits.
4. Cyber-touch tables
At the end of the night, Soole looks over Clive’s Twitter feed and Facebook page to seek out guests who posted while they were at the bar. He immediately retweets or replies so the customers can see his responses once they get home. It’s proven to be a good way to extend hospitality in the social media age, he believes.
5. Host interactive seminars
The growth of the cocktail culture has spawned celebrity mixologists and spirit company brand ambassadors as well as local experts. Bring these pros into your operation for an evening of education and sampling, and invite current and potential customers. Consumers are thirsty for knowledge on everything from the basics of crafting a cocktail to learning about the world of bitters, said the panelists. “These events make the public think they’re part of an ‘inner circle’ and help build a cocktail culture in the community,” said Soole.
6. Hold bartenders’ breakfasts
Going out for an early morning breakfast after the weekend shift ends is a tradition among industry folks. Soole suggests hosting a breakfast at your place, inviting bartenders from the area to network and socialize. Nurturing the professional community is another way to build a vibrant cocktail culture, the panelists agreed.