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Single-minded beverage lists

While most operators develop beverage programs with a balance of options, others boldly focus on a single spirit category. Vodka bars, tequilarias, whiskey bars and ronerias are all making their appearance in the marketplace, tying their destinies to the rising stars of these trendy liquors. Such identities are strong points of differentiation. But building a reputation as an expert, purchasing and growing a worthy collection of bottles and managing all that inventory can be challenging.

Compiling the collection
“Before we opened our first restaurant, we conducted a lot of research on rum,” recalls Bob Gallo, founder and director of operations for the Philadelphia-based, four-unit Cuba Libre Restaurant & Rum Bar. The founders traveled to Cuba, visiting Hemingway’s haunt El Floridita, famed for its rum daiquiris. “Many of our current drink recipes stem from those old saloons in Cuba,” says Gallo. The partners decided that to be a bona fide rum bar, they needed a minimum of 50 different examples. Cuba Libre units average 60 to 100 selections; ranging in price from $8 to $72 per pour. The collection is arranged by country of origin and by style.

Barrel 44, a two-unit whiskey bar in Columbus, Ohio, boasts a selection of about 210 whiskeys; pour prices range from $5 to $60. “People are willing to spend more on the smaller production, high-quality spirits,” says general manager Philip Prendeville.

“Ohio is a control state, which makes my job difficult,” he adds. Over the years the GM has developed good relationships with the state agency he buys from as well as brand reps and other key industry people. If he hears about an interesting new whiskey on the market, Prendeville petitions the state to carry it. Brand reps clue in the GM when they are bringing a new product to market. “We’ll work together, run promotions, in cooperation with the distributor.”

“We have developed such good relationships with the suppliers that they come to us when they debut a rum,” says Gallo. Rum producers see Cuba Libre as a good vehicle to showcase product introductions, because the chain sells a lot of rum. Gallo estimates that his locations are doing roughly $5.5 to $8 million each; half of that business is from beverages. “With that supreme focus we’ve been able to be seen as the experts on rum and mojitos.” Because of that reputation, distributors want to place their rums in Cuba Libre restaurants, says Gallo.

Keeping track
With such large numbers of SKUs, many containing valuable liquid, tight inventory control is essential.

“Item movement is important, because we have a restricted amount of space, which limits the number of items we can carry,” points out Gallo. At each property, beverage managers take inventory weekly; they compare item movement with the POS system to make sure it matches up to depletions. POS transactions are tied into a security pouring system. “If it doesn’t match up then we start looking into theft and waste.”

“When it comes to inventory, you have to be familiar with your products, know what’s on hand and what’s moving; really keep an eye on it,” says Prendeville. As backup insurance, the restaurants also employ an auxiliary inventory service, Bevinco, on a periodic basis to help keep inventory and product management in line.

Balancing act
Stocking a few bar staples will counter the veto vote, and education may turn the curious into fans.

“Our focus is whiskey but we also like to have the tools on hand so our bartenders can mix a solid cocktail list,” explains Prendeville, who estimates that 35 percent of the stock is non-whiskey, primarily vodka, gin and modifiers like cordials and bitters.

“We realize there are a lot of vodka drinkers out there, and we offer those,” says Gallo, who adds that only 15 percent of spirits is non-rum. Cuba Libre’s cocktail focus is on the Cuban mojito, offering 14 different styles, including a few non-traditional versions made with vodka.

To educate Cuba Libre customers, there’s a Rum 101 drinks booklet, detailing production, variations and styles. That’s augmented by a number of rum flights.

At Barrel 44, customers can create their own flights of any three whiskeys from the list; knowledgeable staffers are ready to help them with selections or questions. There’s a library in the back office for reference.

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