It's often difficult to determine if “the latest thing” is merely a fad or an enduring trend. Eventually, time sorts it out for you. Consider, for example, mixology. There's little doubt that the fine art of drink making is here to stay. In fact, it's now shocking to come across a restaurant that takes pride in its menu, but neglects its beverage program. If your bartenders scurry to a cocktail recipe book when a customer orders a Sidecar or a Ramos Gin Fizz, then you've let down customers — who expect exciting, expertly made cocktails — and your accountant.
For restaurants that offer more than basic beer and wine service, it's time to train, hire or showcase a mixologist who will drive the most lucrative part of your business. If you're still not convinced, here are 10 reasons to consider.
1. IT'S ABOUT THE CASH, MAN!
Every sector of this industry has been hurt by the economic downturn, but none more than those who operate in the upscale sector. Customers have cut back in all ways imaginable. Thankfully, they're beginning to come back in a trickle. They're bored and they need relief, but they're still cautious, which explains why less expensive bar menus are getting a workout. Still, man frugal customers will skimp on the food they order, but will indulge with a good cocktail. A good cocktail can offer customers a sorely missed upscale experience while delivering a high rate of return for you. Upper-end restaurants make somewhere between 20-30 percent profit on alcohol sales. It's simple math: A $15 drink can register a profit margin of 30 percent. Not many food items can deliver that kind of return.
“If you operate a place with any style, the days of hiring ‘beertenders’ are over,” says Patrick Henry, the man behind Patrick Henry Creative Promotions. “The smart operators hire highly skilled people behind their bars because it pays. McCormick and Schmick's, for example, had a basic bar program, but recently brought in trainers and implemented a high-end beverage program. Their sales of premium cocktails have dramatically affected the bottom line.”
Kathy Casey, the owner of Kathy Casey Food Studio & Liquid Kitchen, also points out that somewhere around 42 percent of customers don't order alcoholic drinks. A good mixologist or a consultant like Casey, can create some of the most exciting nonalcoholic beverages that will drive someone from ordering a simple iced tea to a highly profitable alternatives.
Considered by many to be the first female bar chef, Casey says an increase in bar sales of 20 percent is common for any concept that elevates its ordinary, mundane beverage program to the mixology level.
2. MASTERS OF THEIR DOMAIN
Did you know that beautifully mixed drinks have become so popular that there are several organizations seeking to elevate bartenders to the level of sommeliers? Pernod Ricard SA, the French company behind Jameson Irish Whiskey and Absolut Vodka, is fueling the BarSmarts Advanced program, a month-long course to certify bartenders as masters. Meanwhile, the U.S. Bartenders' Guild began a master mixologist accreditation program last year. Also offering master classes is Diageo, a competitor of Pernod Ricard. In cooperation with Zagat, Diageo's Drinkwell program teaches restaurant bartenders the art of mixology.
The point here is that the art of making fine drinks has become serious business. Restaurants that are known for their expertly made drinks will differentiate themselves from the pack. The more sophisticated your bartending staff is, the better the drinks, the more you can charge, the more you take to the bank. It's that simple.
“Also think of it this way,” says Patrick Henry. “Ten years ago there were maybe 10 vodkas. Today there are dozens and dozens of flavored vodkas and so much more. There's a lot to work with out there, and drink makers are being challenged to rise to the occasion. The best trained people will be the ones who create excitement and profits.”
3. CAN YOU KEEP A SECRET?
Let's reimagine your restaurant. This time around, you'll have no sign and your building will look a bit sketchy from the outside. Hell, let's put it in a neighborhood where danger lurks in the air. A phone number? Please! Let's not be so obvious. Crazy, right? Yup, but there are plenty of bars popping up around the country that are recreating the speakeasies of the Prohibition era. And people, particularly young people, are loving it.
We're not betting that speakeasies have long-distance legs, but there's nothing faddish about serving Prohibition cocktails in your restaurant. In fact, most contemporary cocktails are variations of the classics, and mixologists around the land are reviving them and updating them.
If people will seek out classic cocktails under speakeasy circumstances, then why not have talented folks behind your bar trained to give them what they want? Your place may not offer the allure of getting mugged in a dicey neighborhood, but you can and should deliver the ultimate point of a speakeasy experience — hand-crafted, classic cocktails.
4. IT'S ALL ABOUT SEX
If you've been in this business for some years you know that cocktails have mainly been the domain of women for decades. Beyond a traditional martini, drinking cocktails was considered less than masculine. But that has changed. It still may not be cool for a guy to drink a Cosmo, but there's a long list of cocktails that will keep a tough guy's loafers firmly on the ground.
More importantly, mixologists attract women who love cocktails. And woman attract men who love to buy women cocktails. We know, it all sounds so 1960s Mad Men, but sex sells. And, by the way, no matter what team you play for, cocktails are the social lubricant that brings people together.
5. FARM TO BAR
In terms of food, there may be no bigger trend than the farm-to-table movement. Chefs are seeking the freshest, most sustainable products they can get their hands on, and they're going directly to the source for them. Many mixologists have adopted the same philosophy and work from a chef-like mise en place that includes farm fresh fruits and vegetables.
It's about balance. If your kitchen is striving to reach certain heights, shouldn't your bar program? Your place is out of synch when the chef is working with local farms and bartenders are using mundane ingredients from jars and bottles.
“We were in a great Brooklyn restaurant of a Top Chef contestant, and he created a remarkable meal,” says Steve Schul, whose company Cocktail Buzz advises restaurants on how to improve their cocktail programs. “But a bartender there made us the most undrinkable Manhattan. It was so bad I sent it back. Who sends a drink back? That one really bad drink took away from the whole experience.”
Schul, who runs Cocktail Buzz with Paul Zablocki, says the best restaurants offer seasonable bar menus in much the way chefs offer seasonable food menus. “In a perfect world, there is a chef in the kitchen and a bar chef out front, and the two are working in tandem and in synch with seasonable, fresh products.”
6. A PERFECT PAIR
The idea of balance can be taken a step further when it comes to your food and beverage program. There's a growing movement to match cocktails with food, much in the same way food and wine go together. There are several reasons why this idea works. First, many of your customers will order a cocktail before their meal. For some, the transition from cocktail to wine is not a desirable one. So some restaurants are giving their customers the option of ordering a cocktail that matches the food they order. And for those who are intimidated by wine, a cocktail recommendation is an easy alternative.
A well-made cocktail can be as sophisticated as wine, says Kathy Casey. She predicts a trend toward smaller, refined cocktails paired with small plates. “People like ordering small plates of food because they can experiment and they won't get burned if they don't like something. The same holds true with small cocktails. The two together are a perfect combo.”
In Cambridge, MA, at Craigie on Main, former mixologist Tom Schlesinger worked with chef Tony Maws to prepare tasting menus with matching cocktails. Sometimes a cocktail inspired Maws to come up with a match and sometimes the food inspired the mixologist.
Chicago chef Grant Achatz and a host of others view cocktails as the next frontier of creativity. Not only are they blurring the line between food and cocktail menus, some, like Achatz, are opening their own bars to infuse their culinary style into drink menus.
7. MAKE UP THEIR MIND
For a second, think of yourself as a customer. You're at a bar in a crowded restaurant waiting to be served. A person ahead of your finally gets the attention of the bartender and then doesn't know what to order. You want to choke that person, right? Okay, now put on your restaurateur hat and examine the opportunity here. A customer doesn't know what he or she wants, so you have an opportunity to sell a drink that will blow your customer away and make your cash register sing.
“Mixologists are not merely order takers,” says Schul. “They have the ability to read customers or, at the very least, ask the right questions quickly to find a drink they'll like.” And you can bet that mixologist won't make them a vodka and soda. It will be a sophisticated (expensive) drink that will surely be a win/win.
8. YOU ONLY NEED ONE QUARTERBACK
We understand that the title “mixologist” comes with the notion that you'll have to pay more for the expertise. And you will. But consider this: You only need one mixologist or consultant. You hire that person (company) with the understanding that he, she or it will develop an exciting (profitable) drink program for your restaurant and then train the rest of your bartending staff.
That's what you call a good return on your investment. If executed properly, your new beverage program could easily double or triple the profits of the mundane strategy you're now using. That's exactly how it worked for Hoss Zaré, the chef/owner of Zaré Fly Trap in San Francisco. He hired master mixologist/consultant Reza Esmaili to create a cocktail program that would blend with his Mediterranean/Persian menu. A drink called Minted Memory (pictured), for example, is a riff on a Persian soft drink. Reza also created a second list of historic Barbary Coast (San Francisco) cocktails. That list is now expertly executed by the trained staff, which has been inspired to create new cocktails for the list.
“Since Reza created that list for us, our beverage program has been a huge asset,” says Zaré. “Our customers are much more sophisticated than they were. They now ask about the fresh ingredients in the cocktails. They're excited about what we offer, and I'm excited because our profit margin is huge.”
9. STARS OF THE SHOW
The world of dining changed when exhibition kitchens emerged on the scene years ago. All of a sudden, chefs became stars on stage and dining became theater. But bartenders have always been on stage, though over the years there was little theater involved, unless you count flair bartending, which we'd rather not. Thankfully, today's mixologists have brought theater back to the bar. At Mercadito and Double A in Chicago, the owners have taken it to another level.
The custom-designed bar in Double A is literally center stage, with seating all around the bar. “It's definitely a show,” says Alfredo Sandoval, one of three brothers who own six Mercadito restaurants in Chicago, New York City and Miami. “Everything is hand shaken, and on busy nights you'll see up to five bartenders doing their thing. Customers love it.”
In places where there is no celebrity chef, a mixologist can easily be the star of the show who attracts customers and the press.
10. PROMOTION GENERATORS
You've got to keep your current customers interested, while trying to lure new customers. What better way to do that than through promotions? And there is no faster way to create a promotion than with a creative mixologist who can invent the right concoction for the occasion.
Consider, for example, Blackbird mixologist Kyle Fountaine, who recently created a love potion for Valentine's Day called Hot for Cupid. If you've got a creative mind behind the bar, there is no limit on how many promotion ideas can be generated to get customers excited. The person you've assigned marketing to on your staff should be so lucky and skillful.
In addition to simply creating a cocktail for a one-day promotion, consider seasonal promotions, says Casey. For Volterra, an Italian restaurant in Seattle, she used organic fresh cherries from a nearby farmers' market to create a Cherry-Basil Mojito. “Yeah, it was a mojito, but we used basil and fresh cherries and it sold like crazy,” she says.
The bottom line is this: you get what you pay for. A mixologist or a consultant you pay to upgrade your cocktail program is worth every penny you pay.
For more information about mixology and cocktail recipes, go to restaurant-hospitality.com.