By Lara Creasy
Whether it’s housemade sodas, beer and wine or a full bar, many restaurants dedicate some part of the space, either physically in the restaurant or on the menu, to making and pouring drinks. But having a beverage program means more than just slinging cocktails and pouring local beers. A strong beverage program can also bring you increased revenue, positive word of mouth and good social media exposure if you follow these 8 key tips for success.
1. Make it a priority.
While you would think this goes without saying, I’m always surprised how many restaurant owners put their bars on the back burner. A lot of restaurant owners don’t think it’s financially worthwhile to employ a full-time beverage manager. Instead they rely on a tipped employee to manage bar operations or ask a floor manager to oversee the wine program.
Certainly, this can work in some instances. But more often than not, those people are not fully engaged with the beverage program, being pulled in several other directions when shifts get busy.
For many restaurants, beverage is maybe 25 to 30 percent of overall sales, so you can see why owners would make that call. But for restaurants with a full-time beverage manager, someone who creates magic on the cocktail menu, cultivates a following in the community, builds a wine list that elevates the chef’s menu to new heights, and trains staff constantly on how to sell, beverage can be 40, 45 even 50 percent of overall sales.
When food costs of goods hover around 30 to 35 percent but liquor costs of goods can be below 20 percent, don’t you want to invest as much in growing that very profitable part of your business? Doesn’t a professional beverage manager start to seem as important as a chef?
2. Stay true to your concept.
Successful businesses start with a vision, a business plan or even a mission statement, and restaurants are no exception. It could be as simple as, “We are a family-owned Italian restaurant,” or as complex as, “We are a chef-driven farm-to-table restaurant offering only local produce and grass-fed meats from our own sustainable farm.”
Whatever concept your restaurant has chosen, your food menu reflects that concept. Find ways to make your beverage program a seamless part of that menu. Choose wines that pair with your menu items and hail from similar regions. Don’t operate an oyster bar with a wine list of California cabernets. As wonderful as they are, and as well as they might sell, they don’t add any value to your overall concept. Look for coastal whites, minerally French reds and sparkling wines to complement your wonderful fresh seafood.
Just because Prohibition-era cocktails are trendy, that doesn’t mean you have to offer them at your Tex-Mex restaurant. Work on a really killer mezcal list and a few unusual margaritas. Don’t try to be whatever everyone else is trying to be. Be the very best version of what you are, and people will notice.
3. Know your customers.
Each neighborhood draws slightly different guests, and each establishment in that neighborhood draws slightly different guests. Your location and your chosen concept might have predetermined how adventurous or not adventurous your guests are when it comes to beverage. You might only get traditionalists who order the same martini every time they come in. They might not respond well to a cocktail menu featuring all artisan spirits. Or you might get a foodie crowd that chases the next new thing. They might not be impressed by a limited back bar selection or a cocktail menu that only changes once a year.
To be successful, you have to give your customer base what they want, to some extent. But it’s also your job to push them out of their comfort zone just enough to keep your business current and relevant. Introduce traditionalists to a new gin for their martini. Offer weekly cocktail features for the foodie crowd. People go out to experience new things. Show them the right things, and they’ll trust you.
4. Use your sales reps as a resource.
The representatives assigned to you by your alcohol vendors are more than just order-takers. They are supposed to be in your account, helping you and your staff to understand their products and therefore sell them better. Take advantage of that!
Your reps work with the wines and spirits they sell everyday. They attend sales training meetings, industry tastings and often visit the distilleries and wineries in person. If given the opportunity, they are eager to help with staff line-ups on new placements, come in and talk to guests at special events, even provide recipes for cocktails using their spirits. They are out and about in the industry all week. They see what other restaurants are doing successfully. Use them for ideas, and let them help you solve problems.
5. Listen to your staff.
Employees that feel empowered to bring you good ideas will bring you good ideas. Your bartenders are on the front line, and they are face-to-face with guests every night.
If they tell you something is not working, or could be done better, listen. If they have creative input to offer, such as cocktail menu ideas, listen.
When employees see that you have heard their input and taken it to heart, when they see you use their ideas or implement changes they have suggested, they’ll bring you more. Running a restaurant has to be a team sport.
6. Cost thoroughly and price fairly.
Being a restaurant consultant, I can usually tell when I sit down in a bar whether the owners and managers took the time to actually cost out each menu item they sell. Too often it seems that they take the approach of looking at what others in the neighborhood are charging, and they just charge that.
I wonder, looking at their menus, if they even know what they SHOULD be selling that cocktail or pint of beer for. Do they know there is a deal available from the distributor for using that bourbon in a cocktail? If they are getting that deal, are they passing the value along to their guests?
Decide what you want your average liquor cost to be: 18 percent? 19 percent? 19.5 percent? Then go through each spirit you sell, verify your bottle cost and make sure your menu prices are getting you to that average goal.
Investigate purchase deals offered by your distributors. You might find that you can give your guests a better deal on certain spirits simply because you bought it three bottles at a time instead of one bottle at a time.
Other restaurant guests might not think about it as much as I do, but they know when the things you are selling are worth the money, and when they are not. Cocktails with high-end spirits and housemade ingredients have a high perceived value. Draft beer, not so much.
Know where you can charge more and still seem to be offering a good price. Know where you need to round down. Take the time. Your guests will appreciate it, and you’ll earn their trust.
7. Pay attention to detail.
Every day, you should be looking at your bar with discerning eyes. Does the back bar look tidy? Have bottles been dusted lately? Are the vintages on my wine list accurate? Are all of the wineries and appellations spelled correctly? Has the dishmachine left any off odors in the glassware, spots, fingerprints? Are the bartenders using jiggers to measure cocktail ingredients, for cost control and consistency? Are the limes and mint used in the glass as fresh as Chef would want them to be on a plate?
People eat and drink with their eyes first. Polish glasses, serve fresh garnishes, measure! It will keep your costs in line, earn repeat guests and maybe even get you Instagram exposure.
8. Get involved.
Once you’ve gone to the trouble to craft a beverage program to be proud of, get out there and promote it. Encourage your bar team to enter cocktail competitions and join industry organizations like the USBG (United States Bartenders Guild). Sign up for charity events or public tasting events that feature local chefs but also offer a mixology element. Take advantage of media opportunities such as Eater features or newspaper holiday roundups, maybe even invite a few bloggers to visit your bar. Do a little legwork to get known in the community as a credible beverage program.