Effective Beverage Menus

by Lance J Mayhew

Several years ago, I was sitting with a friend at a famous New York City cocktail bar on a lazy start to a Wednesday shift watching the bartender kill himself to keep up with orders at 5 o'clock. As I watched him, I realized two things. First, every drink on the cocktail menu was a complex preparation, requiring time, skill and concentration, and second, that there were no real wine or beer offerings from which to choose. While the cocktails at this establishment were exceptional, the bartender was already in the weeds by 6 pm and the wait for drinks had become daunting. The bartender was so busy that he couldn't take time to answer any questions or offer any sort of friendly banter, and if you caught his attention, you needed to order and order quickly or be prepared to wait another fifteen minutes before he got back around to you. While I can understand a situation like that on a rare Friday or Saturday night, it isn't good for the guest perception of your establishment and it creates a situation where one minor mistake can have a snowball effect on the rest of the evening, impacting multiple guests. In this case, the real culprit impacting the guest experience wasn't the bartender himself; it was the design of the beverage menu.

In the hospitality world, a beverage menu or a cocktail list can take many forms. While a restaurant menu is generally going to offer all of the food items able to be prepared in the house with the exception of perhaps a few verbal menu specials, most beverage menus are just a starting point for what can be created from behind the bar. That said, a well designed beverage menu can direct guests to house specialties, increase profitability, help with utilization of products from the kitchen and make the bartenders workflow more manageable, increasing the amount of beverages that can be produced.

 A cocktail list doesn't have to be comprehensive. At Lincoln Restaurant in Portland, we offer 6 specialty cocktails in addition to beer and wine. Within that 6, there is an emphasis on a variety of spirits and a variety of styles of drink including tall, up and rocks drinks. Drinks rotate on and off of the list regularly, but the top 3 considerations for putting drinks on the beverage menu are pour cost, saleability and ease of production. A drink that takes 3 minutes to produce isn't going to work in a busy restaurant with only one bartender. Manhattans, Martinis and Margaritas are listed nowhere on the menu, yet all three cocktails are probably within our top ten selling drinks and guests request everything from pre-Prohibition classics to lemon drops.

Clyde Common, a well-known Portland establishment highly acclaimed for both its food and drink programs, offers thirteen cocktails on its current beverage menu. With two barrel aged cocktails and eleven house cocktails, bar manager Jeffrey Morgenthaler has created a list that can produce both volume and quality. Drinks offerings like a daily punch offering and a spiced Dark and Stormy are drinks that are unique, yet profitable and can be prepared quickly.

One area that is often overlooked in beverage menu development is nonalcoholic options. At Lincoln, the chefs prepare infused syrups for use in housemade sodas. At $3 for a blood orange soda, pour cost is held in line, guests get a unique experience and product from the kitchen is able to be utilized fully. Working with the kitchen to fully utilize products like herbs and fruits helps maintain profitability and reduces waste.

Another area of beverage menu development that needs to be taken into consideration is beer and wine offerings. Not only are these profitable menu items, but they also give the bartender a break, allowing them to reset mentally and catch up while pouring a beer. These offerings don't have to be huge, but they need to be well thought out and appealing to guests. Additionally, remember that a bartender can pour far more wine and beer over an hour than produce cocktails. This is a profitable part of an effective bar program and needs to be treated as such. Restaurants and bars that ignore wine and beer offerings do so at their own risk.

So what does an effective beverage menu look like? While this will vary from establishment to establishment, an effective beverage menu is short, easy to read and offers a variety of options for guests. Six to twelve cocktails are optimal; the goal of the bar is quick service. With too many offerings, guests, and eventually bartenders, can be bogged down with questions and indecision. If there is a bar food menu, pairings can be recommended with the cocktails. Highlight beer, wine and nonalcoholic options on the same menu. Making soda in house is great, but if a guest isn't aware that you offer it, they won't purchase it. Highlight housemade ingredients and specialties, especially if they help to contribute to profitability. Keep the beverage menu short and easy to read. This will help guests make decisions more quickly and allow for more beverages to be produced during a shift. And finally, take into consideration how producing the different beverages will affect the bartender’s workload. The goal is to keep the bartender working at maximum efficiency and productivity during a shift, so drinks that require unusual or difficult preparations should not be featured prominently unless they are designated as a house specialty.

With these ideas in mind, an effective beverage menu can be achieved by focusing on profitability, production and utilization while also taking into account a bartender's workload and the guest experience. Experiment with different combinations until the right balance is found. Ultimately, the best beverage menu is going to be designed to maximize the resources of each restaurant or bar to appeal to guests and maximize the house's profitability.

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