The universally acclaimed, next-best-thing-to-the-hair-of-the-dog-that-bit-you, Bloody Mary is already the champ of the weekend brunch and sports scene. The drink’s popularity has proved itself the bane of many a bartender, though…who’s often stuck customizing the very personal drink for one client after another.
Thus, the gradually increasing popularity of the Bloody Mary bar, a marketing juggernaut/interactive party/salad bar concept that has seen an estimated five percent growth in bars and restaurants across the country over the last few years, radiating out from its roots in New Orleans (the largest consumer index for Bloodies) and Chicago.
It is the self-designed nature of the Bloody Mary that makes the promotions plausible, and the Bloody Mary bar’s ingredient count ranges from a modest 20 or 30 (including a variety of pre-mixed and house-made tomato juice concoctions) to a mind-boggling 300+ at the most ambitious sites. Tomato juice, of course, horseradish, celery stalks, salt & pepper, lemon & lime juice, celery salt, beef bouillon, clam juice and as many different types of hot sauce as one can imagine; all add up to what sounds more like a lunchtime food bar than a list of drink ingredients.
Garnishes are the soul of the concept, and they vary from seasoned salt and pepper glass rimmers to pickles, pepperocinis, shrimp, pickled asparagus and okra, stuffed olives, onions, salami slices and even boiled egg slices. And local favorites often do, and should, reflect regional flavors.
“Everybody gives it their own twist,” says Troy Woodrow, marketing director for Major Peters’, a bottled mix company which specializes in Bloody Mary bars. “They don’t all have to look the same and it can be a good idea to add local products. New Orleans serves them with pickled green beans and in Wisconsin everybody drinks it with pickles.”
PAST AS PROLOGUE
Gone are the days of the basic Bloody Mary mix, as a whole range of spicy, new flavors have descended on the market, like a wasabi mix now being offered by Major Peters’. “People seem to like the unique flavors and the big thing now is making it all natural, which we’ve always done,” says Woodrow.
There seems little doubt that the concept does have an effect on sales.
“We’ve been doing it for about four years and it has steadily gotten bigger,” says Wilson Whitney, owner of the Roadside Grill in Arlington, Va. “I saw one when I was out somewhere and thought it was great.
“We just put some tables together and put it all out on a big spread with approximately 100 different hot sauces, probably 10 different kinds of mix and we leave a plain V-8 juice or we make our own house mix and offer other spices…They really like it and everybody likes to just experiment, see what they can concoct.”
The experiment has proven largely successful as the bars have propagated themselves across the country, often bringing in large crowds on weekend mornings.
“We have seen people increase their Bloody Mary sales by 700 percent upon installing the bar,” Woodrow says. “We’ve estimated five percent growth in the industry over the last few years, though our growth in the area has been around 20 percent. People are looking for higher quality and consistency and use bottled mixes toward that end.
“(The bar concept) sells itself through consistency and word of mouth,” Woodrow continued. “It’s stocked easily and consumers love interaction, no matter what it is. People want to get involved.”
It’s always about customer satisfaction first…allowing guests to make what they consider the perfect drink, but a side benefit is the ease of the make-your-own concept on the staff.
“On a busy Sunday prior to having the bar in place, we had customers ordering them and you can’t just give them the normal Bloody Mary and expect them to be satisfied,” says Kurt Warnstedt of Hoghead McDunna’s in Chicago. “They all request different ingredients and, when we created the bar, not only did it give the customers more of what they wanted, it freed up our bartender.”
“We’ve tried different promotions and they seem to have been pretty effective,” Warnstedt says. “But it’s a drink that sells itself. People come in and won’t necessarily be thinking about having a Bloody Mary, but then they see one on the next table and decide to have one. Bloodies might account for 25 percent of our gross sales on a Sunday afternoon.”
Start-up costs for your own Bloody Mary bar are really determined by how large or small you want them to be. Some distributors, like Major Peters’, offer display merchandise. For instance, for the last few years, they’ve offered a sail boat display unit to hold hot sauces and drink mixes, and they’ve branched out recently with such merchandisers as a football field/basketball court buffet set-up and even a snowboard display for use in the ski towns of the Rockies. Some establishments have custom shelving made for all the ingredients, while others just set up a couple of folding tables and lay the items out on ice.
At Tomfooleries in Kansas City, general manager Dave Sourk uses half of an existing buffet for his Saturday and Sunday morning Bloody Mary bar, which typically contains about 100 items.
“I think anybody who has done it has seen the results,” says Sourk. “I don’t know if they specifically come in for the bar, but they certainly utilize it and all seem very satisfied.”
Tomfooleries charges an extra 50 cents to utilize the bar as opposed to purchasing a bartender-made Bloody, but the relatively small price increase constitutes the difference between a standard and a personalized tomato cocktail for the customer and the viability of the bar for the owner.
“Our investment was a little bigger because we wanted a nice display and we wanted to go full-scale and offer a wide assortment of ingredients, but we utilize our current glassware, which saves money,” Sourk says. “I would say cost-wise that it just depends on how you want to do it.”
Glassware can be an expensive part of the bar set-up, but existing stock can always be used if such a large investment isn’t required. Warnstedt, at Hoghead McDunna’s, used a buy-the-glass deal as a promotion and moved quite a few of the glasses, but was caught with a gross of unwanted glasses.
“We were voted Chicago’s best Bloody Mary bar by a local publication, so we had glasses printed to that effect and we sold the glasses, then offered cheap refills,” Warnstedt says, adding that the promotion did leave him with a couple thousand dollars worth of extra glasses, but that he eventually ran down the stock in the end.
Tir Na Nog, in Raleigh, N.C., has offered its version of the Bloody Mary bar for about three years now with mixed results. While chef/owner Dan Hurley hasn’t found it to really bring customers in, many do take advantage of his Bloody Mary bar while brunching. He has kept it pretty simple, offering about 15 hot sauces and a total of 25 ingredients. Using the bar as his buffet stand, he sets his spread out in mirrored boxes with plastic inserts and uses carafes to hold the tomato juice. The produce and vegetables are laid out on a banquet tray. Stock glasses are used, along with long teas spoons and tops for shaking–not stirring– the drinks.
“We like to shake them ourselves and its important that the celery be long enough to reach the bottom of the glass for a good stir,” Hurley says. “Some people still want the bartender to do it for them, but a lot of people like it that they can do their own thing and if it’s wrong, it’s on them.”
Hurley also uses the bar as an opportunity to move more quickly through his vodka stock, both high and low end, though many consumers aren’t so concerned with putting a high-end vodka in a bloody. The selection of hot sauce is critical, he says, adding that he puts up a heat disclaimer for the hottest of the sauces.
As the Bloody Mary action picks up from coast to coast, there are some areas of the country where the drink is not commonly ordered and the bars in more rural locales, like Tir Na Nog are an integral part of increasing consumption. Smack in the middle of the Bible belt, the bar here seems to get the most use on NFL Sundays when the establishment is not in full family mode.
“It’s still hit and miss for us, mostly because we’re not allowed to serve liquor here until noon, so for many customers brunch doesn’t start until that hour,” says Tir Na Nog chef/owner Dan Hurley. “Special days, like Mother’s Day and Easter, we’ll have a lot of people in for brunch, but nobody drinks because they’re with their folks, but it’s a whole different scene when football is going.”
Right behind New Orleans, Chicago’s neighborhood bar scene has long been a Bloody Mary bastion–Hoghead McDunna’s has included the bar in their weekend plans for about eight years now and Warnstedt keeps primping and preening his stock. Normal Sunday ingredients include around 200 different hot sauces, all displayed on a custom shelving unit and in the Major Peter’s boat display.
“We also put out these skewers filled with different condiments and we always get a fair turnout, probably 150 on the lowest day and closer to 300 on the best,” Warnstedt says. “We offer 12-15 different flavored vodkas, which just adds to the overall creativity of the personalized drink.”
Possibly the second alternative for many sports fans (next to beer, of course), the Bloody Mary has been cropping up in more and more stadiums and similar venues across the country, Woodrow says. “A lot of our field displays are going into football stadiums, in the hospitality suites and elsewhere. It’s a real simple set-up that takes about 30 seconds to put together and many of these places, since they already serve food, have most of the ingredients for the bar. We hit hard on consistency, raw material savings and labor savings.”
Yacht clubs and golf courses have also gotten into the act, mostly behind the impetus provided by the manufacturers themselves and, in the end, though not always, it all seems to bode well for the proud Bloody Mary.