Walk into a Café Tu Tu Tango and you are likely to see virtually every customer in the estalishment looking through those toy slide-viewers called View-Masters. What are they viewing? The restaurant’s drink menu.
But the restaurants make sure that customers don’t miss the cocktail menu. When they are first seated, the host stamps their place mats with a list of the drinks. Then, they place the View-Master on the table.
“Everyone always looks through the View-Master,” says Dave Clapp, head of operations for the chain. “We hit people two times three times, if you count the server suggesting drinks with the cocktails.”
The result? In the 18 months since the introduction of the View-Masters, cocktail sales have increased by at least 40 percent. “In the first six months, drink sales were more than double,” says Clapp, “and at one point, in our Miami location, the cocktails were representing over 30% of the restaurant’s total sales.”
SHOW AND TELL
Cocktail menus are becoming increasingly common in restaurants and bars of all types and sizes. “And the reason is: you can see an instant increase in sales when you introduce a beverage menu,” says Patrick Henry, a food and beverage consultant based in Stafford, Texas, who worked with Café Tu Tu Tango on its cocktail menu.
“Our goal is for every bar to have one,” says Mike Ginley, vice president of on-premise accounts for Allied Domecq Spirits & Wines. “When you think about it, every restaurant that sells food has a menu. It would be unheard of not to. Well, drinks often represent 20 percent of a restaurant’s sales and 40 to 50 percent of its profits.”
When it comes to creating a cocktail menu for an operation, it’s often a matter of balance, say restaurant experts. “You want to go with the [operation’s] concept, you want something that definitely stands out, but you want to offer a good variety of drinks too, things that appeal to men and things that appeal to women, for example,” says Kathy Casey, a chef, author and restaurant consultant based in Seattle, Washington.
At Café Tu Tu Tango, a balance was struck between having the cocktails fit the theme of the restaurant and offering customers well-known and popular drink choices. The cocktail menu itself is titled “The Masterpiece Drinks” and each is named after a famous artist. Yet the drinks themselves, all priced at $6.25, represent the most popular trends in cocktails today: the Matisse Margarita, the Klee Cosmo, the Michelangelo Mudslide.
And in another nice balancing act, the chain was able to keep true to its own concept and visual style, while also highlighting the well-known, premium brands it uses in its cocktails. “We don’t brand anything in the restaurants themselves,” explains Clapp. “We don’t do neon or table tents.” But when customers look through the View-Masters, they see beautiful photographs of the drinks, and behind them, bottles of the brands used, such as Stoli, Sauza and Bacardi Limon.
“You need to offer a good variety but not be overwhelming,” says Allied Domecq’s Ginley. “Listing 60 to 80 cocktails is a little much. And you need to be concept-appropriate, really know your audience, but also represent all categories. Don’t just do all Margaritas.”
At the Round Robin Bar of the Willard InterContinental Hotel in Washington, DC, a balance has been struck between the traditions of the historic hotel and the appeal of offering creative signature cocktails. In its nearly 200 year history, the hotel was the first to introduce Washington to many of what are now considered classic cocktails. The Willard is especially famous for its Mint Julep, first introduced to Washingtonians at the hotel by Henry Clay, a senator from Kentucky.
Part of the Round Robin’s cocktail menu features a list of 15 drinks called “The Classic Collection” to highlight that part of the hotel’s legacy. Jim Hewes, Round Robin’s bar manager, has carefully researched the history of these classic cocktails. “We have tried to keep the traditions, the spirit of these cocktails,” he says. “Many places will have Martini lists with 500 Martinis that aren’t really Martinis. That is not what we do.”
In fact, at one time, the Round Robin’s cocktail menu included a biography of each of the classics, explaining, for example, that the Manhattan was first made for Jenny Jerome, Winston Churchill’s mother, at the Manhattan Club in New York City. “Unfortunately, we ended up with a book instead of a menu and had to cut it down,” says Hewes.
Yet, at the same time that it offers cocktails steeped in history, the Round Robin also offers some of the trendiest cocktails of the day, each one of these with a unique twist. The Round Robin’s take on the Apple Martini, its Granny Smith Appletini, for instance, features a Martini glass with a caramel-dipped rim.
And the Round Robin also offers its own signature cocktails, often on a seasonal basis. This past holiday season, one of these was the Sugar Plum, a warm drink made with cranberry juice, cinnamon vodka and Southern Comfort.
Many restaurant operations choose to work with outside consultants to develop their beverage menus. Prices for such a project depend on the size of the operation and the scope of the menu, and range anywhere from $3,000 to $125,000. “I’ll tell you, operations that have spent $100,000 see that easily pay for itself in the first six months,” says Patrick Henry, who counts many large restaurant chains among his clients.
Consultants like Henry and Kathy Casey will create drinks, complete with names, garnishes and glassware ideas, design and execute the menu and provide training on the proper method to make the drinks.
Even when using an outside consultant, however, it is important for the restaurant’s people to be involved. Patrick Henry Creative Associates developed the drink menu for Lone Star Steakhouse & Saloon, a 294-unit chain based in Wichita, Kansas and the recipient of a Cheers magazine award for “Best Spirit Program” in 2002. During the process, T.D. O’Connell, Lone Star’s president, flew down to Patrick Henry’s offices in Texas to taste every one of the 45 drinks being proposed for the drink menu.
Then, the chain’s entire management team, 80 people, sat down at the home office and tried each drink again. “We did a presentation for each drink, showed them how it was made and had them taste it,” said O’Connell.
In fact, pretty much everybody of legal drinking age who works at Lone Star has tasted the drinks offered on its menu. “T.D.’s philosophy is, how can you tell your employees and how can they tell customers about your drinks without knowing what they taste like,” says Henry.
HEY, GOOD LOOKIN’
The next step was to design the menu itself. Patrick Henry is a firm believer in visuals and uses photography of the drinks in almost every beverage menu his company creates.
“Without a doubt, photography is the most important aspect of the menu,” he says. His firm uses photographers who specialize in beverage shots. “If you asked these guys to shoot a portrait of a person, they couldn’t do it, but, boy, do they know how to shoot a cherry,” says Henry. It sometimes takes hours to get the perfect shot of just one drink.
The key is to get people to pick up that menu, says Kathy Casey. “Don’t just do a cheeseball table tent,” she says. “Make it longer or thinner, make it different.” She once created a table tent out of curled paper. “People just had to touch it,” she says.
Dylan Prime, a steakhouse in New York City, uses distinctive square cocktail menus. “And don’t forget about keeping them clean,” reminds Michael Waterhouse, managing partner.
Some places, like Dylan Prime, pride themselves on coming up with innovative drinks on their own. In fact, Dylan Prime’s are so innovative, they have been written up in the New York Times and in Time magazine.
The restaurant currently offers “Ultimate Cocktails” and “The Ultimate Martini,” each serving four to six people. “I remember, years ago, going to Chinese restaurants, ordering drinks that came in volcanoes and sharing,” says Waterhouse. “Having a cocktail is, at heart, a social thing. I worked on coming up with an elegant, old-world version of those volcano drinks.”
The Ultimate Martini, priced at $65, is 40 ounces of the customer’s choice of a gin or vodka brand, chilled in 1930s-style shakers, accompanied by large Martini glasses and a lazy susan of garnishes. The current offering includes cocktail onions and regular olives as well as ones stuffed with blue cheese, chipotle peppers, anchovies and calamari. “We had pickled quail eggs, which were great, I really liked them, but they didn’t sell,” says Waterhouse.
Likewise, the Ultimate Cocktails, priced at $45 each, are extra-large versions of the restaurant’s signature cocktails: 40 ounces for four to six people. The Big Apple (Boru Irish Vodka, apple liqueur and maple syrup) becomes the Big Big Apple. The Mojito Martini (mint-infused Bacardi Limon and lime juice) becomes the Massive Mojito.
“On a weekend night, we might sell a dozen. It’s not a lot, but it’s fun. Often a big party will call in for them and we will have it set up when they arrive,” says Waterhouse.
Many restaurants and bars make a point of encouraging their bartenders to experiment and create new drinks. As Terry Mayfield, bar manager at Michi, a restaurant in Manhattan Beach, California, points out, you never known when or how a new cocktail is going to be created.
In fact, one of the popular ones at Michi was the result of Mayfield grabbing the wrong bottle while making an order. The result was the Margamelon, a Margarita flavored with watermelon schnapps.
“Who would have ever thought to combine those flavors?” said Mayfield. “It was the kismet of bartending.”
Indeed, in a playful touch on the Michi cocktail menu, one entry listed is the “Houdini Martini.” Order that and you get the bartender’s choice. When someone places this order with Mayfield, he usually makes his favorite, the Raspberry 50/50, a Martini made with vanilla vodka, vanilla schnapps, orange juice and Chambord, which sinks to the bottom, garnished with a raspberry.
Another specialty at Dylan Prime in New York, its Pietinis, is part of a nationwide trend toward dessert cocktails. Its Pie A La Mode, for example, is an apple cocktail with a layer of heavy cream on top.
“Dessert drinks are definitely, totally a trend,” says Kathy Casey. She developed an array of them, dubbing them Indulge Shots, for a Seattle restaurant called Bad Albert’s. Served in five-inch-tall shot glasses, Casey’s creations include a version of the Grasshopper, a Chocolate Martini with a cherry on top and the Grand Espresso Martini, made with Grand Marnier.
The after-dinner opportunity is one that is just begging to be used, according to Allied Domecq’s Ginley. “When you ask people if they want dessert, they don’t want the calories. Four people will order one dessert with four spoons,” he points out, “but if they’re having a great dining experience and don’t want it to end, dessert drinks something that can be savored but doesn’t have all those calories is just the thing.”
Suppliers like Allied Domecq can be extremely helpful to restaurant operators looking to create drink menus. “It isn’t just monetary,” says Lone Star’s O’Connell. “Suppliers can tell you what’s hot, what the trends are, what tastes and brands are up and coming. They can give you good ideas about how to sell and market.”
Speaking of selling and marketing, when it comes to creating signature cocktails for a menu, the look of the drink is, operators say, vastly important. It is no accident that the distinctive Stars & Stripes Margarita, a red, white and blue layered cocktail (made with Jose Cuervo Gold, Island Oasis Raspberry and DeKuyper Blue Curacao), is on the cover of Lone Star’s beverage menu. It is also no accident that this is the chain’s most popular cocktail.
“You want to have that visual impact: the garnish, the special glassware that makes people say, ‘What’s that?'” says Allied Domecq’s Ginley.
At Michi, bartenders use cake decorating gels, found in any supermarket’s baking aisle, to decorate the inside of the glass for many of the restaurant’s martinis. “It’s pretty simple stuff. You can make patterns, even write someone’s name. It looks different and you can really make someone feel very important,” says Mayfield.
Most colored cake decorating gel is slow to dissolve in a drink and doesn’t add much flavor, perhaps just a little sweetness, Mayfield notes. Chocolate cake gel, however, does dissolve and does add flavor. “Which is OK,” says Mayfield. “It becomes part of the drink recipe.” For instance, the chocolate gel is used in the restaurant’s Tootsie Roll Martini, made with vodka, cr