It’s almost like a biblical pronouncement when Dale DeGroff, head bartender at NYC’s Blackbird, says you can’t have a good drink without the freshest ingredients. The self-dubbed King of Cocktails created a beverage empire at The Rainbow Room based on that concept, holding fast to a purist’s stance that all ingredients that comprise a cocktail, especially juices, should be fresher than fresh. They should be perfect.
Finding juicy perfection, however, depends on the intended scope of your beverage program. Do you cater to that oh-so-selective crowd? Might be good to start squeezing your own lemons. Does your program serve a casual, jeans-only population? Juices from bottles or concentrate may be a more value-oriented solution.
Like all evaluations, deciding what state of fruit works best for your establishment requires stepping back and taking a look around.
What’s the restaurant’s purpose?
Determining what type of juice to serve goes back to the restaurant’s mission statement. Does your establishment cater to the hamburger crowd? Or do you have charts in the kitchen that outline every flavor nuance in each dish you serve? Perhaps you’re the hot spot, serving drinks to everyone with a cell phone and a hot e-commerce portfolio.
Madam B of Chicago, a new Pacific Rim restaurant on North Halstead St.’s Restaurant Row, caters to the swank set, and attempts to keep discriminating customers satisfied by serving drinks with fresh orange, pineapple and grapefruit juices. In fact, over half of the restaurant’s well-received drink menu consists of various fruit juices, so for Madam B, using fresh juice is essential.
Scott Carlson, co-owner, says when he, along with fellow co-owners Carole and Jessica Barbieri, conceptualized the beverage menu, the question of using fresh juices was a simple decision. “I think it has come to be expected in more upscale dining. I haven’t been in any of the more upscale restaurant yet that’s not using fresh juice. And if they are not completely using fresh, then its something close to fresh.”
In other situations, using fresh juice may not be the key to keeping customers happy. Perhaps your patrons will respond to more creative marketing than the upscale-ness of the drink. Red Robin, for instance, has made a killing with its Mad Mixology promotion, featuring five 26-ounce drinks–three cocktails and two mocktails–served in plastic beacons, bearing names such as the Atomic Antecdote, Bunsen Beaker and Molecular Meltdown.
To Red Robin’s beverage manager Kerry Lang, a.k.a. “The Bev Guy,” serving drinks such as the ones in the Mad Mixology line relies on marketing more than mixing them with freshest juices possible.
“We pick a theme and then incorporate juices to enhance the flavor,” Lang explains. “We’ve added in mango and passion fruit to enhance flavors–the last promotion carried drinks that included orange juice and other types of juices, such as mango and passionfruit to add a different flavor.”
For Red Robin, using juices from concentrate and juice in the box has not deterred customers from ordering their drinks. Last year the Mad Mixology program brought in $1.5 million, with each location selling about 5,000 of the Mad drinks.
What drinks are on the menu?
As restaurants and bars carry more drinks that rely on juice, thanks in part to the lingering alternatini trend, using canned, frozen or fresh-squeezed juices may depend on how much juice is caklled for by the beverage menu.
Madam B’s beverage menu utilizes various juices for about half of the drinks listed on the beverage menu. Under Madam B’s “Especially Large Martinis” list, cocktails such as the Cosmotron, a blend of Stoli Ohranj, triple sec, orange juice and lime; the Dreamsicle, created from Stoli Ohranj, Stoli Vanil, Captain Morgan Rum, triple sec and OJ all require fruit juices. Its “Exotic Cocktails” menu also includes fruit-based drinks, such as the Chi Chi, made with vodka, coconut and pineapple juice; and the Sneaky Tiki, composed of three types of rum, apricot brandy, pineapple and orange juice. So if you ask Carlson if juice quality is important in Madam B’s drinks, he’ll say, hell, yeah–but with more eloquence.
“We all worked in bars before–places that used concentrates from the box and syrups, and it was disgusting,” he says. “You would get an orange juice and vodka, and it would taste like Tang.”
At the health-conscious Jamba Juice, Tang-like drinks are definitely outlawed, especially since the smoothie chain’s concept was built on healthful drinks made from fresh fruits, frozen yogurt and vitamins. Fresh juice is vital to its operation in fresh squeezed and a frozen form. Jamba Juice has rapidly built a healthy-beverage empire, taking over the juice stands in Whole Foods health grocery stores, and is starting to make its way east, opening its first Chicago store this summer.
As a rule, Joe Vergara, director of research development, says the chain uses the freshest juices available, especially orange juice, because it’s part of the Jamba Juice experience. “When a customer walks into one of our stores, it smells like fresh oranges and bananas. And, orange juice is the number one juice consumed in America, and we wanted to do something different. People taste our fresh OJ and are blown away.”
Jamba Juice utilizes fresh, frozen fruit purees, so when a fruit is out of season, the juice bars can still serve every item on the menu. “With 230 stores, we need to ‘buy up crops’ certain times of the year so we can have a consistent supply year ’round,” Vergara explains.
But not everyone is a juice bar, and practicality generally serves as a measure of what types of juices need to be stocked. If your establishment sells mostly beer and wine, than it may be more practical to carry concentrates or boxed juices which will stay fresher longer, in between uses. Or, in the case of Red Robin, with units in more rural areas of the country, opting for other than fresh-squeezed juices behind the bar comes from necessity.
How many drinks do you sell in a shelf-life?
Whether you go ala DeGroff and order fresh fruit to squeeze yourself or buy it by the bottle, it’s important to also determine the juices’ shelf life and how many drinks your establishment will sell during that time period.
“There is definitely a spoilage issue, especially with OJ,” Madam B’s Carlson said. “You have to take extra care to seal everything properly and be sure to rotate stock. Generally you have to sell a high volume of drink to have fresh juice. For OJ–you only have a few days on that.”
Two or three times a week, Madam B receives new packages of fresh juice from its produce provider, a system that has worked well with the amount of beverage business the popular restaurant sells.
“We pour off so much of it, that we never really have a problem,” Carlson says. “We get produce every day, so then we can also order the minimum that we are going to need at one time.”
DeGroff circumvents the issue by squeezing fresh fruit for each drink, by hand.
“People always try to take shortcuts when it comes to fresh juice,” says the puritan of freshness. “They’ll try to create batches of it, and it will be sour by the time they use it. There are no shortcuts, they have to do it drink by drink.”
Squeezing juice by the glass takes time and skill, however, a luxury many establishments cannot afford.
Others, such as Red Robin, ensures all chains serve quality drinks by following a stringent freshness program utilized company-wide. Working with the idea that juice mixed from concentrate carries a four-day shelf-life, the company provides each chain with expiration labels for the juice containers. Once the date arrives, the staff discards the juice, whether it’s still fresh or not. As double-protection, Red Robin’s headquarters provides managers with a rolodex and Pocket Pal, each listing every drink’s ingredients, juice and otherwise, and its shelf life. “We’re very into sanitary practices and making sure things are safe for our cus tomers,” Lang explains.
What does having juice at the bar entail?
DeGroff says having fresh juices at the bar requires training. Training on how to squeeze juices, how much to put into the drink and how to adjust recipes accordingly. He says if a bartender transitions to using fresh juices, it can have an effect on a drink’s composition.
“Recipe. Recipe. If the recipes are wrong, the drinks are lousy. Customer’s don’t come in to drink them, and they’re a failure,” he says.
And, DeGroff adds, adding fresh juices into a program also depends on a mindset change about bartending in general. “You have to psych people up for it. During training they need to be told, ‘You are the chef of the bar.’ It should be approached as a craft–and [the staff] should step in the direction as a craftsman. It’s not a small step. To do fresh juices as a program–it’s a big change.”
For places that want to squeeze juice in-house, they should be prepared to have a staff that wants to squeeze juice themselves or purchase a high-powered juicer to do so. DeGroff, for instance, uses a hand-squeezer at the bar, and in emergencies, can run to the kitchen where he has prepared and refrigerated extra containers of juice, which he squeezes before each shift.
For Madam B, purchasing juice from produce companies adds to the cost of the ingredients, but no extra time is required to add the juice to the drinks. “Probably 30% of [Madam B’s] business is alcohol,” Carlson says, “so time-wise, squeezing our own juice would be a major undertaking. We would probably burn out a juicer every month.”
Will it pay off?
After considering how much help is needed behind the bar, how much money fresh juice, or fresh fruits and juicers, will cost, the concept of using fresh fruit may seem daunting. But if trying to create an upscale image, Seth Martin of Las Vegas’ Bellagio Casino and Hotel says that “when possible, use fresh no matter what. It makes a noticeable difference in our drinks–it’s like cooking with fresh ingredients.”
In the case of Bellagio, using fresh juice has done more than paid off. The lavish casino/hotel’s efforts to revamp Las Vegas’ reputation as an all-you-can-eat haven for middle America, has garnered attention from the press and the restaurant community. The beverage program has been noticed for its Classic Sidecar, made with fresh sweet and sour; the hotel’s signature drink, aptly named The Bellagio, which is created from Italian sparkling wine, Alizé and a fresh passionfruit puree imported from France. and their Primo Margarita, made with Herradura Silver Tequila, fresh lime juice, fresh sour mix and Cointreau, a ‘rita that elicits customers’ praises. “A guy called from Miami wanting to know the recipe,” Martin says, “He said it was the best Margarita he’d ever had in his life.”
The hotel draws a line with using fresh juices in its service bars located on the casino floors, instead relying on a “bag in the box,” the standard five-gallon cardboard box with a liner that is commonly used in other casino service bars. “The (Bellagio) casino pays us back $1.50 per drink, so it’s not profitable to serve fresh juices there. I mean, we do have fresh juice available if its requested, but it’s just not profitable.”
Red Robin’s Lang says the restaurant will soon be streamlining its beverages, with considerations of using fresh juices and top-shelf spirits. For Lang, the pay-off will come when all units start to sell drinks with flavor continuity. “Right now different places are using different juices. We have some places where juices are not as readily available, so they have to use what they can get.” Also Lang finds their patrons crave a more upscale product. “We’ve seen a little more that our guests want a quality product and we want to offer them the best product. The trends for juice bars and healthier, quality products, we want to take the time and evaluate what the customer wants.”
DeGroff says that owners need to be aware of the cost of using fresh fruit at the bar, and to be certain it will be worth it. For DeGroff and his beverage programs, it has always paid off, in his case creating a reputation that bar programs across the country have looked to as a model of the ideal beverage program.
“What we did at the Rainbow Room would not have not been possible if we had used canned juices.” DeGroff adds, “We would not have received as much attention from the press or people modeling their beverage program after ours.”