Craft beers, spirits and cocktails are huge in major markets such as New York, San Francisco and Chicago. But what happens when you want to open a craft cocktail lounge in a smaller town? A July 18 session at the Tales of the Cocktail conference in New Orleans offered some insights for blazing a craft mixology trail in smaller markets.
It helps to understand why craft hasn’t caught on in some markets. Panelist Ryan Magarian, a cofounder of Aviation American Gin and “modern urban saloon” Oven and Shaker in Portland, OR, has done some consulting work in the Phoenix area. He said it’s still an undertapped cocktail market for three reasons: 1) lack of consumer exposure to craft; 2) the challenge of finding leadership to help run a “revenue-positive” cocktail bar; and 3) a lack of understanding by operators in those markets.
When operators don’t get the craft cocktail culture, it’s hard for them to understand why you need to spend more on higher-end spirits, fresh juices, bar talent and so on. The expenses can be hard for some people to justify in making the move to craft, Magarian said, considering that “fresh-extracted pineapple juice can cost more than the booze.”
So if you’re opening a craft bar in a region that’s underexposed and uninformed about cocktails, you need to do some schooling. “You have to educate your bartenders so that they can educated the customers,” said Brian Kelley, owner of Bin 612 and Restaurant Tyler, both in Starkville, MI. Here are a few other tips from the panel.
Ease guests into craft prices. It’s not just management that balks at high costs of craft. “Our customer isn’t willing to pay $12 for a cocktail,” Kelley says. “But we can introduce craft cocktails at a Happy Hour—a customer that tries a craft cocktail for $5 will maybe order it again at full price.”
Not that it’s always about price, noted Jay Carr, owner/head bartender of The Eddy in Providence, RI, which opened a year and a half ago. “Some people will come in and order the most expensive thing on the menu,” he said, “so it’s good to mix up pricing.”
Keep it simple. Don’t overdo your drink menu, Magarian advised: “My wheelhouse is 12 drinks.” Also remember that “drinkability sells way more drinks than flavors.”
Start off with approachable classics, such as Collinses. You might give a classic concept a palate-relevant twist, such as a Honey Basil Collins, Magarian said.
Get creative with cocktail names. Craft cocktails don’t have to be so serious—have a little fun with the names. Portland Hunt and Alpine Club in Portland, ME, has a cocktail called Late Night at OOB, named for Old Orchard Beach, a honky-tonk resort town in southern Maine.
The cocktail is “a playful variation on the beach drink,” according to the menu, with the ingredients listed as “rum, other things, shame.” People laugh at the cocktail’s name, said owner/head bartender Andrew Volk, who opened Portland Hunt and Alpine Club in September 2013, “and half the time they order it.”
Indeed, weird drink names that make guest giggle do tend to boost sales, Magarian said. As an example, he cited a cocktail developed for Easy Company in Portland, OR, called Redneckreation, made with Buffalo Trace bourbon, lemon juice, maple syrup and Coors Light, served with a Ruffles potato chip garnish.
Another tip: “I always put the full drink recipe on the menu, down to the teaspoon,” said Magarian. “It helps demystify the process in a smaller market.”
Roll out the barrel. Barrel aging spirits and cocktails is a great way to get guests intrigued about your beverage program. “People see a barrel and want to know what’s in there,” Kelley said. “They think, This must be a good bar!”
Just keep in mind that some aging experiments “can be scary, because a lot of things can happen in a bottle,” Carr said. He had a batch of Hanky Panky drinks that went bad instantly.
Drinks on tap can also work well in smaller markets, Carr said, especially things like Gin & Tonics. (Negronis on tap, not so much.) And bottled house drinks are not only a time saver, they’re fun, too: “People love looking at that little bottle on the table,” Kelley said.
Spice it up. Spicy cocktails are hot right now; “they’re selling like two to one over any other drinks,” Magarian said. Anything with a pepper tends to generate interest today.
That’s part of the reason that the Moscow Mule is currently such a big seller. For one thing, it’s got vodka, Magarian said, but also ginger beer, which provides a tactile, spicy sensation.
Hire passionate people. How do you hire for craft bar service? Most of the panelists agreed that you can train people to serve or tend bar, but it’s harder to teach soft skills like service and traits like passion and hospitality.
Look to hire employees with an inherent, authentic heart for service, Magarian advised. Because the coffee bar people tend to already have this, he added, “I get most of my bartenders at Starbucks.”
Personality is key in educating guests in a friendly way and selling them on craft offerings if they’re skeptical. It also helps to be over the top and enthusiastic when trying to guide a customer to an intelligent drink choice, Magarian said.
So if you have a guest who needs a little coaxing to try a cocktail outside of his comfort zone, Magarian said, you might say something like: “Have you ever had fresh pineapple and vodka? Dude, it will blow your mind!”