12 elements of an epic beverage program

By Doug Radkey

Why do so many venues have average-at-best beverage programs? This is a question I find myself asking more and more these days when I travel and visit restaurants and bars throughout Canada and the United States.

Putting a Moscow Mule on your ‘signature’ drink menu is not something that’s signature to you: every other bar down the road is doing the exact same thing.

Imagine with me for a moment if every restaurant had the same signature burger come out of the kitchen. Not a very welcoming thought, is it? So why is it deemed okay to do that from the bar side?

When I sit down with a chef and bar manager, I like to ask the chef how much time they put into the food menu. The answer is usually numerous days, or even weeks. When I ask the bar manager how much time they put into the beverage menu, the answer is often one to two days at most.

Why are we putting so much effort into the food side as opposed to the beverage side? In a time when memorable on-premise experiences are an absolute must to maximize real estate and profit potential, beverages can help make the needed difference and increase your level of profits.

Over the past year, following the release of my book, Bar Hacks, I have travelled around North America speaking at events such as the CR&B Show about ways to develop what I like to refer to as an “epic beverage program.”

But what makes a beverage program epic?

First things first: identify what you have power over, and what you don’t. You can’t, for example, make a Heineken taste any different. Therefore, your bar program must come down to differentiation and being hospitable. And there’s more to it than simply putting a fancy drink you found on Google or Pinterest on your menu.

Here are the elements to consider:

1. Dayparts: Keep in mind that once an hour goes by, you never get it back again. For example, your spirit-forward drinks may not be a strong part of your menu mix at 1 p.m. and are therefore taking up valuable real estate on your menu. Create or adapt your beverage program to meet the demands of your ideal customers as they navigate different parts of their day to maximize your revenue potential.

2. Sessions: The drinking “culture” associated with alcohol, in particular, has changed over the past decade due to strict driving laws, the cost of “going out,” and consumers’ increasing sophistication. For example, meet the demands of the “sober curious” movement by creating a balanced program of spirits and low-ABV level drinks or mocktails. When properly executed, you can obtain a similar revenue point as a drink with 1-2 ounces of alcohol.

3. The Science: Venues need to adapt to the times. We no longer need beverages with 6-8 ingredients; a beverage with 3-4 ingredients will suffice. When doing so, you want to consider what each beverage on your menu is doing to the body and mind of the customer. You want to balance sugar levels, ABV levels, and fresh garnishes to develop on-demand health conscious drinks.

4. Culinary Pairings: This isn’t just for food & wine! Create a program that compliments the food menu (wine, beer, craft sodas, cocktails, mocktails) and bring culinary skills to the bar or beverage counter. Furthermore, a garnish should be an integral part of the drinking experience. Look for ways to flavour match herbs, include seasonality and local collaborations, and improve house-made syrups, bitters, and infusions.

5. Perception: Create a program that promotes balance in both price and overall value. Drive the perception and mindset that your drinks are the absolute best in town – for the highest profit margin possible. Integrate unique glassware, pops of colour, flare, flames, and theatre into your program – whether you’re a bar or a cafe.

6. Balance: We recently created a beverage menu that consisted of five signature cocktails, eight local beers on tap, three hand-crafted mocktails, four red & white wines, one dessert cocktail, and seven canned beverages. That’s it. It was well balanced, targeted to the ideal customer profile, and surpassed revenue, profit, and guest expectations. The takeaway: don’t over-complicate it by trying to please everyone.

7. Sustainability: Let’s be honest – the traditional bar setting is an environmental nightmare. I challenge everyone reading this to reduce their carbon footprint by 25 per cent over the next three months. Look at your equipment, garnishes, straws, vendors, and other disposables within your beverage program. Can you obtain a net-zero waste?

8. Ice: Ice is food and likely a universal ingredient within your beverage program. Make it a goal to spend an extensive focus on how your ice is sourced, kept frozen, and served in your venue. Control how quickly a cocktail is diluted based on the shape and size of the ice cubes. Lastly: clean, clear, picture-perfect ice can elevate perceptions of a brand and enhance the overall customer experience.

9. Time: Consider the time used to produce every beverage (coffee, mocktail, cocktail, and draught beer serving). Drive consistency in timing to maximize profits. You want to speed test your menu and your staff on a consistent basis and before the launch of a new menu. What could an additional 10 beverages per hour mean to your bottom line?

10. Creativity: Develop and foster your beverage program around creativity. Get your entire team involved and showcase their creative spirit throughout your venue, social media, and menu. Take it up a notch and reward your beverage team for that creativity through the use of commissions or other team engaging experiences.

11. Training: Your bar is only as good as its worst bartender. From effectively written job ads to on-boarding, your training program must include recipe tests, taste tests, speed tests, service training, inventory control, and serving policies in addition to ongoing educational opportunities. Make sure each staff member is providing a consistent product and service.

12. Marketing: Your first step should be developing a profitable pricing strategy, with strategic marketing plans developed specifically around your beverage program through hyper-focused market research and S.M.A.R.T strategies. On top of this, your beverage program should enhance guests’ overall sensory experience by focusing on:

  • Visuals (colours, glassware, fresh garnishes, production)
  • Auditory (your venues music & cocktail shakers)
  • Olfactory (smell or fragrance from beverage or production)
  • Gustatory (the taste and interaction with the body)

In sum, once you find yourself with the mindset to effectively implement the above strategies, you will find yourself with one epic beverage program!

About the author:
As the founder & president of KRG Hospitality Inc., in addition to being the author of the book Bar Hacks, Doug Radkey’s impressive career spans more than two decades and includes all aspects of food, beverage, and hospitality development. His storied brand has proven success since 2009, throughout a variety of markets found within Canada, the United States, and abroad by being a creative agency with a focus on planning, development, and support for independent restaurants, bars, hotels, and other hospitality related properties.

Website: www.krghospitality.com

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram: @KRGHospitality

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