Are you getting the most out of your restaurant bar? Seven tips to drive higher cheques and keep your guests coming back

By Misty Beazley 

Many food service owners and operators view the bar as a holding area for guests to enjoy cocktails while waiting for a table. Others see it as a place for those who aren’t eating a full meal but just having drinks. Either way, it is a spot that is needed yet one few concentrate on.

As restaurateurs wander through the myriad of marketing options available to drive outside sales, it is easy to overlook a prime opportunity like enlivening the bar. However, there is a chance to drive a captured audience into higher average cheques and an opportunity to offer a greater guest experience by enticing guests to enjoy a new pub-influenced bar menu.

Here’s an easy first exercise for owners and operators. Pick up the bar menu and seriously consider whether it inspires a guest to dine at the establishment while savouring a good pint or cocktail. If the answer is “no,” don’t fret; there is a solution that can offer tremendous benefits to owners, operators as well as guests.

Part of the problem with bar food is often quick and easy appetizers are offered that don’t inspire diners. They are predictable, safe and chosen for the menu because they can be executed as a consistent product.

Instead, why not embrace recipes sought after for their comfort food status or choose a standard dish and jazz it up. That’s what some of the world’s best chefs have done – they’ve enhanced the classics by putting their own spin on them. At hot spots in New York, Chicago and Las Vegas, mac ‘n’ cheese, fish and chips and sliders can be found in every shape, form and fashion. Some restaurants have incorporated local cheeses, hand-cut fries and house-ground organic meat into these traditional “must eats” while others have included a story on the menu about how they learned to make the dish thanks to grandma, nana or poppy. These dishes are often low cost food items that will quickly become guest favourites, driving customers to make a habit of regularly frequenting the establishment to enjoy them.

Implementing change at the bar is not as hard as it may appear. Here are seven tried and true ideas to help you get started:

1. Examine the numbers. Often a guest will ask their server for a dish recommendation and hear, “It’s one of our best sellers,” when, in fact, it is the staff member’s favourite. There are also favourite dishes of many owners or chefs who may see a menu item through rose-coloured glasses, not objectively, which is what a menu mix report provides.

2. Seek out the bottom three sellers among the starters currently offered. Try the items for a couple of days in a row and analyze if they are consistent. The restaurant’s culinary brigade may simply need to be retrained on how the dish was originally envisioned. Also, ask the front and back of house teams why the items are not selling. Tweaking tired dishes works too. Inject some excitement by adding a local microbrew beer sauce or farm-raised beef from down the street.

3. As an incentive, hold a contest with service staff to see who achieves the highest sales of bar food.

4. On the topic of staff, they can provide the most honest feedback on why dishes aren’t selling. Servers can also make or break a bar menu with their attitude. Quite simply, if they don’t love it, they won’t sell it. So, ask them what they like to eat when they dine out and some of the spots they patronize after work. Then get the management team together and go do some competitive dining.

5. Hold seminars on how to sell and offer food and beverage pairings.

6. Allow servers to provide complimentary samples to guests to covert diners based on staff favourites. There is no better way to get guests to try new or freshened items than to offer them for free.

7. The next weapon to ready in the arsenal is the kitchen brigade. Hold a contest to see how cooks would change the nibbles available at the bar. By doing so, they will be motivated to push service staff to sell items they had a hand in creating. Best results are achieved when owners and operators let culinary team members own the dish and put their name on it. When compliments start flowing they’ll really enjoy the fruits of their labour.

Going forward, remember why the once loved dishes were put on the menu in the first place; somewhere in the menu is a family recipe waiting to be a best seller. Then, with the help of staff, rollout a revamped bar menu. This way both guests and staff will sing the praises of the new pub grub.

About the author:

Misty Beazley is vice-president of the Toronto Signature Group of Canadian restaurant company SIR Corp., which owns and operates a portfolio of 45 casual and fine dining restaurants in Canada. Misty supervises and directs the management teams and oversees the day-to-day operations of five successful Toronto restaurants including Far Niente, reds bistro & wine bar, Petit Four Bakery, Four and popular bar, The Loose Moose Tap & Grill.

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