2011 February: Raise Your Glass!

Tradition says that pizza places need to offer soda, pitchers of beer and maybe a couple of wine options. But now, with pizza moving more upscale and customers expecting a wider variety of options, many restaurants have gone the way of full bars –– from a simple and well-stocked corner stand to an ornate wood and chrome space that runs the length of the restaurant.

A well-stocked bar does more than just offer drinks; it complements the dining experience by providing a wider array of choices, more opportunities for interaction and a chance to easily increase sales. “We believe that a well-run, well-stocked bar complements the dining experience,” says Paul Andoni, co-owner of the Shield’s of Troy Franchise in Detroit, Michigan, which started as a bar in the 1940s and eventually developed into a food establishment, using the bar as the basis. “The bar has always been an important part of our operation. Some restaurants look at their bar as an afterthought, but for us it’s an important element to our customers’ experience.”

So, for those lucky enough to have earned their liquor license stripes, how do they go about ensuring their bars have the things they need to succeed? The answer lies in proper planning, positioning and presentation.

Every great bar needs at least the basics to get started. While those vary from restaurant to restaurant and locale to locale, the common necessities include: vodka, gin, rum, tequila, triple sec, a few flavored liquors, mixers such as sodas and juices, and a good selection of beer and wine.

What does “good selection” mean? It means a wide enough variety that you can serve customers what they desire, without offering so much that they get overwhelmed or that stock sits around, lonely and dusty, on the shelf. It’s neither possible nor desirable to carry every liquor, beer and wine ever made. Trying to be all things to all people just means you end up with a bar that feels watered-down. Not to mention that you’ll be stuck with a lot of inventory that doesn’t move.

Instead, find a slant that works for your customers and your area and stick to it. If you are running a beachside serve-up that caters to a young college crowd, then offering a variety of cheaper selections is a good choice. If you are in an area that focuses on local, hand-crafted items, make sure you have a good variety of area wines and microbrews. Or, if you’re a high-end restaurant like Plum Pizzeria and Bar in New York, New York, go with only the best-of-the-best.

“I only stock top-shelf liquors,” says Alex Alexopoulos, Plum’s owner. “I don’t believe in cheap drinks. Even our happy hour has real drinks, with top shelf liquors.” In a place where most of the ingredients are hand-selected and imported from Greece, having low-quality liquors would undercut the atmosphere and the customers’ taste buds. And while Alexopoulos offers a variety of price ranges for all of his liquor, beer and wine, he always does so within his quality parameters, first and foremost. “I believe that if you have good pizza, you have to have a good wine to go with it,” he says. “So I stock excellent wines in a range of prices, from $15 to $150 a bottle.”

You probably already know about the tools you need –– enough wine corks to go around, shakers and strainers, ice scoops and towels –– but one tool that’s most often overlooked is the knowledge and expertise of your servers. “Our staff is really well-trained so they can offer suggestions,” says Alexopoulos. “So if customers are open to suggestions, there is always someone who is very happy to help them find what they will like at a price they can afford.”

Most great bars also clearly have some kind of visual appeal –– gorgeous wood, polished chrome, big-screen TVs. But what you showcase behind your bar can also entice customers to order drinks. Pretty glasses and garnishes are a good start, as are clean and shiny surfaces and sexy looking drinks. But to take it one step beyond, consider dressing up the alcohol itself.

Take, for example, the idea of marinating your own vodka, the way that Joe Abston, owner of Hopjacks Pizza Kitchen and Taproom in Pensacola, Florida, does. “We use fruit to impart flavor into our vodkas,” Abston says. “They’re in big, three-liter jars sitting behind the bar. We keep six different ones at a time, and we rotate them as the seasons change, or as I get bored.”

So far, he’s done a variety of flavors, some normal, some not so much. Pineapple-orange, blueberry, cranberry-plum and a five-pepper spice are some of the most popular. “I’ve also done maple syrup vodka and peanut butter and jelly,” he says. “Most of them are easy for people to see and understand, like watermelon rinds in the summer. But I also try to keep one that challenges people — I ran a bacon vodka for a couple of months.”

While it would be great to offer a magic number of liquors you must have to make your bar successful, in truth it doesn’t work that way. Most owners agree that there’s a lot of trial and error in stocking your bar. The best way to approach it is to listen to the desires of your customers while also matching the variety, quality, cost and taste of your bar offerings with the pizza that comes out of your kitchen. There is no better recipe for a successful bar than that.

Shanna Germain is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. She loves to write about both food and drink, and her articles have appeared in Cheers, Delicious Living, Imbibe and Oregon Home.

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