August 1, 2015 |

Get Crafty

By Pamela Mills-Senn


craft cocktail, martini, liquorSpecialty bar menus — craft cocktails — can be a knockout sales technique

There are many things that can help your pizzeria thrive. A solid menu, quality ingredients, a welcoming atmosphere and attentive service can bring in new customers and keep old ones returning. These are essential tools, but for restaurants with full bars there’s another potential weapon in their arsenal — craft cocktails.

Alexandra Sklansky, director of public relations for the Distilled Spirits Council (DISCUS), a Washington, D.C. trade association representing U.S. spirits producers, says craft cocktails are popular. The trend isn’t new; it’s been in play since 2011, says Sklansky. But since then, the movement has only gained traction. Sklansky attributes this to a variety of factors, among them shows like “Mad Men,” the interest in food and cooking, and more innovative spirits offerings. The result has been growth in nearly all spirits categories.

Ryan Magarian, bartender/co-proprietor of Oven and Shaker in Portland, Oregon, says craft cocktails are the centerpiece of their bar operations, making an “enormous contribution” to the restaurant’s bottom line.

“Oven and Shaker, referring to the chef/bartender partnership, was conceived to be a unique 50/50 pizzeria/craft cocktail bar concept from the very beginning,” he explains. “I’d describe our patrons’ interest in craft cocktails as extremely high; most guests come in with the intention of having a craft cocktail experience.”

At the other end of the country, Jeff Van Dyke, co-founder and managing partner with New South Pizza, LLC, which owns Brixx Wood Fired Pizza, is seeing somewhat the same thing. Headquartered in Charlotte, North Carolina, the company has 30 Brixx company-owned and franchised locations in seven states.

“I would call the patron interest in craft cocktails as emerging,” he says. “There’s always been a segment of our guests that has gravitated to cocktails, particularly our late-night business. But each month, the interest grows, particularly as the percent of our millennial guests (currently at 33 percent) expands.”

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Attracting millennials is something Brett Cassis, general manager of Pizza Bella Restaurant in Charlottesville, Virginia, hopes their bar renovation, including the addition of craft cocktails, will accomplish. For over 16 years, the restaurant has served as the go-to spot for families in the surrounding neighborhoods, says Cassis.

“But now, with children growing up and moving out, baby boomers and empty nesters are downsizing and being replaced by millennials and young families,” he says. “They’re always looking for the next thing and craft beers and cocktails are hot; rotating taps and creative craft drinks fit their lifestyles.” Hence the bar and cocktail menu redo, which Cassis expects will bring a 35- to 40-percent sales increase.

One of the biggest challenges is figuring out what to put on that menu — with so many options and unique ingredients, it’s hard not to want to try them all, Cassis says. There are ways to make this process less painful.

Magarian says they took their entire concept into account to help guide their cocktail menu. He prefers a short menu of about 12 signature drinks. Twice a year, spring/summer and fall/winter, they do a menu changeover, with several new additions popping up in between.

craft cocktail, liquor, mixed drink“What I like about this approach is that it allows for long-term consistency of recipe execution and the ability for guests to find a favorite without worrying it will be gone the next week,” he explains. “Three to five drinks are built to be hits, with the remainder of the menu utilized to express a more personal and often aggressively creative perspective on our capabilities.”

What are some patron faves? Individual “punch-style” drinks with acid/sweet components outsell those that employ sweet/bitter combinations (think Old Fashioned or Manhattan). Among their most popular drinks are the Pineapple Trainwreck, Pepper Smash #2, and the Honey Basil Collins.

With drinks like Lemon Basil-Ade, Pineapple Upside Down Cake Martini, Strawberry Mojito and Summer Daydream (featuring Cuervo tequila, pineapple and cranberry juices and agave nectar), Brixx’s cocktail patrons seem to have similar proclivities — refreshing drinks top their list as well, says Van Dyke.

They developed a core list of eight to 10 options, changing the menu a few times a year to add seasonal flavors and try out new offerings. “Guests learning about cocktails are intimidated by too many options,” Van Dyke explains. “They want a cultivated list to help them find their way. More experienced guests want a sense of what you offer, but not an exhaustive list.”

They kept their costs and inventory in check by working off the core list and building additional drinks off of these ingredients; a strategy that has prevented them from ordering “100 different items for 12 drinks,” says Van Dyke, who advises those just getting started to “eat the elephant one bite at a time.”

Take a team approach, he continues. Involve managers, talk to bar guests about what they like. And don’t overlook the bartenders, Van Dyke adds.

“All too often, management forgets to tap into those on the front lines,” he says. “Not only do they know what guests are ordering, but they’ll share what they like to drink when they get off work. If they like it, they’ll sell it and you’ll look like a genius.”

Pamela Mills-Senn  is a freelancer specializing in writing on topics of interest to all manner of businesses. She is based in Long Beach, California.

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