Category: Bartenders

Bar Institute Classes: Menu Development

Pegu-Menu The Bar Institute{The first post in a series outlining some lessons learned from selected classes I attended at The Bar Institute held in Phoenix this month. If you don't know what Bar Institute is, check out my post outlining what attending Bar Institute is like and what is offered.} Menu Development is a Bar institute class offered by Alex Day and Devon Tarby of Proprietors, LLC, owners of Death & Co and others, as well as consultants for many many more menus and bars around the country. The principals of Proprietors offer a complete sub-curriculum within Bar Institute, and are very good at it. Their class that I want to cover here is on the menu creation process. The process they outline is their own. It is extensive, complex, usually successful, and more than even the most dedicated bar owner and management would go through on their own. Some of what they describe are things made necessary by the client-consultant relationship, others come from them being the kind of hyper OCD types business should want in consultants. All the elements of their process, whether you might need to employ them yourself or not, are worth considering to create the best possible offering for your bar. About halfway through the class, Alex stated what should remain uppermost in the mind of anyone contemplating a menu, be they working with the finest craft bar in the world, or merely putting together a drinks list for a home party,

A list of really good drinks is not a menu.

No really. Lock that into your reptilian brain for eternity. Or at least keep it in mind while I talk about some other highlights. And may I add, that for many ambitious bars with talented staff, a list of drinks that aspire to be good but mostly just settle gently into mediocrity is really not a menu. How is a menu not a list of drinks? The first of Proprietors' steps to develop a menu is, "Defining the Menu's Narrative." Part of this is just what is sounds like, the menu tells a story, one that should reflect that of the bar itself, and more importantly, the story of your customers. Who are your customers? How knowledgeable are they likely to be? Now, how do you want them to see you? And how long do you want this menu to last? Is it a long-term fixture, or a thematic or seasonal list that is more ephemeral? The message of the class was that a great menu will answer all these questions before you start even thinking about what it will list. The first concrete step in menu development cuts the narrative you have concocted into drink-like parts through what they call a "wireframe". The wireframe is a worksheet that first lists what category each drink on the menu is going to represent, such as a Sour, a Champagne cocktail, or a Manhattan variant. Each category then provides space for organized brainstorming to focus each drink's characteristics. Their example is pictured here. (Pro-Tip, take pictures of slides so you can spend time listening instead of taking notes of what is already written) [caption id="attachment_11230" align="aligncenter" width="1200"]A wireframe for a fairly typical ten item menu, serving the desires of a clientele with above-average savvy and disparate tastes. i.e. a generic craft bar menu A wireframe for a fairly typical ten item menu, serving the desires of a clientele with above-average savvy and disparate tastes. i.e. a generic craft bar menu[/caption] The most important part of this sheet (which I suspect is more a representation of the process than what their actual work product looks like) is to ensure that you don't go all excited with your "best drinks", and end up with a menu of five stirred, brown cocktails and a white wine spritzer. Or simply find that when you are done, the only citrus you employ is lemon. Structure the process this way to ensure your menu takes care of as many people as possible, so half of them don't just stare at it for a while, then order a vodka and soda. It's important to spend a good bit of time refining the wireframe on paper, so you don't spend a fortune on liquid product while chasing down rabbit holes that might be delicious, but are ultimately useless for the menu. Once you have a clear idea of the vision for the menu, it is also critical to include the bar staff in development. They have to make it. They have to sell it. They (hopefully) have the skills to contribute to it. And if they are involved, you both benefit from their knowledge and talent, and have a leg up on ensuring they buy in to the menu. The least amount of time in the class was dedicated to actually creating the drinks. Firstly, every bar pro attending an event like Bar Institute already knows (or thinks they know) how to create a good original cocktail, especially if given wireframe directions such as "a low-proof, stirred cocktail, featuring vermouth and caraway". Heck, even I could figure something out with a wireframe direction of "spirit-forward, stirred cocktail, with rye, vermouth, and a bittering agent". Even if you want a menu of classics, with no risks on originals, this process works well. Once you have your drink recipes, the important part of creating drinks begins, the part that lets you actually make money selling them. Remember that? You need to carefully spec out the brands used in each drink, pricing, menu copy, and names. The first two of these, ingredients and price, are a balancing act with lots of inputs. You must take into consideration things like the reality that a drink with Chartreuse as a modifier will need a more affordable base spirit than one that uses triple sec. Will your menu have different price levels? What prices will your market bear? Does this drink look to be a solid seller, or is it there for select clientele? A rule of thumb that Alex and Devon gave is to be sure that your expected best sellers are your most solid on profit margin; you can accept lower margins on those "Ooh, that looks impressive. Maybe next time" drinks. I find this a little difficult to square with the more traditional business case that you accept lower margins on your high volume sellers. I think I understand that pricing expectations unique to the bar industry may dictate this inversion, but the traditional businessman in me is going to have to give this more thought. What is definitely a factor is that you must understand the market where this menu will be offered. The same products will have to be priced differently in different markets. Price alone cannot make a menu successful, but it can certainly make it a failure. Names are hard. Be fun. Be creative. Keep in character for the narrative of the menu. Don't confuse your customers. Don't be stupid. Accomplishing all of these at the same time is harder and drearier than you might think. The last element in preparing the menu is planning for service. You must document every single detail of the prep needs for every single drink. How and when are house-made elements produced? Where is each and every ingredient to be kept? Can every person making drinks get to everything efficiently? So, your menu is written, documented, and printed. Done right? Of course not. The rollout of a new menu is both a big challenge and a big opportunity. The staff has to be trained... thoroughly. In my own experience, I have seen a great new menu turn me off even more than it first enthused me when I got the feeling that the bartender was reading it for the first time along with me. And if no one knows you have a new menu, its ability to pay you back for all the effort in producing it is pretty limited. But a new menu is a great opportunity for a bar owner to also reset operations, to address problems, even just to clean everything out, do some maintenance, and make everyone feel new. And promoting a new menu is not just an obligation, it is a golden opportunity. You can fill social media with anticipation and buzz. And it means you are making "real news". Use the new menu as a chance to offer reporters in all media to come hang out at a great bar.... (See my upcoming post about DIY PR.) And you are still not done. Menus, like battleplans encountering the enemy, seldom work perfectly off the bat. Drinks may not be popular. They may not be as profitable as expected. People may hate your design. Expect to make tweaks on an ongoing basis. I will finish with Alex and Devon's conclusion, which is as important as the quote I featured above.

A menu is a holistic process, and is not for you. It is for your customer... and for your bottom line.


What is The Bar Institute?

The Bar Institute The Bar Institute is a new series of annual events around the US, dedicated to many areas of skill development for bar industry types. I have just returned from three days attending the Bar Institute in Phoenix, Arizona. There should be several posts to follow about a number of excellent individual events I attended, but I want to start with an outline of exactly what goes on at a Bar Institute, what it is, and what it is not. I think this is important because the BI's marketing materials give a slick and beautiful idea of what kind of people would benefit from attending, they leave out a lot of detail about what to expect. I think that might leave a lot of people who should go hesitant to do so, and hopefully this may help a few of you decide to take the plunge. Bar Institute is the direct descendant/successor to the education component of Portland Cocktail Week. This is an excellent pedigree, and it is good for the industry to see the program expanded to other geographic areas. This year, there are five regional gatherings, and a national event to culminate the year. The northeast and southwest regionals have already occurred, in Baltimore and Phoenix, and the remaining 2016 cities are Miami, Austin, and Portland, with the national event in New York. BarInstitute 2016 Map The specific content from one city to the next will vary, as will the presenters, but the categories will be the same throughout. The three main categories are:
  • Advanced Bartending & Technique. These classes cover subjects ranging from skills and techniques, to the use or creation of specialty ingredients, to customer interaction, with some oddball but useful classes like one on the differences in creating a menu for a large, mature market, versus a smaller one. This last subject came up in several classes I attended, and I mention it here specifically because I think it is an important point of failure for a lot of otherwise promising projects in cities like Columbus where I live.
  • Bar Management & Ownership. More classes were offered in this category than any other, which reflects the Bar Institute's underlying focus on the somewhat novel concept that with this much money flowing through this industry, it really ought to be profitable for somebody. The selections here range from nuts and bolts things like costing a menu or reading a cash flow statement, to aspirational stuff like assembling a staff that will make you proud. Each regional BI has a different focus, and many sessions in the southwest event were centered on the design aesthetic from lighting to upon what what you decide to let your customers set their asses.
  • Consulting & Ambassadorship. For those professionals who aspire to challenges (and income) beyond crafting drinks, but who don't incline toward the eternal dance with fiscal death that is bar ownership, the modern cocktail industry offers a host of jobs, large and small, to satisfy that urge. The classes in this category focus on these opportunities, with some additional insights on how bar workers and owners can leverage these services as well.
  • Proprietors 360. This is a special category of classes, all of which are offered by the principals of Proprietors, LLC, the bar ownership and consultant group behind Death & Co, and many more. These classes cover subjects in all of the first three categories, but offer a cohesive set of real-world examples that ties them all together.
  • Electives. Many of these classes focus on professional health and wellness issues for bar professionals. Like athletes, a bartender's body is their livelihood. Other classes hosted discussions about entertainment and work life balance. A session on the increasing opportunities for women in the upper professional ranks turned out to be especially timely....
As a whole, the aforementioned subjects form the meat of the curriculum for Bar Institute, and are almost all one hour classes. They run from 10:00 AM to 3:30 PM on Monday and Tuesday, with half hour breaks in between. Attendees may attend any and all classes that they wish. There is no advance signup for classes, so seats are allocated on a first arrived, first taken basis until the room is full. Most classes had plenty of room, however. As for the one or two I attended that completely filled up... bartenders are friendly folk and make room where it is to be had. Just be prepared for a good bit of The Grass is Greener feeling, as there are between five and eight offerings during each block. The other two major daytime elements of Bar Institute are the Upfronts and the Exhibition. The Upfronts start about the time of the last class, and run until dinnertime. These are a bit like TEDTalks. Each Upfront is a presentation by the management and ownership of a particularly interesting establishment in the region, showcasing their concept, menu, and other elements of their story. The Upfronts are entertaining and a good look at how many different ways there are to successfully put together the granular sort of concepts covered earlier in the classes. The Exhibition is essentially the trade show floor of Bar Institute. It is open on Sunday afternoon and all day Monday and Tuesday. It is the only real daytime "content" on Sunday, so I wold recommend you take the time explore it a good deal on that day, as you will not have the time to do so if you take advantage of all the other offerings on Monday and Tuesday. The Exhibition at Southwest was not particularly large, but still had plenty of interesting stuff, more stuff, in fact, than an attendee could take in if he or she attended a full slate of classes and Upfronts. Gentleman Jack had a booth that was larger, and better decorated, than some good bars I've been in. At various times, they offered a photographer taking professional headshots, a social media maven presenting a mini class in Instagram PR, and make your own bitters workshops with fellow exhibitor Hella Bitters. Other brands, large and small, offered tastings and cocktails throughout the day. Local Phoenix bars rotated through a mini "Upfront" booth, showing off their stories and their drinks. and there were other offerings that don't fit into these categories as well. Hopefully, I'll get to some posts about individual elements of the Exhibition before I run out of steam. JDParty Evenings are obviously an important part of Bar Institute. To paraphrase Cyndi Lauper, "Bartenders, they wanna have fun." Specific evening entertainment varies from city to city, of course, but at southwest, attendees were offered two nights (Monday and Tuesday) of sponsored free food, drink, and entertainment for dinner, and two late nights (Sunday and Monday) of free drink and frivolity. (Warning: Chain-shooting coconut rum after an evening of good cocktails can make that morning class you were looking forward to seem awfully optional when the sun comes up.) That wraps up most of the kind of details I think potential attendees might be interested in, but aren't really covered by Bar institute's own promotional stuff. I want to finish with what Bar Institute is not. It is not Tales of the Cocktail. Nor is it trying to be. First off, it is a butt-load cheaper. Aside from travel expenses, total cost of attending a three day Bar Institute is twenty five bucks. Total. That's for admission, dinners, parties, and all the classes you can go to without a time machine. BI classes are very different in character to Tales sessions. Classes are smaller, more focused on serious subject matter, and have more opportunity for give and take discussion. Individual Bar Institute classes are not sponsored, however, so there are no cocktails provided during them. The upsides are that there is no bandwidth wasted on promoting sponsors, and your chances of remembering what you learned are vastly higher. The downsides are, no drinks, a dearth of crazy over-the-top demonstrations, nothing outright weird, and no drinks. Your day-drinking opportunities at Bar Institute are limited (with some exceptions during the Upfronts) to the Exhibition, where you will have to make do with local original cocktails, lounging in a tent on floor cushions while sipping Chartreuse, or guzzling Hennessey XO. [caption id="attachment_11217" align="aligncenter" width="1500"]Caveat: Unless you are Stuart Little, you will not be receiving enough XO to actually "guzzle".... Caveat: Unless you are Stuart Little, you will not be receiving enough XO to actually "guzzle"....[/caption] In short, Bar Institute is not the immersive, possibly overwhelming, experience that Tales is. Tales is a celebration, with some very serious underpinnings. Bar Institute is a serious endeavor, made
General Cocktails
Rule 4

The Next Word We Need To Banish: Curated

Can we talk? It is time to recognize that another word has gotten out of control. It is rampaging through the cocktail (and general culinary) industry, making those who employ it look insufferably twee. And worse, making the entire industry which is perilously close to embracing it look twee as well. I mean more twee than craft cocktails already kind of are. To be sure, this word is also being abused in many other arenas as well, but I write about cocktails, so that's where it pisses me off the most. It's just pretentious as hell. I'm talking about our sudden need to claim that we "curate" everything. Stop it. First off, most people don't know what it means, even if they just read the bare bones definition a few minutes ago. Most folks hear curate or curator and think of it as someone who collects and presents rare and precious things in museums. The positive image that probably lurks in their subconscious when they think of curators, especially if they are considering identifying themselves as such, is this guy: indiana-jones-curator No. That guy is in "Purchasing". A curator is more this guy. X1QAr1GR_400x400 Not quite the same, huh? But either way, the subtext cocktail types who employ the word curate want to portray is collecting, organizing, presenting, and protecting things that represent the great works of a civilization. You know, as in, "This belongs in a museum!" And that is the subtext most people who see the word employed have as well. And that's the problem. A cocktail menu, I don't care it is Dead Rabbit's or Smuggler's Cove's, is not a collection of the great works of a civilization. Sure, the Manhattan may well be the single greatest culinary achievement of American civilization. I happen to think it is. But let's face it, your list of house-created seasonal recipes is not the Louvre. It's not even Ripley's. And even if a cocktail menu is made up of nothing but time-honored masterworks, prepared to perfection... it's a list of drinks. And putting them on a menu does nothing to protect them for posterity. It is a colossally pretentious word for a list of products available for sale in, for practical purposes, unlimited quantities. Even if you have a "carefully curated selection of rare whiskeys", it is still a bunch of bottles on a shelf or three. If a particular bottle is still made, it is something for sale, again, in relatively unlimited quantities. If it has been discontinued, the purpose of offering it for sale is ultimately to destroy it permanently. None of all this is curation. The most charitable interpretation of this phenomenon is just another cutesy element in an industry that already dances so close with being "precious", a chaperone needs to swing by with a ruler to separate them for the craft's own good. JAEb383 At it's worst, this "curation" fetish is self-important, "Tulip Bubble" kind of thinking that encourages a dangerous disconnect between the value of a product as perceived by customers and by producers. Whether you are Le Lion de Paris or Bob's Bar (The Cultural Hub of the Midwest!), You. Are. A. Business. You are not a revered academic institution. Seriously guys, this term is creeping into use by people I both like and highly respect. Stop it. You are only damaging your industry and your own enterprise. And looking just a bit like an ass doing
Rule 2
Tiki Month 2016

Modern Tiki Drink: Lazy Bear

Lazy Bear FI The Lazy Bear is a six year old original by Jacob Grier, the only Barista/Street Magician/Blogger/Bartender/Think Tank Fellow either you or I know. He created this drink, not as a Tiki drink, but as an accompaniment for taco truck food at a wedding reception. (San Francisco, right?) I took a look at it for Tiki Month this year due to a tip from DJ Hawaiian Shirt, who blogged about it three years ago and firmly declared it a Tiki drink. Frankly, I had my doubts about this categorization when I looked at the recipe. Rye is really not a traditional Tiki ingredient, after all. But DJ is right. The Lazy Bear is quite spiritous for a Tiki Drink, but the vibe is there, especially with the tiny change The Shirt makes to Jacob's original recipe. To make sure it works as part of a Tiki presentation, you do need to amp the garnish, but the flavors are there, and pair very will with lots of traditional Tiki food flavors.
  • 3/4 oz. dark Jamaican rum, e.g. Smith & Cross
  • 3/4 oz. American rye whiskey
  • 3/4 oz. fresh lime juice
  • 3/4 oz. honey syrup
  • 3 dashes "Spiced Bitters"*
Shake with ice and strain into smaller vessel with crushed ice. Garnish with something complex but elegant. *Spiced bitters area 1:1 mix of Angostura and pimento dram.
It really is quite good. It also can be presented as a non-Tiki drink just as easily, which is nice. It also is a great way to get someone to try rye if they have been shy of that before. All in all, another great example of modern Tiki
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