Tales of the Cocktail Session: The Menu, with Angu...

Tales of the Cocktail Session: The Menu, with Angus Winchester and Sean Finter

I originally posted this session writeup on Tales of the Cocktail’s own TalesBlog. I’m re-posting it here because I like it, it needed some links and improvements, and as a lead in to all the other material I’m going to have here in coming days about the kind of learned mayhem that was Tales of the Cocktail 2011.

It is odd to kick off a discussion of a critical business tool with the hope that your customers will steal it. But that was precisely the tack taken by Angus Winchester and Sean Finter in their Pro-Session, The Menu, at this year’s Tales. Their contention is that the menu is the most important piece of paper, perhaps the most important implement in a craft cocktail establishment. It is integral to customer satisfaction, to a smooth operation, to marketing, and most importantly to profitability. And it is often the result of great sweat, toil, and inspiration. Finally, many craft cocktail bar menus not only don’t accomplish what they were made for, they actually achieve the opposite.
I’ll get back the “stealing” issue in a bit. Before you worry about your menu growing legs, you need to be sure that it grows profits.

Menu writers all too often create a menu, then tailor operations to suit that menu. This can have negative consequences in many ways, and is a backwards approach to the issue. Angus asserted that “90% of cocktail menus are designed to fail”, because they are not a serious representation of the product the bar actually needs to sell to be successful.

First, many cocktail menus are simply too large. This can be a problem in several ways. It can require a bar to have to stock too many ingredients, many of them perishable. It can take up too much of a customer’s time, time they could be generating revenue. “Are you a bar or a library?” asked Sean. It can be so long that customers will give up and order most drinks from the first page, or they might just order something else entirely, throwing off your expected sales mix. It can also overtax your POS system and prevent you from properly analyzing sales to see not only what is actually selling, but whether you are maintaining good operational efficiency.

But the biggest problem with an overlarge menu is this: While the top 20% of your staff will happily and easily execute a long list to perfection, the bottom 20% will not. There is no worse thing to happen with a menu than for one of your staff to make anything on it wrong. Wait, yes there is, they could tell the customer that they don’t know how to make it. When I mentioned this on Twitter during the session, I got heavy, immediate feedback from all over the country. Agreement was very strong. If this has ever happened to you as a customer, you should already know how important it is to ensure this never happens on your watch as an owner or manager.
Simply put, you must ensure that you don’t get carried away and make your menu for elites, be they elite customers, or elite staff. Only when you craft your offerings to suit the desires of your customers, and the abilities of your staff, can the menu drive profits for you.

The other point stressed most by Angus (and while some might find it debatable. I don’t), is that too many bars are too in love with their own creations, to the point that that is all their menu consists of.
Too many of your rank and file customers will reject a menu filled only with choices they have never seen or heard of, and will go off menu to order. The more guests order from your menu, the faster your operation, the happier the customers, and the more accomplished your staff will become. Both Angus and Sean contended that you could conceivably have a menu that encompasses the only drinks you offer at all, just as with restaurant food menu. I understand the idea here, but as a customer type, I’d likely be fairly hacked off by this approach.

The old classics are still around for a reason. They are really good. Use them as a touch point for
customers to give cred to any originals you do decide to employ.

“There are maybe fifteen drinks created in the last twenty years in the entire world that will still be around in another twenty,” contended Angus. It is damn near impossible to create a menu filled entirely with originals that will hold up for any length of time. Most bars which want to feature only “signature drinks” don’t understand the real meaning of that phrase. You may view it as your favorite creation, something that identifies you to you. But if you sell only three a night, while you move a sea of your take on an old classic, your customers will see that as your signature. If the world beats a path to your Manhattan, it doesn’t matter that is was invented 140 years ago.

The session was packed with far too much good advice to relay it all here, so I’ll finish with several critical elements that they highlighted.

Language is important. You can allow no typos, no grammatical errors. (You menu is not a blog post.) Hire a professional editor at the very least. Sean and Angus likened the quality of writing on your menu to the cleanliness of your bathrooms. If either is, um, untidy it will turn off many of your customers outright, and leave the rest at least subconsciously doubting you and your product.
Still on the language, Use evocative descriptions. Talk about the flavors in a cocktail, rather than name-dropping a bunch of ingredients that many customers will not be equipped to evaluate. Just because you know the difference between Angostura and Peychaud’s Bitters, doesn’t mean that all (or most) of your customers do.
Finally, you need to choose a balance in how much you write on a menu. Many menus include meaningless factoids, even at the expense of useful information, while others are so terse that they convey no real information at all. Try to create a conversation in some instances, but never a rambling one.

Take lessons from restaurant menus. Every customer need their own, and needs it virtually as they sit down. Your menu does you no good being presented only on request. And if it is made a part of their greeting, the customer will be far more likely to respect what’s on it as being what they should choose from.

Consider offering an array of drinks with a wider range of prices. Many customers who experience sticker shock on first entering a craft bar may feel a lot more adventurous about that eleven dollar cocktail after they’ve first had one of the $6.50 highballs next to it on the menu.
Also, you need to go deeper in your analysis as you set your prices. A simple focus on gross profit of X percent over your cost of ingredients will not properly price a drink. Consider a drink that you serve in a relatively fragile stem cocktail glass. It is going to cost ruinously more over the long haul than another you put in something more sturdy like a thick double-old-fashioned. And a “cheap to make” Moscow Mule will end up losing you a ton if you forget to factor in the theft rate of all those copper mugs you employ in your revivalist frenzy.

And that brings us back to wanting your menus to be stolen. A great menu is a great business card for a bar. If your customers walk off with it, they will have a reason to talk about you, to remember you, and to come back to try something else on that document. Not all menus are cheap enough for you to employ this strategy, of course. Go ahead and keep good tabs on the leather-bound, brass-accented tome you put out there. Conversely, others are produced too simply or cheaply to really become worth stealing, much less become a keepsake.
As a bar owner, all these decisions are yours, but the real takeaway from this seminar is that your menu will drive the profitability of your craft bar… in one direction or the other.

{Originally posted on July 21, 2011, here.}


  1. Daniel Cruz

    26 July

    Superb post, sir. Thanks for your work and to help those that weren’t there to have a top line overview of all. Dani

      (Quote)  (Reply)

  2. Evan

    27 July

    Thanks for the summary – good writeups of these Tales seminars are much appreciated by those of use that couldn’t attend Tales.

      (Quote)  (Reply)

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