Bar Institute Classes: Menu Development

Bar Institute Classes: Menu Development

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)

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

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.


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