Does Your Bar Have a Star?

Nathan Rawlinson

Why a head bartender is essential to a successful cocktail program.

If a drink menu is out-of-date or overly-simplistic and the bartenders can’t speak intelligently about the cocktails, I know two things about a restaurant: That there is no lead bartender in place, and that I’ll be ordering a beer.

A head bartender greatly increases the chances of the bar program garnering press, popularity, and profit in a full-service restaurant. He ensures the quality and consistency of drinks and service, keeps the selection of spirits fresh and interesting, educates the other bartenders about the program and about cocktails and spirits in general, and changes the drink menu seasonally or as needed.

Between 2005 and 2011, the New York restaurant Eleven Madison Park improved significantly, replacing its chef, some management, and the general level of food and service. This gained them two Michelin stars (three as of 2012), yet they served only half as many covers in 2011 as they did six years before. However, wine sales remained the same as in 2005 (meaning they doubled per diner) and cocktail sales increased by an astonishing 800 percent.

“We’re not taking away from wine or food sales, we’re filling in gaps,” says Leo Robitschek, the person responsible for the cocktail program’s success.

Robitschek says that diners who may have previously stopped for a cocktail elsewhere before or after dinner are enjoying them in-house; the bar now attracts before- and after-dinner diners from other restaurants; and many people just stop in for the famous cocktails independent of dining plans. It’s a win all the way around.

John Inserra, senior vice president of Restaurant Operations for Kimpton Hotels, says that having a head bartender is a key ingredient for success when opening a new restaurant. He says, “All of our new projects start with a lead bartender—having a specific personality behind those bars also builds a following that is more grassroots and less corporate-feeling.”


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