The ‘experts’ say you have to choose between either high standards or high sales volume, but I’m here to tell you can have the best of both worlds if you’re willing to put in the preparation (and pre-preparation), work hard, delegate well, and embrace technology—all without letting the Yelps of the world get you down.
Growing up at my aunt’s restaurant in Scotland, I was literally raised in the hospitality industry. But it wasn’t until I moved to the bright lights of London that I fell in love with the art of cocktail. Working at landmark bars, like the London Academy of Bartenders (LAB), opened my eyes to the importance of giving every guest the ultimate bar experience, as well as the importance of rigorous staff-training programs. And now that I’m the proprietor and head barman of my own 120-seat watering hole, I’m using those skills to knock down a common misconception that only tiny, low-volume bars can consistently serve up world-class, made-to-order cocktails. Here’s how you can break the rules, too.
Pre-Prepped, Not Pre-Made
This one’s a no-brainer, but your grandfather was right, preparation is the key to success. And I’m not talking about pre-mixing, or making batches, or even par-batching cocktails. For example, we offer a 32-page Book o’ Cocktails menu and feature five types of house-made ice, six different house-infused spirits, and 14 varieties of house-made syrups, sugars, and foam, so we’re constantly prepping ingredients. But we don’t make a single cocktail until it’s ordered, because we want it to be part of the show. An exception to this rule are the likes of our clarified milk punch that we need a few days to make, though we still strive to add some working flair into the mix somehow.
Prepare to Delegate
Preparation also means hiring, training, and empowering dedicated, passionate team members who care as much as you do. You can put everything in place and set it up perfectly, and the minute you walk away, it could be all for nothing if you don’t have the right team. Also, when you are doing everything from scratch and on-site, proper delegation of tasks is vital; it allows you to plan out your schedule to take on tasks throughout each day of the week rather than in one rush before opening.
Design for Success
Our location was built from the bar up. Usually it’s the kitchen that’s designed first, and the bar is more like an afterthought. But here, cocktails take center stage, so we designed to take all this into account. For example, we have a freezer behind all three bar stations; the carbon dioxide system is built into the bar; we have burn faucets and made-to-measure glass shelves. Bar caddies are built above the ice well, and tin rinsers are connected to hot water, to name a few elements of our design. Most importantly everything is mise en place, or in it’s proper place, including ingredients on ice, all within reach.
Be Prepared to Say No
Even though we were fortunate to have high customer demand from the get-go, we decided to limit service to seated guests with no standing at the bar. Some guests complained initially, but we found that’s not only our legal capacity, it’s the sweet spot for our space and the maximum amount three bartenders can handle with such an expanded menu. We could have succumbed to the pressure to offer a smaller, simpler menu and sell an even higher volume, but it’s a fine balance. We also found that this way the service is better, the guests are less crammed, and the bartenders are knocking out top-quality drinks on an acceptable timeframe in a great adult drinking den.
Restaurant apps like Open Table or Seat Me are great for some, but we found No Wait is better for us because it’s first come, first serve, like a digital waiting list. That way the customer’s phone becomes an electronic pager so we don’t need any additional technology or equipment, and I don’t have the problem of someone making a reservation on Open Table, cancelling it at the last minute, and I’m left with an empty table for 30 minutes. We also use Breadcrumb POS systems and Upserve for in-depth analytics to make sure we’re prepping properly to keep the 86ing of items to a minimum, and we’re also staffing efficiently for peak hours. It’s one thing to have a great idea and get a place open, but sustained success requires putting the right systems in place and then incorporating real world experiences and reacting to them.
Use Social Safely
There are so many social media platforms and communication tools that it’s easy to get overextended and stretched too thin. Focus on what works for you and what you can handle personally or delegate effectively. Another key that I’ve learned is it’s not just about promoting your brand, it’s about sharing fun spirits knowledge, education, and other things your guests actually want to read about and share with friends.
Don’t Be Afraid to Shake Things Up
We take craft cocktails and our bar program very seriously back of house, but front of house, you would never guess unless you’re in our industry. At the end of the day it’s about having fun and giving your guest a memorable experience; it’s a combination of everything and not just the drinks. That’s why we created a colorful, hand-illustrated 32-page Book o’ Cocktails to effectively explain our globetrotting cocktail offerings, but it’s also designed to be as much fun to read after you have your cocktail in hand. That’s why we also change it out every year with new cocktails and a new theme—for 2016 it’s old school 8-bit video games.
Freeze Your Ice Not Your Bar Bites
We are a bar, not a restaurant, but that doesn’t mean we can’t serve awesome food. We wanted the food to reflect the drinks, inspired and house-made from scratch, not generic, frozen deep-fried bar bites, so our chef Bob Tam and his team make everything that we can in-house. We let our customers have a say in the menu design by hosting regular tastings called Lucky 8, where we try out new menu items and get feedback on what works, not just what we think people want to eat.