Restaurant and bar operators are likely to invest no small amount of time in curating their beverage menus. After the selection is perfected, staff are then trained in mixing the signature libations as well as classics. But what happens when those menus are removed from the equation?
In a world where menus can now be accessed through various channels like QR codes and mobile apps, some establishments are bucking the trend and opting for a menu-less operation, with the goal of creating a personalized experience to match personalized drinks. While not a widespread trend, concepts, including those in second- and third-tier cities, are dipping their toes in this unusual operating model.
For example, Nashville, Tennessee, now boasts the second location of Attaboy, a cocktail bar that opened in New York a decade ago. The Music City outpost, which debuted in 2017, is operated by managing partner Brandon Bramhall, who spent years working at the New York location before relocating to Tennessee.
Bramhall says operating a beverage program without a menu is definitely not for the faint of heart, especially since it faces challenges the average restaurant or bar does not. But, he adds, the appeal of running a menu-free program comes from the desire to personalize and curate an experience for the guests that can’t be replicated elsewhere.
Attaboy is stringent in other ways, too. It doesn’t stock sodas or energy drinks as mixers, and vodka is nowhere to be found. Bramhall says that’s because the bar wants to serve spirits that have distinctive flavors and characteristics associated with them—not liquors that require mixers and other ingredients to build character.
“We’re not reinventing the wheel,” he says of the drinks Attaboy serves. “We’re just trying to help that wheel turn as efficiently as possible. We’re not the kind of program that is going to have nine-ingredient drinks with three unique infused syrups.”
For Bramhall, cocktails that are too complicated can take away from the customer’s experience in multiple ways. To start, he says cocktails that are overly complicated can alienate guests because such drinks use too many ingredients they may not recognize.
“A big thing for us is the simplicity and approachability of the drinks,” he says, adding that Attaboy avoids the “holier than thou” approach that can permeate the world of cocktails.
Secondly, Bramhall says drinks with too many ingredients take a long time to prepare, and that’s an issue for operations specializing in craft-made beverages. Attaboy has a cap of six people per party and only seats around five-dozen individuals at any given time. This comes out to about one staff member for every 12–15 guests; bartenders are assigned to individual parties, rather than taking the first-come, first-serve approach.
Bramhall adds that the limit of six people per party is intentionally low because ticket times at Attaboy run about two minutes per drink, and waiting more than 15 minutes for drinks is a surefire way to sour a patron’s experience.
Guest education is another important consideration in running a menu-free bar program. Bramhall says it’s not uncommon for someone to order a Jack and Coke as a default. All staff must be well-versed in explaining Attaboy’s unique service model.
“The approach is definitely gentle and patient,” he says, adding that it’s understandable people will order things they could get at most bars. “We wait for them to finish their thoughts because the last thing you want to do is jump down somebody’s throat.”
Although the Nashville cocktail bar has no required experience level, Bramhall says a passion for mixing drinks, a curiosity about the craft, and outside time spent studying spirits is paramount.
Given the knowledge and skill level required to mix on the fly, bartenders should have a working knowledge of classic cocktails, which can act as a base for other drinks. Mixologists must also be trained in the proper techniques, such as pouring and measuring. All in all, it’s a time-intensive process to train staff at Attaboy.
“It depends on the student, but I would say it averages around 60 hours, if not more,” he says. “The knowledge part goes a little further than that.”
The 60 hours is usually broken into two to three-hour sessions. Assuming six-hour shifts, that means it can take 20–30 shifts of additional training before bartenders are ready to start crafting personalized cocktails.
Like Attaboy, Seattle’s Needle & Thread runs a menu-free operation. The establishment is a speakeasy, and customers usually have to make reservations to get into the dimly lit, tightly packed space, which is hidden within its sister restaurant, Tavern Law.
The operation at Needle & Thread is similar to Attaboy; the concept lacks a menu, so bartenders should have an expansive working knowledge of classic cocktails and various liquors.
Similarities aside, the two bars do vary in certain aspects. For one, Needle & Thread will make a guest vodka soda if they request it. The bar also keeps flavor wheels at its tables, which are designed to help customers articulate the sort of drink they’re seeking.
Nathaniel Steinberg, director of operations at Needle & Thread, says getting customers to adequately describe the kind of drink they want can be a little challenging, especially if it’s the first time they’ve been to a bar without a menu to help guide their decisions.
“That’s probably the biggest struggle: getting people to accurately define flavors,” he says. “So, we keep the flavor wheel with the verbs there, and we walk people through [the process].”
Another challenge Steinberg encounters is ordering and stocking ingredients. In a bar without a set menu, knowing what and how much to keep on hand can get tricky.
To ensure the bar’s profitability, he keeps a close eye on weekly liquor costs and communicates with bartenders about specifics, like how much chartreuse can be used in a single drink, and if it’s even necessary. Another way to keep costs lower is to “make your flavor,” as Steinberg puts it, by creating flavored gins, vodkas, and simple syrups in-house.
“Fresh ingredients always taste better than the bottled ones,” he says.
Although cocktail bars like Attaboy and Needle & Thread have been more common in larger cities, both Steinberg and Bramhall believe such operations could be replicated in smaller markets. Ultimately, it all depends on the customers and how adventurous they’re willing to be.
“I think we can go anywhere,” Bramhall says. “I think you just have to know how much you can pull off in your market. You have to read what the demographic is.”
He notes that areas with professionals and families who like to eat out would probably do better than rural markets. And consumer curiosity can be further stoked by the bartenders themselves. Employees who undergo such intensive training tend to be passionate about the art of cocktails—and that enthusiasm can be contagious.
“People really love the idea of having a cocktail that’s just been created for them,” Steinberg says. “And the bartenders take even more pride in what they do because they’re not regurgitating somebody else’s idea—they’re presenting their own.”