As many restaurants and bars strive to make up lost revenue from the past year-plus and navigate labor shortages, owners and operators are looking for ways to streamline their beverage programs. Across the country, bar managers and beverage directors are employing various strategies like eliminating drinks that aren’t selling, cross-training staff, and offering cocktails on tap to trim budgets.
There’s no clear consensus on the best option for reducing costs and streamlining beverage programs. Where some bars and restaurants prefer to simply cut back on the number of drinks on the menu, others opt for putting cocktails on tap so they can be made in larger batches and avoid the time-consuming and often more costly method of making each drink by hand.
Trevor Tyler, vice president of beverage operations at Eureka! Restaurant Group, says the pandemic is the reason the brand began utilizing cocktails on tap, though it was considering the move prior to COVID.
“We actually were looking at doing it pre-pandemic just from an operational standpoint,” Tyler says. “It’s one more consistent, right? You’re not having to rely on bartenders’ pours and then forgetting to put an ingredient in. It’s just, by far, extremely more beneficial from the operations perspective as far as getting drinks out.”
Eureka, which operates more than 20 locations up and down the West Coast, in Texas, as well as Nevada, currently offers two cocktails on tap. Tyler says the investment into the right equipment to make a proper cocktail on draft can be expensive, but the money it saves on labor and mistakes definitely makes up for any upfront cost.
“The labor benefit draft cocktails provide is probably the biggest thing,” he says. “We try to make each cocktail in under two minutes, so if a bartender is slammed during happy hour, that can get tricky. The cocktails we have on draft are featured at happy hour and that allows us to get more drinks to more people in less time.”
Consistency is another benefit of having cocktails pre-made and ready to serve. Having the cocktails prepared and ready for service eliminates opportunities for mistakes.
“We utilize training videos that break down, step by step, how to make each cocktail, and then we have bar managers running quality checks twice a day—one before we open and one before dinner service,” Tyler says. “Making sure you have the right people and training them properly is key.”
While Eureka leaves the bartending to the front of the house, other establishments take a different approach.
In Greenville, South Carolina, the AC Hotel is home to a duo of dining concepts: Juniper, a rooftop gin bar, and Paloma, a Spanish-American fusion restaurant that offers tapas and cocktails. General manager John Deck believes that cross-training staff to be familiar with multiple jobs is the best way to ensure quality control and an efficient bar program. For example, if Juniper and Paloma are short-staffed, as many bars and restaurants currently are, it can rely on the other’s staff to fill in as needed.
And while training every person on staff to make each cocktail may be more expensive initially, he says, it leads to better retention rates, which saves money in the long run.
“Proper training is what’s going to keep people,” Deck says. “Sometimes you put somebody into a job without proper training, and they leave in a few days because they’re uncomfortable or they don’t know what they’re supposed to be doing. Proper training sets your staff up for success.”
Cross-training staff isn’t the only overlap in the business model. If a specific liquor or ingredient isn’t moving well on the rooftop at Juniper, the bar will send it down to Paloma, based on the ground level, where staff can repurpose the item and create a new cocktail that will be served on tap. Deck says draft cocktails are better suited for Paloma because the customers are more likely to pop in for a quick drink on the ground floor, and the quick turnaround time of draft cocktails fits perfectly with the customer’s needs.
“It’s very cost-efficient; it’s very labor-efficient, especially in these times,” Deck says. “I think it’s a great tool to use, having cocktails on tap. We don’t choose to do that in Juniper, but we do choose to do it in other areas of our hotel just because it is so cost-efficient. When something isn’t moving, we can then move it down into Paloma and try to sell it more efficiently.”
Some of the larger players in the full-service space are sticking to more traditional methods of streamlining their beverage programs. Applebee’s, for example, has decided to scale back its cocktail list to make service smoother for both servers and customers.
“The buzzword that we’ve used all this year is simplification,” says Patrick Kirk, vice president of bar and beverage at Applebee’s. “We’ve really cut the menu down to our core cocktails. There’s only nine currently listed, and those are our slam-dunk drinks, like Bahama Mamas and margaritas.”
Applebee’s has also simplified its beverage menu by cutting back on things like fresh fruit garnishes on smoothies.
“That’s less inventory you need to stock in the restaurant and one less step for the bartender,” Kirk says.
One of the most cost-effective measures the company has taken is cutting back on what Kirk calls “one-off SKUs.” These are items and ingredients that only get used in one drink. Even something as small as not adding sugar to the rims of to-go drinks is a step that saves money.
“What we’re most concerned about is what the customer wants,” Kirk says. “This is a great time for us to assess. Do we have the right glass? Do we have the right mixes? Do we have the right cocktail categories, beers, wines, etc. available to the guest in this current environment?”