As bartenders, part of our job is to help customers figure out what they want to drink. If it’s a beer, we can ask if they want lager/ale, hoppy/smooth, etc. Wine can be narrowed down by what they plan on having for dinner, or simply what they’re in the mood for. Most of the time they’ll have the Malbec because they had one at their friend’s house and all Malbecs are the same and most wine drinkers are experts and how dare you try to educate them on something new. Most people are receptive to new flavours and ideas, but there are still some ingredients that are a hard sell on some people. Try telling a cocktail virgin you’re going to use Jagermeister and egg whites in their cocktail and watch their face.
I work in a city of 100,000 people, a couple hours from the nearest ‘big city’. We don’t get out much. We have one cocktail bar, and we’ve noticed some real adjustments. Recently, Victoria, BC’s Shawn Soole was in Calgary to talk about Creating Cocktail Culture in a Small City, a subject he’s also presenting on at Tales of The Cocktail this year. I saw him talk about a similar topic a few years ago with Jeffrey Morgenthaler at Art of The Cocktail in Victoria. Under Shawn’s tutelage, Clive’s Classic Lounge was twice nominated for World’s Best Hotel Bar at TotC’s Spirited Awards where he was also nominated for International Bartender of the Year. He opened Little Jumbo and helped kickstart cocktail culture in a city of 80,000.
Here are a few of his key points on opening a cocktail bar in a small market, (shared with his permission.)
Build on the Classics
People in small markets are just starting to hear about the classics that are leading the way for the craft cocktail revival. They want to find out what all the fuss is behind the Old Fashioned, the Manhattan, etc.
Perfect these drinks before you confuse people with your signature menu of weird bitters and infusions and science experiments. These are all fun things to do, but ease them into it. Make sure all of your bartenders consistently make the drinks the exact same way so nobody gets a bad one and goes back to Screwdrivers and refuses to look back.
As for classics, make sure they’re approachable. If your new customer is normally a Bud drinker, don’t try to convert them to a Negroni. Yes, we all know how great Negronis are, but you have to crawl before you Negroni. Start with an Old Fashioned, then guide them through other whiskey drinks, then maybe arrive at a Boulevardier a few visits later.
If your new friends are used to paying $5 for a premixed Long Island, they’re not going to be cool with giving you $14 for a 5 oz coupe of anything.
Sure, you use the highest quality spirits and it takes time to make such masterpieces, and the bitters were handmade at a Swedish apiary, but they don’t care about all that. It’s a drink to them. Yes, they will be impressed with the taste, but they’ll say they had one, then go back to the beer because they’re not a Rockefeller. So take a hit on a few loss leaders. You might have to hit a 35% liquor cost, but people will be learning about new drinks and will be more apt to spending more on fun new things.
A $10 Clover Club isn’t going to bankrupt you, so make some cheaper daily features and have them find their way to the 20% money makers so you can breathe easier. If they just don’t like it, have a full take back policy. You don’t want to offend anyone by being snooty because someone didn’t like your recommendation. Not everyone likes Fernet. (I know, right?)
Build clients and charge accordingly as the culture grows in your city, but don’t devalue yourself. You can’t compete with the chains and their prices, so don’t make everything bargain basement prices. Try using less expensive ingredients like sherry or vermouth to offset those loss leaders.
If you want to get your local public to appreciate cocktails, you have to get them to appreciate what goes in them. That starts with training your staff, thoroughly and ongoing. Get them reading and active in their bar community. Share recipes and ideas with other bartenders, get in good with the industry who will steer people your way and advertise for you.
Bars are community organizations, and the more, the merrier. Hold tastings and seminars that the public can attend, and often. Everyone loves tastings, the freer the better.
Reps want to get their product out there, you want people in your bar, and people want new, free stuff. Win win win. Use your reps as much as you can, there’s no harm in asking. The worst they can do is say no. It’s not like they’ll stop working with you because you want to feature their product. Squeaky wheels get the booze. This also helps build a loyal client base of people who will invite their friends, as you shouldn’t be advertising. You have more important things to spend your money on, like bringing in some big names to come do a guest shift or a presentation. (But ask reps to help you with those, too.)
I know it just said not to advertise, but you should be on social media, obviously. Morgenthaler stressed not to advertise, and you shouldn’t pay for it. But you should be on every free social medium, every day. Utilize your local media in any free way you can. Local papers will often do a story in the business section on new businesses. Invite radio personalities via Twitter for some drinks. This will get them talking on air about how awesome your place is, without paying for commercials. It works. Paying for radio and print advertising doesn’t.
Once things come together and good things are happening, you can’t sit back and think you’ve made it.
You probably have investors who want higher numbers, and if you don’t want to be as successful as you can, then why are you doing it? For the love of it? That’s very honourable, but also bullshit. It’s not just financial success that matters, long term quality can also define success. We’ve all seen places that start off like the next big thing but are passe a year later. You have to work twice as hard to prove you’re half as good, and when you think you’re done, work harder and longer.
There really is no time for a rest, but it will all pay off, and maybe you can take a weekend off in a year or so. But don’t you just love it?
Nobody said opening a bar would be easy, but it’s that much harder to be the first. Do your homework, stick to your guns, and don’t give in. Accommodate and adapt to your customers, but stay unique. If you give them a Bud and a bar-lime Long Island, what’s going to get them to come back?