Chef’s Club by Food & Wine

Beyond Happy Hour: Bar-Driven Programming

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Special events and bar-driven programming can make your restaurant a destination from open to close.
By Camper English March 2014 Bar Management

A full-service restaurant isn’t the most obvious or easiest place for bar-driven event programming, since it must serve the needs of the dining area first and foremost. But even if the bar isn’t the anchor of the venue, bar-driven programming can promote the restaurant, bring guests in during quiet hours, establish the expertise of the bar staff in a spirit or cocktail category, and keep a sit-down restaurant so full there is standing-room only.

Of course, the traditional way to bring in customers during the slow hours before dinner is to offer Happy Hour specials on food and drink. However, there are other ways that the bar can offer promotions without compromising the restaurant’s vision and service. Bar-driven events and specials can take place in the bar area, in a separate lounge, in private dining rooms, or even be self-directed from restaurant seating.

Educational Events

At Lincoln Restaurant in Portland, Oregon, Chef Jenn Louis and her husband/bar manager David Welch offer short classes they call Bar Camp. Unlike most classes at bars, these are free (held during pre-service hours), and range in topics from how to stock a home bar to the history of the cocktail to how spirits are made. For an additional fee, Louis serves a family-style meal paired with cocktails made by Welch. They say the classes are a great way to capture new guests who otherwise may not know about Lincoln or their other restaurant, Sunshine Tavern.

Similarly, Mercadito restaurant in Chicago is using its lounge to hold both multi-week mixology classes and competitive hosting events at different times. And in San Francisco, agave-centric restaurant La Urbana hosts monthly mezcal educational sessions in its casual lounge area at 5 p.m. A small fee includes a tasting and an educational session with a mezcal producer or importer, who speaks about their products and the category in general.

In Pittsburgh, Braddock’s American Brasserie hosts an event called Whiskey Wednesday. Each week during Happy Hour, three bourbons or Scotches are offered as one-ounce tasting samples for a special price. These are based on education-friendly themes such as three products from one company, or three single-barrel bourbons. A local whiskey expert shares facts about the whiskey or category as guests sample it. The program has been so successful that the restaurant has begun hosting whiskey-pairing dinners as well.

Manager Eric Brown says, “Whiskey Wednesday has created a whole field of regulars for Braddock’s. They come for the whiskey and stay for the food.”

Pairing Dinners Led by Special Guests

Kate Bolton, bar manager and a partner at Maven in San Francisco, is an expert on food and beverage pairing, as every item on the menu is accompanied by a recommended cocktail and beer or wine. However, the busy venue still hosts specialty wine and spirits pairing dinners, and often these are led by special guests. Maven recently hosted one sponsored by St. George Spirits, for which Bolton paired five of the distillery’s spirits with a five-course dinner. Even without a separate private dining room in the venue, they are able to accommodate brand representatives by having them walk around to interact personally with the diners who booked pairing reservations.

Guest bartenders are also a popular draw for special events. Fast Food Français (F3) in Sausalito, California—a full-service restaurant whose only relation to fast food is a nod to American classics like burgers and fries—featured guest bartenders Brian Felley and Mo Hodges from nearby San Francisco for two pop-up events in 2013, with plans for more this year. The bartenders created a mini-menu of seasonal drinks for the evenings.

Co-owner Bruno Denis says, “Many of our clients are regulars and dine with us a few times a week. We decided to host this series on Sunday evenings to offer these regular clients a different experience at F3. Different bartenders and cocktails change the vibe of the bar and the atmosphere for our guests. So far it’s been a great success in reminding our regulars about the potential for F3 to be a casual place to grab a cocktail, whether or not you’re looking for a formal dining experience.”

Guest-bartender events have become particularly effective in cocktail-centric restaurants, with mixologists from other well-known bars or restaurants doing a takeover of the bar for an evening. The restaurant promotes the event, a special mini-menu is developed, and the guest bartender serves cocktails while the house staff supports her. These events, too, are often supported by brands that might host the bartender and provide product for use in drinks on the special menu.

Self-Guided Flights and Cocktail Clubs

Executive bar director Anthony Bohlinger at Chefs Club by FOOD & WINE launched the Thursday night Aspen Cocktail Club in collaboration with Justice Snow’s Restaurant + Bar and Jimmy’s, An American Restaurant & Bar—all three restaurants located in Aspen, Colorado. Each week, the Aspen Cocktail Club chooses a different spirit as the theme, and each venue creates two specialty cocktails featuring the spirit. Throughout the evening, the beverage teams share history and education on the chosen spirit, along with recipes and serving tips. Guests may visit any or all of the three locations throughout the evening.

Chris Simmons, The Pony Room bar manager at Rancho Valencia Resort and Spa in Rancho Santa Fe, California, introduced a tequila and mezcal specialty program called the All Agave Project in 2014.

The program has two parts. The first is a paid membership into the All Agave Club that includes an introductory gift bag of Agave Project merchandise and discounted monthly seminars where tequila brand representatives present tequila knowledge and tastings.

The second part is called the Tasting Tour, which features a personal tasting book kept behind the bar in which guests can track and take notes on the agave spirits they’ve sampled at the bar. When they reach 100 samplings, their name is added to a special trophy that is kept in the bar.

Other restaurants have featured similar programs including the Tequila Passport Club at TRES and the Blue Agave Club at Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant, both in San Francisco.

Liberty in Seattle, a casual neighborhood bar and restaurant known for its expansive, excellent spirits selection, offers changing flight specials on inserts to its cocktail menu. Co-owner Andrew Friedman says, “We pick the subject of the flight from either a cooperative effort with a brand, or, we pick something that we want to move and we do that by having a flight for these bottles, priced anywhere between $10 (sponsored) to $50 when it’s something more expensive like a Japanese whisky or mezcal.”

The inserts contain information such as regional details about where the spirits are produced, but Friedman doesn’t believe in giving out tasting notes. He says, “I let them find their own way through the spirit. Really, we educate them with a quick and basic primer, and then move in closer if it appears that they want more info. And guests are able to take the insert with them when they leave.”

The feasibility of hosting special cocktail programming at a full-service restaurant, and what works best in each location, depends on the available dedicated bar space, the education and experience level of the bar staff, and the quality of connections with brands. But with a little bit of effort and ingenuity, there is something that can be done at any restaurant.