Designing Drink Menus
As beverages become a bigger part of restaurant operations, menu design needs to make room for more splashy descriptions.
Ever since the word “mixology” entered the bar and restaurant lexicon, beverages have started to move from sideshow to center stage. This trend shows no sign of slowing, with more restaurants adding show-stopping drinks, and more beverage-centric concepts emerging on the scene. To make sure that drinks get proper billing, we asked some industry experts for tips on using menu design and descriptions to give beverages their time in the limelight.
Tip No. 1: Give them space
Give signature drinks their own menu, says Phyllis Weege, owner of Menu Masters, a menu and marketing specialty company in Pewaukee, Wisconsin.
“Especially when you are devoting some resources to craft beers, wines, and a good mix of cocktails, your drink menu needs its own attention. Don’t tuck it away in another part of a menu. Pull it out, stand it up, and keep it on the table. Having it out at all times increases awareness and sales,” she says.
Weege reports that her corporate clients already know the importance of separate menus and often need to go further, with four-color silk screening, unusual shapes, different bindings, and color photos that grab diners’ attention, can be cleaned easily, and hold up well.
MenuMasters seeks out different materials like plastic, PVC, wood, and synthetic paper that can stand up to food, liquid, and wear and tear. Weege recalls one design project for a place set in a train station in Chicago that used Masonite, old iron nails, and laser etching—fitting the décor of the rustic concept while winning points for durability.
“For an upscale hotel lounge, we recently designed an acrylic folder of drinks that had tabs for sorting sections of spirits based on craft beer, wines varietals, and regions and specialty drinks,” Weege explains. “An ambitious drinks list shows that you are staying on trend. A well organized menu presentation will help educate and keep people curious about your latest offerings.”
Tip No. 2: Stay Organized
For Johanna Corman, who, with her husband David Corman, owns a craft beverage—centric concept in Portland, Maine, called Vena’s Fizz House, the menu is both an educational and an organizational tool. Vena’s menu sorts non-alcoholic drinks into three sections: curatives, restoratives, and digestives.
“These are three historical types of apothecary drinks that people took for different health reasons, like helping to digest a large meal or getting a jolt of energy,” Corman explains. “We spent a lot of our first year with just a chalkboard drinks list and talking with people, letting them taste and answering questions.”
“We use a very old ingredient called phosphates—it imparts more of a feel and a tingle than a taste, so it can be hard to describe. It’s an ingredient used before people used citric acid,” Corman says.
Now that Vena’s has an official, printed menu, the Cormans use it to educate people and give a history lesson on how ingredients and botanicals developed in drinks to be used for medicinal purposes.
Tip No. 3: Use your words
Let flavors and key ingredients guide your menu descriptions, but be descriptive enough to get that extra pizzazz in there.
“Beverage menus need to be more than an ingredient list, which seems to be a current trend,” notes David Commer, president of Commer Beverage, a Lewisville, Texas—based beverage consultancy to the restaurant industry. Commer also spent 13 years as director of beverage at T.G.I. Friday’s. “Of course, the copy needs to include key ingredients, but you also want to be descriptive in a way that acts on feeling and emotion.”
At Vena’s Fizz House, names are a fun way to tap into the overall tone of a drink. For example, the Meadow Cocktail mixes locally produced Back River Gin or Cold River Vodka with lavender simple syrup, grapefruit juice, and bitters. The meadow in the name evokes a meadow of lavender, which infuses the drink. On the booze-free side of the menu, The Kickstarter promises, “No coffee needed. Ginger, blood orange, and heat will get you going.”
Tip No. 3: Stay on message
Having a beverage-focused menu should be approached in the same way chefs approach food. It’s all about the ingredients, Corman says
“At Vena’s Fizz House, we focus on small-batch, local, craft ingredients, and all of our drinks are hand-mixed. We let exceptional ingredients be our focus, and these sources guide everything,” Corman continues. “We make our own syrups and fruit purees in house. We carefully selected our local vendors based on their quality and business practices. They are named in our menu. I get the phosphates from a small vendor in Canada who is the only person who still makes them.”
This dedication to ingredients has helped the Cormans carve out a place in Portland, Maine’s thriving food community, as opposed to getting overlooked as “just a drink place.”
Tip No. 4: Add Talk Value
“The reason operators need a few signature drinks is talk value,” Commer says. “Great drinks give your servers and bartenders something to talk about and your guests something to focus on.”
To show the value of added interest, Commer uses the well-known example of Bahama Breeze. When this concept first opened, they launched with the Bahamarita, a signature frozen Margarita made with Sauza Tequila, kiwi, strawberry, and mango ices and served with a shot glass of Cactus Juice Schnapps hanging off the side of a taller glass.
“The whole staff was able to say, “Have you been here before? You need to try this drink,” Commer explains. The Bahamarita still tops the beverage menu today, where it’s been joined by many rounds of tropical-themed cocktails that help set the tone for this casual Caribbean concept.
Commer also points to Red Robin’s Freckled Lemonade as another concept-leading drink that helped the burger restaurant build a “fun for all ages” brand by offering boozy shakes, skinny cocktails, and monster malts.
And if a menu adheres to these tenets of design, the drinks are given the space to do the talking for themselves.