When to Hire a Cocktail Consultant
"Recipes aren’t worth much if you don’t understand how to put them together and how to prep. We have all seen it: A menu looks great, then you cringe watching the bartenders construct the drinks,” says Josh Durr, founder of Hawthorn Beverage Group.
Cocktail consultants can be a tremendous help in creating or revamping a cocktail menu, but their role is not merely to produce a piece of paper with recipes on it. To ensure that those cocktails actually get served and are enjoyed by customers, both sides of the relationship have additional work to do. The consultant must build the right menu for the venue and for the staff who work there, while the restaurant owners, managers, and bartenders must understand the new menu and be motivated to execute it.
The latter requirement is often the most challenging aspect of the working relationship. Joseph DeLuca was a cocktail consultant for many years before deciding to accept a job with a distributor. “I left consulting because I honestly could not stand to take someone’s money when they wouldn’t take the advice that they paid for; it kept me awake at night,” he says.
DeLuca says that sometimes a restaurant’s employees were uninspired to do the work that comes with learning to prepare new drinks, but as a consultant he was unable to require them to do so. “Ensuring staff investment is the job of the management staff. Staff ‘buy-in’ is in their hands,” he says.
Beyond that, he says both the bartending staff and their managers could feel threatened by an “expert” so they work to undermine the process, fail to order the necessary ingredients to make the drinks, hide the menus, et cetera. “They often see the consultant as an extension of the management team instead of as a coach and teacher,” DeLuca says.
Aidan Demarest of Tello Demarest Liquid Assets, whose clients have included The Los Angeles Athletic Club and The Raymond 1886, says that sometimes clients want cocktail programs that are above the skill level of the staff, which can lead to failure as well.
“We always recommend that potential clients do some research at bars and restaurants they admire, so they can see the level of detail and tool and training required to really upgrade or create a cocktail program,” he says.
But Demarest has found a few ways to help align the goals of the client with those of the managers in place. He says, “Money is generally a great motivator, and if we have been brought in it’s probably because the operation is not making what it should. We reinforce the idea that not only does this new program mean you’ll still have a job, but also that it’ll be a better one. We have worked on projects where the manager or GM was not on board with the new concept, usually because no one wants to do more work for the same money. So we have asked the owners to implement a bar sales bonus if there isn’t one in place. We also ask for their input and creativity, so that it is their project, too. This motivates the GM or bar manager to make the new bar program work. “
Jacob Grier of Portland, Oregon, has consulted for brands as well as restaurants. He says, “On a successful project, you work with the client to create a program that’s tailored to their needs, sustainable, and profitable—and hopefully you learn from the experience too. One of the most important considerations is how experienced and knowledgeable their staff will be. It’s also vital to consider the physical space. Does it have room for a lot of bottles, for efficiently making complex drinks, or for different kinds of ice?”
Like Demarest, Grier says that working with the client to take advantage of their expertise results in a consultation that’s more like collaboration. “Consulting on Mi Mero Mole (Portland, Oregon), I learned a lot about Mexican cuisine from owner Nick Zukin. He introduced me to new ingredients and I worked to incorporate them into the cocktail menu,” he says.
While consultation contracts nearly always include training for the servers and bartenders, a two-hour session before unleashing a new cocktail program just isn’t enough to ensure success. Josh Durr says, “If the client isn’t willing to have their staff undergo technique and classics training first, you’re dead at the starting line.”
Durr’s current project involves training bar staff on jiggering, stirring, shaking, dilution, temperature, classic cocktails, and mise en place. He says that for future clients, he is going to require this thorough staff training in his contract.
And while training before menu launch is important, consultant-supported upkeep can ensure success for the longer term. Demarest says, “We learned the hard way that building a program and then leaving it behind isn’t the best, and also could be a detriment to our reputations. Now we have four to six months of post-maintenance (in the contract), with the hope that the bar can take the baton and run with it after that.”
Raising the Bar
Jean-Philippe (JP) Cote is the manager of San Francisco’s legendary tiki bar the Tonga Room, which historically has been known as much for how terrible the drinks were as for how spectacular the venue is.
“When I came here I noticed that they were using sub-par products and the menu was probably the same for a couple decades. We were not using fresh juice; we were not using homemade syrup. All the drinks used the same rum. I don’t know if [previous managers] were scared to attack the project or worried to take this challenge on their own, but that’s one of the reasons I decided to go to a consultant.”
Cote hired Danny Ronen from Kathy Casey Liquid Kitchen, a global agency that works with the Fairmont hotels on training and education programs. “Danny is well respected in the city and in the community. He’s also a great ambassador for us,” Cote says.
Ronen and Cote reduced the number of cocktails on the Tonga Room’s cocktail menu from 21 to 10, implemented a fresh-juice program, started using high-quality mixers, and expanded the selection of rums used in the drinks and offered behind the bar. Yet they didn’t change the drink prices from the previous menu.
Still, not all of the staff embraced the change, and they lost at least one employee. Cote says, “You have to expect that and be ready. The focus needs to be on the quality of the product. Some people had a hard time understanding why we did it, especially the older employees. I told them: ‘The goal is to have the place open for another 70 years. The bar menu is a living document.’”
Cote says the ingredients they use now are more expensive, but the increased sales more than make up for it. “Our Mai Tai sales are skyrocketing. We are selling a lot more cocktails—instead of selling one cocktail per person, now we sell two or three. Before it was one sugary cocktail, then they would switch to beer or Gin & Tonic. Now we can retain those patrons…it was a lot of effort, but the end result is pretty amazing.”