Why Confusing Cocktail Lists Can Sink Your Restaurant
When Nils Westlind opened the Latin American restaurant Ronero in Chicago’s West Loop last year, the cocktail list featured more than 25 selections, a mix of originals and re-imagined classics like the Pisco Sour. Just a few months later, the list was whittled down to a mere handful of drinks from each of those two sections.
“We had ambitions to be considered a major cocktail-forward restaurant,” Westlind explains. “The name ‘Ronero’ means someone who has mastered the art of distilling rum. However, we began to realize that it was an overwhelming experience for our guests, and too many options led to too many operational difficulties, so we decided to scale back the menu.”
Comprehensive beverage offerings might initially seem like a powerful way to connect with customers, but it turns out restaurants with streamlined, less-perplexing lists make even more of an impact while generating a greater ROI.
Westlind says that the cost-effective shift has “made the bar easier to manage and the speed faster.” Even food costs have gone down slightly because fewer garnishes are needed.
The current menu, which revolves around popular libations like the Boca de Rio (Absolut Elyx vodka, feni cashew liqueur, hibiscus-açai grenadine, lemon, sparkling rosé) and Desierto Florido (Copper & Kings unaged apple brandy, Pisco Mistral, cinnamon, lemon, egg white, Chilean Pinot Noir, rose petals), along with favorites including the Rhum Daiquiri and Caipirinha, resonates with patrons. The list is easier to follow and guests are “more willing to try something a little different as opposed to choosing the familiar Mojito or a Piña Colada. The smaller [selection] gives the bartender or server more opportunity to explain the menu and unfamiliar ingredients to a guest.”
Success in Small Numbers
At Outlook Kitchen + Bar inside Boston’s Envoy Hotel, there are no more than 10 cocktails on the menu. Beverage director Rob Saunders, who also oversees the hotel’s Lookout Rooftop & Bar, says that showcasing bartenders’ talents without the list becoming intimidating to guests is essential. “Our intention has always been to keep it concise, sitting right around eight or nine specialty cocktails,” he says. “This allows us to cover each main spirit to try to be appealing to all consumers.”
When a beverage list is kept smaller, Saunders notes, the restaurant doesn’t “hold as much product in inventory, which allows you the flexibility to change when needed and not be sitting on a large amount of product. Also, pricing these cocktails at a reasonable market value allows you to keep a strong profit margin and your liquor costs in line.”
One of the current bestsellers on the drinks menu is Brian’s Barrel Aged, (Knob Creek bourbon, Ruby Port, Carpano Antica, Cointreau, bitters) served over a sphere of ice, which dovetails with the chef’s food, like the Kurobuta pork chop with pickled mustard seeds and NY strip steak with black garlic and Romesco. “Our chef’s palate is quite impressive, and she has such a keen sense for tasting profiles and combinations that she’s a huge asset for us in making decisions about the menu,” Saunders says. “All of our drinks will be paired with her food, so we need to make sure both menus are sending a similar message to our guests in order for everything to sell properly.”
A similar story unfolds in New York: On the third floor of the Ravel Hotel in Long Island City is the Estate Garden Grill, a grassy beer mecca where burgers and tap brews get the limelight. That’s why beverage director Steve Escobar “wanted to keep the cocktail list pretty tight,” promising that guests weren’t befuddled by choices and preserving the bar’s identity of an all-draught concept. A succinct menu, he says, has “helped turn a profit because there isn’t any waste when it comes to fresh ingredients in drinks that aren’t ordered often.”
The curated list also encourages more sales, because “the less guests have to think about what they’re going to order, the more time they’ll have to actually consume them” and the easier it is when it comes to the second round of drinks. Refreshing tipples such as the Paloma or Summer Peach with vodka and citrus are simple alternatives to, say, a Coney Island Pilsner or Allagash White.
Multi-Unit Scale Demands Simplicity
Shannon Salupo, corporate beverage manager of the Westlake, Ohio–based casual dining chain Quaker Steak & Lube, launched a new beverage program with a smaller drink selection and a storybook-style menu for the restaurants. Before she came on board, the Lube had a larger drink list and, she suggests, “I believe the brand wanted to be all things to all people, and it had begun to lose focus on which customer preferences led to its success. We adjusted the beverage menu to reflect a better connection to our customers—based on feedback we gathered—and emerging beverage trends, like Margaritas and Tiki drinks,” she explains.
Beer, a natural companion to the wings and burgers at Quaker Steak & Lube, accounts for 80 percent of beverage sales. And while cocktails are still relished by some, the old incarnation of the cocktail list, she says, was confusing—not only for diners, but also for bartenders, franchisees, and supplier partners. “I realized simplicity was key to driving beverage sales and increasing the quality of what we offer,” she says.
Some of the drinks, Salupo adds, were neglected, an inevitability with such a massive menu because “the share becomes diluted.” The Mule might be a high-performing cocktail at other restaurants, but Quaker Steak & Lube was selling less than five per week per store. “It was a challenge to determine if that was reflective of the recipe or saturation,” but the drink came off the menu.
Focus was tweaked and, with Margaritas continuing to hold the No. 1 spot as the country’s best-selling cocktail and since they were making a particular splash at the restaurants, Salupo centered the first two pages on the tequila go-to, including a Desert Cactus ’Rita with prickly pear purée. She also included old favorites like the Dayton Daiquiri and Duck Duck Goose, as well as additions like the Jameson Peach Smash (Jameson, peach purée, lemon sour mix, fresh grilled peach) and Shark Punch (choice of Captain Morgan Original Spiced Rum, Cruzan Silver Rum, or Malibu Coconut Rum shaken with banana liqueur, orange, and pineapple juices).
“We’re very lucky to have so many cocktails on the menu that are part of our heritage,” Salupo says. “Margin is always at the forefront when making decisions so we can help ensure our franchisees remain profitable, but we also know consumers are looking for name brands that are perceived as premium yet still sold at a great value. … Our new menu now includes relevant brands that are trending up in restaurant sales.”
The updated format, flaunting photos of 90 percent of the cocktails, naturally draws in guests and is designed in an easy-to-read layout. Salupo says customer feedback, and orders, indicates the menu is something that customers want to pick up and read.