David Flaherty is the Beer & Spirits Director at Hearth Restaurant and the Terroir wine bars in New York. A freelance beverage writer, David is also a Cicerone Certified Beer Server, a wine geek, a seeker of fine spirits, a father and a fledgling homebrewer. He blogs at Grapes and Grains.
Hearth and Terroir beer and spirits director David Flaherty
I was recently invited to speak to a class of future restaurant owners and managers at a culinary school in Manhattan. The teacher sent me a pretty solid list of subjects to cover, and one of his questions stood out to me: “What does a successfully run beverage program look like?”
That’s a great question, and one that has a number of potential answers. I spent some time pondering it and came to realize that this just may be the most important question to answer for anyone wishing to make money in this industry, as well as have some serious longevity. In this column, I often dissect small parts of bar operations and look at them in-depth, but I think it's valuable to look at the bigger picture of what elements lead to overall success.
1. A great team
A strong staff is paramount to a successfully run bar program. Their abilities are tied to your fortunes, and they must be invested in. You can fill your bar with the rarest, coolest offerings the world has to offer, but if you don’t have a confident, well-trained and thoroughly educated staff to introduce guests to them, it’s possible those bottles will never see the light of day. Any well-run restaurant or bar is laser focused on teamwork and education. And a benchmark of success for a manager is the enthusiasm and passion his or her staff has. They must be challenged, empowered and encouraged at all times.
We’ve found that slow, steady pressure is a must in training. If you show the staff a new way to open a bottle of wine, you must revisit that again and again until there’s consistency among every single person popping a cork on the floor of your dining room. And above all, you must listen to the ideas and concerns of your employees and take care of them immediately. We operate under the Danny Meyer philosophy: Put your employees first. If they are motivated, inspired and confident, the bottom line takes care of itself.
The items you stock in your bar are a reflection of your tastes, and they need to link seamlessly with your concept. It takes time and money, as well as a skilled beverage professional, to put together a selection of products that spans the range of your guests’ preferences, meets a number of different price points and makes sense for the type of operation you’re running. While a collection of 300 rare Bourbons may sound like a cool thing to have, it ties up a ton of capital in inventory. And if that’s not the type of offering your guests come to you for, then you’ll spend the next 10 years looking at those bottles taking up valuable space in your bar.
3. A moving target
Equally important is that a good beverage program be dynamic and constantly changing. Whether it’s putting on seasonal offerings or simply featuring new drink specials, your guests will take notice and be eager to return to see what newfangled beverage geekery you’ll come up with next. Analyze your sales numbers to track what’s popular over the course of a year; you’ll have a crystal clear sense of what your guests are interested in.
A good beverage program needs to be moving through the majority of its product regularly. If a big percentage of your offerings hasn’t sold, then you need to do some serious soul searching to find out what will move.
While beautifully colored glass bottles and the gleaming faces of the staff are what your guests see, it’s also important to focus on what the guests don’t see: the skeleton of strong systems that holds everything up. The restaurant world is a nickel and dime industry, and if your staff is unknowingly over pouring drinks or serving sloppy cocktails to your guests, your profit is literally going down the drain. In a business where you may be only making 5 cents of profit on each dollar you bring in, you better be aware of how every drop of liquid that comes out of your bar is handled and accounted for. This requires the constant, watchful eyes of skilled managers and solid communication between all members on a team.
If popular items are running low or equipment behind the bar is broken, it needs to be addressed immediately. I can’t count how many times, for instance, I’ve watched bartenders try to pour a foam-free beer by letting the foam just cascade over the glass and down the drain. The bar’s beer system is obviously in need of repair, but no one seems to be the wiser that the profits are in that bubbly foam.
Equally important are the systems that organize your beverages. There can be thousands of bottles back there, and they all need to be counted and inventoried monthly at the very least. The organizing of that information is also vital. Any good beverage director will be able to tell you her cost percentages, her higher-volume selections and which offerings haven’t been asked for in months.
We are constantly looking at what our colleagues are doing with their bar programs. What trends are hot right now? Are we charging similar prices for the same brands? Have they found a way to organize their lists that helps guests to navigate them more easily?
The profit lies in the details. A bar program needs to be run like a marathon: You can get a lot of attention with a sprint right out of the gate, but if you want to come close to the finish line, you’ve got to play the long game. Only through proper training, clear goals and a smart sense of your abilities will you find success.