Designing a drink menu is fun, there’s no doubt about that. It’s one of this writer’s favorite parts of opening a new establishment, and it’s one of the best ways for a restaurant/bar to “speak its mind”. Unfortunately, that means you could suffer a terrible fate if your menu planning isn’t executed perfectly. With that in mind, we’ve put together a few ways that you can hack your menu design to make sure the drinks (and cash) keep flowing.
Put High-Margin Items Near the Top
This is one of the most oft-employed tips in the industry. Strategically placing your highest-margin cocktails near the top of your menu is going to boost sales of those very items. Many people (sober or otherwise) simply order the first thing that pops out at them, so it’s a great idea to steer them towards our higher-margin drinks and brews.
Keep it Simple
As enthusiastic as you are about the drinks and beers you serve, try to limit descriptions and drink names to their bare minimum. Not only will this allow guests to order quickly, but if they have any questions, they are encouraged to enter a discourse with the employees. That’s going to create a better, more personable relationship between you and patrons. More simple menu verbiage is a win-win, if we do say so ourselves.
Picture this: one of your cocktails features a .25 ounce pour of house-made, triple-clarified ginger-vanilla syrup with a rose infusion. That’s going to be hours of labor going into a single component of a single drink. On top of that, it’s not exactly a front-row component of that drink in which it’s featured...far from it! This sort of ultra-niche approach to menu design is going to cause you to actually lose money on each of these cocktails sold. Instead, make sure all of your ingredients are versatile and handy enough to play a role in several of the drinks on your menu. And on that note…
Don’t House-Make Everything
You'll see it more and more. House-made is the new homemade. And there’s absolutely a time and place to home-make your ingredients, but let’s give some credit where it’s due. The cocktail renaissance has brought to mainstream a whole world of incredibly high-quality, consistent mixers and ingredients. If you can find one of these, opt for the ready-made over the homemade. While you might save money on the product itself by making it in-house, you’re going to be tossing precious labor hours right into the trash.
Make Pop Music
Think about the last song to top the charts -- was it some musically complex, cultural breakthrough? Or was it an easy-to-digest, universally agreeable piece of good-enough music? Most likely the latter. With menu building, bars and restaurants should incorporate that mentality to some degree. For every spirit-forward, cutting-edge cocktail, you need to include some people-pleasers on the menu too. These pieces of ‘pop music’ will drive sales, and allow you to work on your more obscure works of cocktail art.
Prompt Your Guests
Using your menu to encourage dialogue with the staff is a great way to enrich the customer’s experience. Including things like ‘Ask your bartender about daily specials’ can plant the seed for an amicable bar-to-patron relationship. You hired your staff for a reason, after all -- give ‘em a proper chance to shine!
Skip the Pics
Photos are more trouble than they’re worth. You’ll need to take high-quality pictures of your drinks that can translate to teeny-tiny, dimly lit menus. To do it properly, you’re going to have to hire a professional food photographer (they aren’t cheap). And in honesty, menu pictures very rarely add anything but size to a menu.
Make Multiple Menus for Special Occasions
Holidays and special events deserve special menus. These times of business are often much more hectic than typical nights, so a specialty menu can really help streamline the customer’s experience. Consider making large batches of these special-menu items, and only hand out your standard menu by request. These menus can also get more people through the door on the evenings, by adding to the ‘special occasion’ feel of the evening.
If you can have a dedicated ‘seasonal’ menu, we suggest that. While celebrating the seasons is a fantastic way to stay current and relevant, re-printing expensive menus four times per year is hardly a wise business decision. So, we suggest that your entire menu can be used year-round to avoid this common pitfall. Just avoid putting ultra-seasonal offerings like Egg Nog or Hot Toddies on your menu. Instead, consider making them verbal-only or off-menu specials.
Keep Glassware in Mind
As we stated in a previous article, the Moscow Mule is one of the bar world’s most profitable cocktails. However, it also requires its own special mug that generally goes otherwise unused. To include the ever-profitable Moscow Mule on your menu (in its traditional form, anyways), you’ll need to special order a quantity of barware just to support it. You’ll also need to store and care for the Mule mugs. Keep this sort of thing in mind when designing your menu, and avoid using glasses that only feature in one menu item.
Along the lines of the glassware issue...just be practical. Think about what goes into each cocktail you feature. Are the ingredients available year-round? Are the components able to be consistently and profitably made? It’s important to think about these supply-side issues, as well as the service hurdles a drink may present. Sure, you can R&D (research and develop) a cocktail successfully, but can a bartender realistically make one properly in the middle of a busy Saturday service? While conceptualizing a cocktail is well and good, executing on that idea mid-service is another thing altogether. Be sure all your menu items are both delicious and practical.
At the end of the day, menu-crafting is a fulfilling, creative process. Have fun with it! Enjoy yourself, and create a menu that you love. The process can be a great way to express your own personal tastes, create something new, and speak to the essence of your establishment’s concept. Creating your menu isn’t always easy, but when done properly, it can be a wildly rewarding process -- both financially and creatively.