Cocktails and Dreams: Key Steps to Better Bar Design in Today’s Craft Cocktail Age

The key to maintaining speed of service without compromising cocktail quality requires a well-thought out bar design and the correct battery of equipment and glassware.

With profit margins tightening in the hospitality industry, restaurants and hotels continue to place a much keener focus on their bars and their potential to boost business overall. Combine that with a continuing desire for fresh, hand-crafted cocktails, craft beer and sharable snacks, and in some cases, bars have become their own mini-businesses within bigger businesses.

As a result, foodservice designers already have a lot on their plate, but they find a need to learn more about bar design – or reach out to bar consultants – as restaurants continue step up their beverage-facing game.

“Guest expectations are higher today than ever before,” says Rich Fogel of Bar Starz, a beverage operations and systems consultancy. A 30-year-veteran of the bar business and a prolific consultant for major hotel and restaurant operations worldwide with a specialty in high-volume programs, Fogel made his comments during the Spring 2016 conference hosted by FCSI-The Americas in Nashville.

Just like restaurants, the biggest challenge bars face today has to do with efficiencies. Hand-crafted cocktails may be a huge draw still, but with many steps and ingredients, they can take more than several minutes to make. At the same time, customers want their drinks faster. So what can operators do?

FE&S followed up with Fogel to get some additional insight on how to design bars that enhance speed of service without compromising the quality of hand-crafted cocktails customers command. 

Pre-Design Development

Ideally, the operator and bar – or in some cases, the foodservice designer - will determine the nature of bar program and the cocktail menu before finalizing any design. Sound familiar, designers? Often kitchen designers will point out that getting them involved sooner in the process can help prevent massive changes and complications later in the process. The same applies to bar design.

“The standard process right now is to build the space and then define the product to be served, but ideally, you want to determine the product or program first,” says Fogel. “You need to ask, what type of drinks will we serve? Is it a lobby bar, a restaurant bar or another type of bar? What’s the volume associated with it?”

This is where designers and consultants can step in to help. For those already involved early on the design, now is the time to offer some guidance for the operator in terms of the bar, or call on a bar consultant for additional support.

Design Phase

After establishing the bar’s identity, the next decision is determining the shape, from a shotgun style to a 3- or 4-sided bar, to a ½ island or a curved bar. Shotguns are the most typical but offer less opportunities for social interaction like a three- or four-sided bar. Three- and four-sided bars are popular these days, but one challenge is the restocking difficulties they present. Curved bars have great visual design appeal, but, as Fogel points out, “most equipment is square.” This leaves many gaps where liquid and debris can collect.

Designing for hand-crafted cocktails means allocating space that places all of the necessary tools, ice and liquor in front of bartenders so they don’t have to turn their backs on the customers. Just like in foodservice, bar customers want to see the action, they want to interact with the bartender and watch their drinks being made. Transparency and showmanship play key roles in the hand-crafted cocktail experience.

“More bars will also add a pint rinse to the space so the bartender can rinse their tools and shakers and not have to turn to run them through a three comp sink or dishwasher,” Fogel says.

When it comes to the back bar, the positioning of shelves is important. “Most bars don’t like their staff using a step stool because it’s a risk management issue,” says Fogel. Working bottles should be easy to reach, with higher shelves used only for display and merchandising.

And while some glassware displays are acceptable, liquor bottles should be the main thing presented on the back bar because “the bar is not in the business of merchandising glassware,” he says.

Nice Ice

Another important consideration in a hand-crafted cocktail program is the use of ice. Many bars will use large cubed or sphere-shaped ice made from molds for the finishing ice. Because there is so much use of this type of ice, Fogel recommends installing a door or drawer freezer to house the cubes.

To make the sphere ice, some bars will use cutters to carve the shape out of a larger cube. Regardless of the method, it’s important to have extra ice ready to go in the freezer and make regular batches. “It looks really bad when you have eight or nine people all come in together and they all want scotch or bourbon at the same time and the bartender has to start handling the ice to order,” says Fogel.

For regular ice that’s meant to be used in a shaker to chill a drink while it’s mixing, Fogel recommends a well setup where the ice bin is in the center and there’s extra space for the syrups and juices and other mix-ins. Some bars will hold the juices in small bottle racks hung on the inside of the ice well to keep them chilled.

And he recommends against pass-through ice wells. “If you have servers accessing the ice and a glass breaks, then you both the bar and the floor goes down at the same time,” he says.

Natural Mixers

The days of the premade sour mixes are way over. Now most bartenders would rather juice their own lemons, limes and other citrus for their cocktails, or at least buy them fresh and pre-juiced from a distributor, if available.

As a result, bars need to make more space for electric juicers, racks and refrigeration to all the bottles of fresh juices and even homemade syrups and tonics.

Many bars also use fresh herbs in their cocktails and will often display them on the bar top. Fogel recommends pulling the leaves off in advance and then using fruit caddies to hold the herbs with ice so they stay chilled and fresh. Ice baths or spray containers with water can help keep herbs fresh during service.

“We typically will display the herbs on the bar in sealable mason jars but have a separate refrigerator for backup fresh herbs and juices right at the bar rather than in the kitchen so you don’t have bartenders running to the back to get what they need,” he adds.

Selecting Glassware

When selecting glassware for a handcrafted cocktail program, Fogel determines the size of the glass based on the drinks offered and the portion sizes. Typically, he’ll end up with two main glasses – a rocks and a taller glass that doesn’t have to be filled to the brim – and then continue to work backwards.

He might add another larger, 16-ounce beverage class, and some coup glasses that can be used for crafted cocktails and also martinis, chilling them in a refrigerator. “You don’t want to put nicer glassware in a mug froster because it can become brittle and break,” Fogel says.

Craft Beer

Many craft cocktail-focused bars also serve craft beer. But there’s a method to the design madness with this as well.

“Many bars will put the drafts on the back bar, but this takes up previous inventory and causes the bartender to turn their back on the customer every time,” Fogel says. “If you put draft beer on the back bar, you’re likely going to start pushing something else out of the way.”

Nameless taps can cause problems, too. While they make for a sleek presentation, they can hinder speed of service because customers will constantly ask the staff what beers are on tap when they get to the front of the line. “Customers should know what they want by the time they are ready to order, otherwise you’re not cranking drinks out and making money,” Fogel says.

At the end of the day, it’s all about speed of service, Fogel reiterates. Even with a craft cocktail program, bars have to be careful about their design and even the menu, in order to make money out of the whole experience. “Rather than 15 hand-crafted cocktails, I’ll suggest just five, or maybe recommend making the drinks simpler,” Fogel says. “At a busy bar, if it already took 10 minutes for the server to get to the table no one wants to wait another 10 minutes to get their drinks made. And the customer in the group who just ordered a glass of wine will have to wait, too.”

Bar design, just like restaurant and foodservice design, is all about mathematics and equations. When you take the emotion out of the process and analyze the nitty gritty, that’s the difference between serving 40,000 cocktails in a day – and consistently well - or not being able to pay the bills. And with bars being such the focus of new spaces these days, understanding or at least making an effort to learn bar design can mean getting the business – or not.

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