Whereas many restaurants would use their bars as "mainly a holding space to get a slight upsell on food," these days, such spaces serve as an extension of the kitchen and chef's vision, says McHugh. "The modern chef is looking to work with the bar manager more, and we're seeing a lot of top name chefs lining up with top name beverage people."
Food offerings at the bar often take shape as simple "snacks," like selections of cheeses, olives and charcuterie, or more elaborate appetizers and small plates off the main menu or as a separate list all on its own. As a result, McHugh points out, the kitchen and bar must work more in tandem to make this combination work. Changes in bar design will affect kitchen design, if it hasn't already. Operators will need to manage inventory more as a complete unit rather than two separate areas.
And, O'Connor points out, such bars need additional prep space to accommodate more food offerings. That might include added table space or refrigerated prep tables, increased refrigeration and additional sinks. One airport client of O'Connor's installed a small cook line just off the back of the bar. To accommodate a larger food menu the equipment package includes a range, charbroiler and microwave.
"Bar staff training is very different than service staff training," says McHugh. "You can't just take hosts or floor managers and put them behind the bar without any instruction, just as you wouldn't promote someone from the host stand to work in the kitchen. There is inherently a bit of a broken system in most operations because many don't address that huge knowledge gap."
The first step in training staff and managers to know their bar selections is building a list of all the spirits, wines and beers available for purchase or used in drinks; surprisingly the lack thereof is a huge mistake many operators make, McHugh says. Just like special menus, these lists, when printed as menus for the customers and used by servers on the floor also help generate bar revenue in general. For example, McHugh once recommended that a steakhouse present its list of upscale scotches at the bar and with the main menu, rather than simply reserving it for the after-drink selection.
Selecting and/or editing down the liquor selection also impacts spirits merchandising behind the bar as well as sales. This is where menu-engineering and knowing the concept and clientele comes into play.
"I think you have to know who your customers are and know who you're trying to attract and who you will attract with your spirits selection," says McHugh. "You don't' want to throw baby out with bath water; if the place is well known for its banana daiquiris, the key is to make the best one possible and building a program to fit the type of customers coming in."
A $300 bottle whiskey program might not be appropriate for all bars, but having a decent selection of the premium, trending drinks is a good start. Likewise, a Mexican restaurant might look to improve its specialty tequila and Mezcal offerings, showcasing those bottles more prominently behind the bar. Gin and sherry are also seeing a bit of a renaissance these days, says McHugh.
Bars — both freestanding and in restaurants — are the new "it" business in hospitality. "People are beginning to realize that the beverage program is not just a major cost center, but arguably the profit driver for the operation," says McHugh. "You may only sell one high-priced steak to a customer, you're likely to sell more than one drink." The more thought-out, trending those drinks, the higher the revenue. Consultants who realize this can capitalize on this growing opportunity to improve their clients' operations.