Behind the Bar Bar Talk

Callooh Callay’s Richard Wynne on Building a Compelling Food Menu for Your Bar

Bar food used to mean little more than a dusty bowl of peanuts poured into a bowl or (if you’re lucky) a bag of stale chips and some dip. Oh, how times have changed. Today, tipplers expect cocktail programs to serve up a menu of meticulously prepared snacks, from sliders to pot stickers, as accompaniments to their liquid creations, matching the nuance of the drinks beat-for-beat.

Richard Wynne, the celebrated owner of Callooh Callay and Little Bat in London, knows a thing or two about developing a thoughtful, practical dining menu for the bar. Below, Wynne talks about the bottom line, keeping a laser focus on drinks over food, and the time he tried to unsuccessfully sell sushi.

Heirloom tomato salad at Little Bat.

1. Keep the food menu part of the overall concept.

“As an owner, one (of course) wants to make money, but it’s about putting together a food menu that understands the customer. In other words, you have to make sure that the food menu fits in with what you’re doing, as well as tasting good and hitting targets. I once launched a sushi menu at Callooh Callay, which was the worst type of food for a bar like that. Not only did it not go down well with our customers, but the wastage was so high that it was completely unsustainable.”

2. Remember that you run a bar, not a restaurant.

“The main aim for a bar food menu should be to make people drink more. When we improved the food menu at Little Bat, it doubled turnover within two weeks. That wasn’t such a big deal—going from $650 to $1,300 a week still hardly covered the costs. But when it made people stay for three drinks instead of just two, we saw our wet turnover increase by 30 percent, which was a huge deal. It’s really important that food makes people want to stay and drink. You’re a bar, after all. The kitchen in a bar should break even, but that’s it. If your food sales are any more than 20 percent, you need to question what direction the bar is going in.”

The Pan Am, made with white rum, Aperol, orgeat syrup, lemon juice, egg white and Peychaud’s bitters, at Little Bat.

3. Get the right chef in.

“As a bar chef, you need someone who’s happy to have someone else create the menu. In other words, you need someone with just the right level of enthusiasm so that they won’t come to you with this amazing new foam/jus/salsify and are just as happy as flipping burgers as they are cleaning pots and pans.”

4. Staff training is critical.

“If you want to upsell any product, training is key. Your staff plays an incredible role in the running of a service, and they can make the difference between an average week and a great week. If someone orders a burger, the natural upsell is fries. Your staff needs to know what kind of drinks go well with that, as chances are the [customer] won’t have another Martini. A tall, refreshing sour drink will go down nicely [with the burger], and then you can finish them with a Manhattan.”

Scotch eggs with Manhattan ketchup at Little Bat.

5. Add food to your happy hour.

“I detest happy hours and two-for-one deals. They cheapen any brand instantly. It is, however, really important that a bar gets people through the door, especially on quiet days. Food helps with this; somehow, doing a food and drink offer doesn’t cheapen your brand as much [as just a drink offer], and it actually helps you get sales even more.

“At Little Bat, most of our cocktails are $12, but from 6 to 8 p.m., we do any food dish and any cocktail for $20. Our customers love it, since they’re essentially getting a burger at half-price. The problem with happy hour is that you can only drink so much until you’re forced to stop drinking. With this kind of deal, we’re actively encouraging people to eat more, and it therefore lines their stomachs so that they can drink more.”