Behind the Bar The Business of the Bar

How to Create a Drinks Menu That Keeps Costs Down but Keeps Guests Excited

If You Like Piña Colada cocktails at The Williamsburg Hotel in Brooklyn (photo composite: Laura Sant)

Imagine you’re the first-time owner of a new bar that’s about to open. You have a space, a staff, maybe even a theme, but you’ve just about used up your launch budget and need to start earning some cash. The last step: the menu. How do you craft a cocktail list that keeps costs down while getting guests excited?

Creating such a successful menu is one of the most fun but tricky balancing acts in a bartender’s career. After all, rent, payroll and other external factors will remain more or less the same after you’ve opened the bar. But a menu is something you and your staff can change and learn to adapt over time. And throughout the lifespan of your bar, the menu will be a great tool for reducing your overhead costs and increasing profitability.

While there exists no one official philosophy to menu development, it can be helpful to launch a new bar program with a core selection of cocktails that employs different bases (unless you’re a single-focus or single-spirit bar, of course) but still utilizes some of the same secondary ingredients.

“Don’t go over the top from the get-go,” says Steven Tuttle, the beverage director at San Diego’s Kettner Exchange and The Grass Skirt. “Start small and work your way up. Make sure your menu is as friendly as possible and has something for everyone, using a good variety of different spirits to cater to different preferences.”

With that in mind, identify the key flavors you want to have on the menu, be those tropical fruits or autumnal spices. Then experiment. When conducting R&D on your menu, you’ll want to think about real-world execution of each individual drink. The more cocktails your staff is able to make, the faster your table turnover will be, and by extension, the more you’ll make in a night.

“When I start conceptualizing a new menu, I start with larger blue-sky thinking—what spirits, flavors and styles I want to put on the menu,” says Cari Hah of Los Angeles’ Big Bar. “I don’t think about costs or pricing at this point. As I start R&D-ing, that’s when I drill down and figure out how to implement these big ideas in a practical way that’s possible to execute flawlessly. In the middle of a busy service, this will also be price-efficient.”

1. Keep It Simple

In that same vein, there’s an argument to be made for preserving the overall simplicity of a menu, in addition to the drinks, as a means of expediting the guests’ decision-making process. This won’t work for bars that intend to showcase a long list of cocktails as a primary draw, but limiting the scope of your menu can help ensure consistent quality and speed.

“We have five highball specials, five signature cocktails and five Boilermakers; each drink is very unique and conceptual,” says Masa Urushido of Katana Kitten in New York City. “However, the menu reads simple and classic. If we make it easier for a guest to decide what they want, it will take less time to decide what to order. So we execute and serve each drink faster and repeat that cycle.”

Urushido even extends this philosophy to the pricing of his menu. Rather than employ tiered pricing, he keeps everything almost the same between the various drinks. This helps eliminate price from a guest’s decision-making process, allowing them to focus on choosing a cocktail they’ll truly enjoy, rather than choosing one that’s simply less expensive.

“If the price varies, some people might start comparing each drink not based on ingredients or style but based on how much they want to spend, which is far less exciting,” says Urushido. “Some of our drinks are priced a bit higher than others, but the presentation and quality of the drink can justify the difference.”

2. Know Your Neighbors

When setting your prices, you’ll want to first consider the neighborhood your bar is located in and the standard asking price for your location. Be realistic, but don’t shortchange yourself. While staying competitive with happy-hour discounts can increase business during slower hours, your overall goal shouldn’t be to have the cheapest drinks in town.

“Make sure you thoroughly cost out each drink: every ingredient, component and accoutrement,” says Joseph Boroski of New York City’s 18th Room. “Keep in mind it’s not all about making sure your cocktails are priced at or below other bars in town but rather that they’re noticeably better. A premium drink demands a better price, and as long as your guest can tell that it’s superior, they’re often happy to pay the extra amount.”

After you’ve created a menu, you’ll want to collect data on the drinks. Which were the cash cows and crowd favorites? Which were not cost-effective or not ordered at all? When it comes time to change menus, keep these data points top of mind to help ensure subsequent menus showcase your strongest suits.

3. Don’t Fix What Isn’t Broken

If one drink does exceptionally well due to its popularity—think viral Instagram trends—perhaps try leaving it on even as the other drinks change. “I change my menu seasonally,” says Rael Petit, the beverage director at The Williamsburg Hotel in Brooklyn. “But we always keep the If You Like Piña Colada, which is a cocktail made with Singani 63, Kikori whisky, pineapple, lime, coconut and CBD oil, served in a cat cup. It’s our number-one drink, and some guests come here just for the drink.”

Depending on how often you change your menu, remember to take into account seasonality for availability of high-quality ingredients. At the same time, don’t force yourself to revamp an entire menu by a certain date or seasonal timeline.

“Doing menu changes seasonally is challenging in a city like San Diego, where we don’t exactly have seasons,” says Tuttle. “Now, we’re not necessarily limiting ourselves to a date range to make menu changes. However, any changes we do make will most likely reflect seasonal ingredients, because certain ingredients, like produce, are more cost-effective at different times during the year.”

4. Waste Not, Want Not

And swapping fresh ingredients isn’t the only way to save on costs. Be mindful of your spirits inventory, as well. Challenge yourself and your bartenders to create recipes using ingredients of which there’s a surplus. For example, if you ordered a liqueur for a drink that didn’t sell well on your winter menu, find a way to use up the rest of that product in a spring cocktail.

Don’t cut corners when tracking inventory or rush when placing orders. Take the time to create data-driven estimates of how much you’ll go through before ordering. When possible, use the same product more than once on a menu. In most places, buying more cases gives you a discount. Navigating this market can be confusing, but bartenders can leverage invaluable relationships with importers and distributors to get information on new products, discounted samples and bulk-ordering deals.

“Our suppliers definitely help me keep prices reasonable by giving me good pricing on the bottles and support us by sponsoring various events that we host here,” says Hah. “I always want to give as good as I get, so I work really hard to make sure that the brands shine and that the cocktails are really tasty, so I can move product for my brand partners.”

5. Make It Pretty

Lastly but not insignificantly, don’t forget to spend time on the visual design and physical manifestation of your menu. While certain bars like San Francisco’s Trick Dog and New York City’s Nitecap are known for their innovatively arranged theme menus—everything from airline brochures to comic books and crossword puzzles—it’s a small niche that only a handful of bars can execute well. If you want to use a nontraditional menu format, really commit to it.

But regardless of whether you choose to go with a creative presentation or something more straightforward, Boroski has a few common-sense pointers:

Names are important: “This can make or break a cocktail on your menu, whether or not it’s the best drink anyone has ever tasted,” he says. Avoid names that may be overly hard to pronounce, and try to use names that are zippy and attention-grabbing.

Be descriptive: “In your menu descriptions, certain keywords such as fresh, homemade and local are enticing to guests,” says Boroski. “Let your patrons know the hard work you and your team are putting into making great cocktails.” Explain where unique ingredients are sourced from, when applicable.

Make it readable: “This is an obvious thing, but it’s surprising how many menus are too difficult to read and are therefore left unread,” he says. Ensure that your font is legible in your bar lighting, and use proper grammar and punctuation as needed.

Consider the order: “List your lowest-costing items as the first and second drink, as well as in the middle of the menu,” says Boroski. “These are where people order off a menu most. Experimental items should be at the back of the list, since people looking for something a bit different are the most likely to read through to the end.”

And at the end of the day, be you. Authenticity is key in menu making. Your cocktails will only make you more money if they tell a story about who you are and what kind of hospitality you offer. Make sure your bartenders are experts on the menu who can help direct guests to the right choices and advocate for each of the drinks. Allowing your bartenders to contribute to the menu, or work collaboratively on it, will help them feel like they have a higher stake in the business.

“I believe the person who curates the menu needs to have a clear message of the bar while bringing together each individual talent on their team,” says Urushido. “Your menu represents who you are, the bar’s identity and how you’d like to be recognized by guests.”