Behind the Bar The Business of the Bar

This Is How to Get the Most for Your Money When Hiring a Cocktail Consultant

Whether you’re looking to open a hotel, restaurant or movie theater, you know that drinks are going to be one of your big consistent cash cows. With that in mind, there’s something to be said for hiring a cocktail or bar consultant to ensure your bar program (and your bottom line) meets its full potential.

You may be wondering how hard it could be to just whip up a menu yourself. After all, there’s no shortage of recipes online or in any of the fine cocktail books being released today. And while those resources may help amplify or reinforce your existing knowledge, in an ever-crowded playing field, there’s absolutely no substitute for a seasoned bartender who can bridge the technicality of the craft—from behind-the-stick efficiency to creative recipe development—with big-picture hospitality and a bit of business and marketing acumen.

So how can you find a reliable consultant to create a concept that makes sense for your business and helps you stand out? And how long do you work with them before you feel comfortable building off the foundation they’ve helped you establish? Here, folks on both sides of the line—consultants and clients—share their tips on working with a bar or beverage consultant.

1. Shop Smart (but Don’t Nickel-and-Dime)

When shopping for consultants, rather than look for big names in the industry, see how candidates showcase their work through their websites or social media platforms. Are they organized, clear and inviting? If so, chances are their actual product is as well. And as with any other job, don’t let reputation speak for itself. Ask for references and do your homework to examine their track record.

“Look beyond what the consultant is selling you on the surface, and look closer at how they present themselves. Is there attention to detail in their proposal, communication standards, past projects?” says Devon Tarby, a partner at acclaimed consultancy Proprietors LLC. “The old adage ‘how you do one thing is how you do everything’ certainly rings true for bar consulting.”

Once you’ve found a potential candidate, be candid about your budget. However, avoid limiting the consultant’s scope of service in order to make ends meet. “One thing I strongly advise against is nickel-and-diming a highly experienced consulting company by way of removing services to lower the price,” says Tarby. “If a potential client requests to have bar design removed from a proposal to lower the overall fees, we would not be able to execute the menu they would be paying us to create and the training they’re paying us to execute to the quality level they’re expecting from their investment. If budgets are tight, my best advice would be to look for a less experienced individual or group who still runs a very tight ship.”

2. Make Sure the Shoe Fits

There is such a thing as right consultant, wrong project. Someone might check all the boxes for what you’d want in a cocktail bar but not have the bandwidth or experience to apply that knowledge to a restaurant or hotel setting.

This is particularly important for business owners working beyond the scope of a traditional cocktail bar, be it a cruise ship or movie theater. “Large brands are a different beast, each with their own corporate culture and reasons for evolving,” says Michael Neff, the owner of The Cottonmouth Club in Houston, who also runs his own consulting business, M.J. Neff & Co. “They often go for star power, which is more or less effective, depending on who they choose and how much leeway that person is given to create something new.”

Neff adds that there are some cases where you’ll realize in your research that a consultant isn’t needed. “Hiring a consultant is less about being ill-equipped and more about the value that a good consultant brings to a project,” he says. “It would be a waste of money to bring in a consultant just to flesh out a program that an owner already had conceptualized. A good bar manager would be a better choice—someone who can take your fully fleshed idea and bring it to life.”

3. Prioritize Your ROI

“The one thing I run into often when meeting with owners who are either in new bar construction or have an existing bar is that they tend to go more for aesthetic than functionality,” says Cody Goldstein, the CEO of Muddling Memories, a New York hospitality group that focuses on increasing profitability and brand exposure. “The most important part of a bar is expedited service, so that drink can get out as fast as possible in hopes of another round being ordered. If the bartender is not set up to be efficient—i.e. they have to run to get glassware or wait at a POS to ring in orders—they will be unable to maximize the guests’ experience, which will result in lost opportunity of sales.”

Yes, you want your consultant to improve your overall guest experience and create a multisensory “wow” factor in your product. However, hiring a consultant is a financial investment, and their work is as much a science as it is an art. To get your return on that investment, you’ll want to find a professional who geeks out about selling cocktails as much as they do making them. After all, some new bar owners are so fixated on creating a certain vibe or atmosphere that they’re unable to step back and be realistic about profit margins and execution. Beyond the theme and vision, consider asking your consultant about pricing, marketing, inventory and waste reduction.

“Anyone can read a book and create a cocktail based off a classic recipe,” says Goldstein. “But that’s not why we get hired as a consultant. The restaurant and bar business is just that—a business. Our job is to give advice and expertise on how to best make the venue money while offering a high quality of hospitality.”

4. Know What You Know (and Don’t Know)

Before you hire a consultant, make sure you’re adept at articulating your vision. Asking a consultant to create something with vague or insufficient direction sets both parties up for failure. While you can gain valuable insight from a consultant, you know your values best, so stay true to them or risk being unhappy with the finished product.

At the same time, you should also anticipate what you don’t know and seek extra guidance in these areas. Tait Forman, the owner of West Hollywood’s Bibo Ergo Sum and heir to upscale movie chain ArcLight Cinemas, says this was the key in his decision to collaborate with Proprietors LLC for both of his projects.

“It may seem simple, but it has been important for me to be honest with where my gaps in knowledge are and then find the right people to help ensure we have all our bases covered,” says Forman. “That can lead to a wide range of circumstances and asks of a consultant. For Bibo, we built everything from the ground up, so I asked the team to help support us from start to finish. When we brought on Proprietors to help consult on ArcLight Cinemas, we already had quite a bit of infrastructure in place, but we desperately needed help improving our standards and level of knowledge and training.”

5. Own Your Timeline

A good consultant will realize that their clients are often stretched thin, which is why they hired a consultant in the first place, and as such will be mindful of providing updates, following up and keeping the trains running. However, at the end of the day, you (or someone on your team) will need to act as project manager to ensure you don’t lose money on top of a consultancy fee if the doors don’t open on time. It’s advisable to start any negotiation with your projected deadlines. If the consultant can’t agree to them from the start, they might not be the one for you.

“Great partners make that easy, but if deadlines are missed, it’s ultimately down to the business to own the timeline,” says Forman. “We had the most success with our partners when all of the responsibilities, timelines and goals were defined ahead of time.”

6. Always Follow Through

After the space has been built and the menus have been created, it’s time to execute. Staff training is an area where your investment really pays off, so make sure training is baked into the initial agreement.

“Look for a consultant who’s capable of offering services that will support the final product of the cocktail menu,” says Tarby. “Without thorough bar training (not just menu training) and placement of both organizational and operational systems, it’s not possible to bring that cocktail menu you paid for to life. Period.”