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How to Run a Productive R&D Session as a Bar Owner or Bartender

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The Dead Rabbit beverage director Jillian Vose (second from right) and the bar team during an R&D session at BlackTail in New York City (Gregory Buda)

R&D (research and development) is a crucial factor in managing a successful bar program, whether it’s a neighborhood dive or a Michelin-starred restaurant. Being on top of your product offerings, evolving with the times, innovating, staying true to your core values—these are the hallmarks of a good bar and a good business.

But not everyone with a liquor licence knows how to run an effective R&D session. Without a well-defined process-driven approach in place, chances are you could wind up wasting a lot of time and money. These eight tips from industry vets will help you make the most of your R&D session.

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1. Prepare and Plan

Before you start skipping down the yellow brick road of R&D, know one thing: This isn’t a time to wing it. “The best sessions are planned in advance and strictly scheduled, with expectations clearly laid out,” says New York City bar legend Sother Teague. The bar staff should have a clear vision for what the goal is for each session and how much time they have to work on their concepts. A common mistake that’s often made is the ongoing R&D session that never yields any solid output. Maintaining a time that’s strictly dedicated to R&D will help keep your team on track and productive.

2. Set Expectations

Brooke Toscano, the beverage director at Pouring Ribbons in New York City, says that her bar team begins their R&D process three to four months prior to the menu launch. “The expectations from the staff can be intense, but nothing is forced, and you can contribute in any way you feel best suits you,” she says. “You’re expected to choose the basis of the cocktail (example: “The Nightmare Before Christmas”). Then comes the research. We ask that the staff spend the first month conceptualizing; no liquid should be touched until you have even a vague idea for the drink. We also ask that they do a write-up of each drink: recipe, elevator pitch, backstory, waste, sustainable component, key flavors, details of each spirit or syrup. We expect everyone to be able to talk about the drinks like they are their own.”

3. Map Out Your Drinks

Once you have your brand’s menu concept locked in, it’s time to map out your cocktails. “Before the session’s start, a wireframe of sorts is sent to the team [via Google sheets], including drink styles and how many of them should tick all the boxes. This would be worded: Old Fashioned variations, Martini variations, Tiki, cobbler, highballs, savory sour, etc.,” says Jillian Vose, the beverage director of The Dead Rabbit in New York City. Cocktail style is the best place to start, followed by base spirit, flavor builds/modifiers, glassware, ice. Each bartender can develop three to five cocktail options of different styles that fit within their menu’s overall concept to be presented and reviewed during R&D, and having a shared way to communicate who is working on what will be vital.

“We use Google sheets for our wireframe and the Evernote app to place our drinks ideas in,” says Vose. “This way, everyone can see what others are working on. There’s nothing more annoying than having multiples of the same-type drinks being submitted; it’s a waste of time and resources.”

4. Track Your Inventory

Financial planning for R&D sessions varies from bar to bar. As long as you implement some sort of system for tracking inventory, or sourcing samples you need but don’t have, you’re in decent shape. “We try and get samples of liquor products that we don’t already have in-house from distributors,” says Vose. “Any new ideas for syrups, infusions, etc.—we’ll order small amounts of those items to play with. We give each bartender a small allowance to go purchase items for R&D.”

Vose also expresses how she and her team also find it difficult to keep track of all product being used during menu development, as bartenders work on drinks during service when they have down time, usually served to trustworthy guests for feedback. “I log all products used so that I know where it went,” says Teague. “Thus, there are no mysterious shortages come inventory time.”

5. Give Good Feedback

“Giving good feedback is key,” says Vose. “R&D sessions where there hasn’t been enough verbiage and constructive criticism have always been the least successful and don’t help the staff grow as drinks creators. Be present and focused and talk about why a drink is not working, then discuss options to make it better.” Suggesting flavor swaps and ratio recalibrating are a couple of ways to be constructive with feedback so the maker can go back to the drawing board with a better idea of where to go with the concept.

6. Break Into Small Groups

“Successful R&D sessions tend to be best when you limit the input of too many people,” says Toscano. “It’s easy to get into the ‘too many cooks in the kitchen’ metaphor.” A way to mitigate this issue is by splitting up into smaller groups. It’s important to form balanced groups in terms of experience and knowledge; it might be the first R&D session for some of your staff, so pairing them with somebody who knows the ropes will be beneficial for their growth and ultimately be more productive.

7. Watch the Clock

“Setting a hard start and finish time forces the group to be controlled and focused,” says Teague. “It’s easy to get off track in any R&D session but especially when delicious cocktails are involved.” Keeping structure around timing will encourage the team to power through and be productive.

8. Let the Concepts Marinate

“Not having enough time between sessions can hinder the R&D process,” says Vose. “If you’re giving the team constructive feedback on how to make the drinks better but they don’t have time to work on them in between, then it’s pretty useless.” Letting the concepts marinate and evolve based on feedback will be instrumental to creating a killer set of cocktails for your next menu. Once the session has ended, and the cocktails are up to your standards, designate team leads to build the list based on the best of each style presented.

Locations: New York
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