Behind the Bar My Take

Is Pay to Play Ruining the Bartending World? One Bartender Tries to Find an Answer

Bar pro Naren Young, the creative director at Sweet Liberty in Miami, is the former creative director at award-winning New York City bar Dante.

I attended a seminar at the Bar Convent Berlin in October 2016 with the title “Biting the Hand That Feeds?,” which was presented by international bar luminaries Monica Berg, Simon Ford, Alex Kratena and Michael Vachon and moderated by Philip Duff. It was an engaging discussion that brought to light some of the inherent issues that brands and consumers face in such a competitive market. What was mainly discussed during the seminar was how large booze brands in various markets can—and do—pay vast sums of money to bars and bartenders to preferentially pour those brands or guarantee that those brands are listed on a cocktail menu. It’s a bar-industry version of “pay to play,” and it’s rife in parts of the bar world, with varying degrees of transparency. The laws of a particular market or city dictate how legal this approach is.

The seminar also juxtaposed this practice against fledgling companies that don’t have cash to throw around on menu placements and the challenges these smaller companies face as a result. I’ve worked in bars, mostly earlier on in my career in London and Australia, that have operated on both sides of the fence related to this topic.

There are a lot of issues at stake here, and few of them, in my opinion, are positive for the industry as a whole. If you’re opening a new bar, getting a cash injection from a brand, as happens in some markets, surely helps eases the financial burden. But to what extent does that brand now control the buying decisions of such a venue. To get further perspective, I reached out to several people I respect and who have strong opinions on this thorny subject.

The Power of Menu Placements

There’s no question: Getting a menu placement at an establishment that is either high-profile and high-volume—or both—is a huge win. If a brand can do so without paying, even better. Jacob Briars, once a well-known bartender in New Zealand and now the global advocacy director for Bacardi Global Brands, would, of course, like to see his brands listed on a menu. He thinks, overall, this has benefits for not just a business but also the consumer.

“Listing brands on the menu is good practice, and most bars have done this for many years,” says Briars. “It makes sense. The products listed on menus are typically chosen because they deliver great quality at a great price, and it makes sense for a bar to serve it in that particular drink to their guests. Why not highlight the fact that you have done so by mentioning that brand on your menu?”

What’s happening far too much, at least in markets where it’s legal, is that big brands with big money are essentially “owning” the cocktail menu. Where’s the integrity if a bar can be bought in this fashion? Some bars aren’t even trying to hide it, and their menus are nothing more than an advertisement for said brands. Truth be told, I’ve seen this practice probably more flagrant in markets outside the United States.

In a city like New York, however, bars and brands need to be careful with pay to play, as the laws, and the scrutiny that comes along with them, can be specific and penalties are often severe. That’s not to say that there aren’t creative, and legal, ways to around this, but it’s an approach that’s fraught: equal parts apprehension and ambiguity.

Bobby Heugel, who owns a slew of bars in Houston, is a friend and one of the most outspoken and opinionated people in the bar industry. “As a bar guest, there’s nothing I hate more than when I go into a bar and only find cocktails with ingredients that the owners or employees represent outside of the bar,” he says. “Not only do you expect me to pay $15 for a cocktail that would have been better with other ingredients that you don’t literally get paid to use, but you also expect me to supplement those outside financial endeavors with my drink purchase?”

Ford, the co-owner of the boutique 86 Spirits Co., also finds this scenario troublesome. “Pay to play creates a false sense of what bars would really choose to place on their menus, in their wells and on back bars,” he says. “Using the same gin in every gin drink reeks of payola and shows that a bar doesn’t really experiment to find the best gin possible for that particular cocktail. The drinking world has moved on from that.”

As someone at the helm of a small brand, Ford also knows that it’s near impossible to compete with the big conglomerates. “Long before I launched my own company, I knew that pay to play was going on and is a big part of our industry,” he says. “I worked for companies that practiced this on a regular basis, whether in places where it’s legal or where finding loopholes was the norm. This system will always make it tougher on smaller entrepreneurs. But I don’t think the bigger companies use pay to play to shut out entrepreneurs. I think they do it because they’re looking for a competitive advantage.”

Pros and Cons of Naming Brands

I’ve always been a fan of naming brands on menus, whether remuneration is involved or not. It allows the customer to know exactly what they’re being served. Perhaps a certain brand is one that a customer hates; maybe it’s one they love. They should have that information at their disposal. Of course, the brands also appreciate the gesture, and we list brands at Dante for precisely these reasons.

Other bar owners think about placements differently. For example, the first three menus from the award-winning Dead Rabbit in New York City garnered worldwide attention and were loaded with brand names—a practice that was perhaps necessary to recoup some of the enormous costs incurred in producing what are now essentially collectors’ items.

When I recently sat down with The Dead Rabbit’s managing partner Jack McGarry, he told me that all brand names had recently been removed from their upcoming menus and also from the opening menu at the group’s new Cuban-style bar, BlackTail. The shift gives the group more freedom in choosing brands. But McGarry believes there’s a subtle psychological play going on, too.

“We wanted to make the menu as approachable and consumer-friendly as possible,” he says. “As Steve Jobs says, simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” McGarry’s business partner, Sean Muldoon, added that the group is now absorbing the costs of its menus. That makes menus a financial burden, yes, but the group is likely no longer beholden to brands.

Naming or not naming brands isn’t an exact science, though. Heugel’s bars used to avoid listing brands on their cocktail menus. Now they do. “A vast majority of our guests are regulars, have been to the bar before or are visitors from out of town who pursue cocktails during their travels, says Heugel. “They are interested in knowing the brands we use. But my primary motivator for listing brand names on the menu at Anvil Bar & Refuge is to remind people that, unlike so many cocktail bars around the country, our menu isn’t for sale.”

Jim Meehan, a partner of PDT in New York City, wishes more bars would mention brands on their menus. “There are prestigious cocktail bars with super premium back bars and the cheapest premium spirits you can buy on the market hidden in their well or batched into unbranded bottles for the menu,” says Meehan. “The drinks may taste great, but how does the consumer gauge the drinks’ value based on the cost alone? When I order something in a bar or restaurant, I should have the right to evaluate the price of the item based on what I know about the products it’s prepared with. Lastly, you should be proud of the products you serve. Why would you want to conceal them? Our purveyors at PDT, for example, make great products, and I feel it’s important to promote them on our menu. A bar is a stage, and our ingredients and their producers play an important role in the production.”

Transparent Transparency

An obvious question remains: If you’re a bartender, would you stock a particular brand that you didn’t value only because that brand sent you on a trip? In many instances, I have noticed the answer is: probably not. Bartenders are the new gatekeepers in many ways, and they’re getting schmoozed and coddled by brands more than ever, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s nice to be rewarded in a job that can be very hard work and thankless at times.

I’ve been taken on more trips than I can remember—more than most people in the industry probably. (Being a writer certainly helps.) But I would never guarantee a placement for a brand simply because it sponsored me on a trip. If such a trip helps enlighten me on a brand that I was unsure of, especially in regards to ethical production values or a brand’s care for the environment, then I’m always willing to look deeper into that situation and relationship and only then decide if that brand has a place within our bar and concept.

Ultimately, we have to be thinking about the guest. That’s what bars are for at the end of the day, and we should be curating our choices in spirit brands based on what’s best for the guest. Our own financial interests shouldn’t be the primary driver for these decisions.

Bobby Heugel nails it: “It’s perfectly fine to run a bar with the goal of generating revenue. But the best bars pursue this goal by maximizing the guest experience whenever possible. Worst of all is when cocktail bars that previously held high standards and were an inspiration to me switched and adopted the ambassador menu or sell their wells because they know their reputation allows them to do so and most people won’t notice.”

The truth is no one wants to admit that their bar has been “bought” by a brand—or several brands. Transparency is becoming more important than ever, and we should all be looking to provide products and experiences to our guests that are interesting and unique and that, most important, have integrity. You should stand behind every product on your bar and be able to speak about them with equal passion, no matter what kind of money is being thrown around.