Contemporary cocktail bars aim to make the most of the spaces they have to work with. For some ambitious operators, this means using one building or space to offer guests two separate and distinct drinking experiences: one is typically fairly casual, the other more high-end. In cities including New York, London, and beyond, an increasing number of bars—including a few of the world’s most awarded—have adopted this dual-concept approach, and it’s an operating decision that’s beneficial in more ways than one.
The Best of Both Worlds
“The brand continuously benefits from multiple concepts; each of them is busy at different times and each attracts a very different crowd,” says Alex Kratena, a co-owner and the director of the award-winning London bar Tayēr + Elementary. The bar’s front room, Elementary, is a bustling neighborhood bar serving unique takes on classic cocktails and highballs, as well as beer, wine, coffee, and snacks. The cocktails are all pre-batched or on tap, ensuring that service is exceptionally fast to keep up with a high volume of guests. At the slower-paced Tayēr, located in the back section of the space, guests are presented with a produce-driven cocktail menu with drinks that each highlight a specific ingredient. “Elementary is the local community hangout, while Tayēr is a fine-drinking destination,” says Kratena. “While everyone is happy to have a drink at Elementary, some people only really want to be in Tayēr, while others have no interest in Tayēr whatsoever.”
“The space we found dictated a lot of the design, and we definitely wanted to appeal to a wide range of guests, even though both concepts are very specific,” adds co-owner Monica Berg.
Whereas many high-concept cocktail bars are often pigeonholed into one specific concept, meaning they draw only one type of guest, bars like Tayēr + Elementary are able to connect with a wider range of potential customers and offer them a choice of experiences. The bars don’t have to choose between categories; they can have the best of both worlds: the volume of a more casual bar, plus the higher-end drinks program and prestige of an exclusive cocktail bar.
Tayēr + Elementary isn’t the only bar that’s taken this dual-concept approach. Other award-winning bars including Swift in London, and Katana Kitten, Double Chicken Please, and The Dead Rabbit, all in New York City, operate in a similar manner, each showcasing its own style.
“Personally, I love to drink in places like this [with dual concepts], which had a big impact when planning the original Swift Soho,” says Bobby Hiddleston, Swift’s owner. “We wanted somewhere with that real casual European feel—a smaller cocktail menu, space for standing and larger groups, and no reservations; an approachable space that focuses on aperitivo and the classics—but we also wanted to create a dark, intimate space with a more conceptual menu that really showed what we could do with a cocktail menu. The result is that both spaces and their drinks are undeniably Swift, but in very different ways. Operationally, it also allows a certain amount of balance between conceptual bartending and hospitality.”
At one of New York City’s hottest cocktail bars, Double Chicken Please, the dual-bar approach has given the bar team a similar level of flexibility. The bar’s team has found that its more casual, no-reservations Front Room is a way for guests to become acquainted with their drinks before diving into its higher-concept culinary-driven drink program in the Back Room.
“The dual concepts have afforded us the creativity of two drink menus and two distinct hospitality styles and guest interactions in our space,” says DCP’s co-owner, GN Chan. “Offering two experiences in our space gives guests a choice of how they would like to spend their evening with us, and many customers experience both concepts while they're here.”
Guests first enter the bright, buzzing Front Room, where all seating is first come, first serve and is often standing-room only. Similar to Elementary, the cocktails served are all pre-batched; at DCP, they’re all on draft. The Back Room contrasts the front with darker lighting, a loungier vibe, seated-only service, and a serious cocktail program in which all of the bar’s signature cocktails are inspired by and based on a “deconstructed” food item.
Each space comes alive at different times of the day. The Front Room is typically less busy than the Back until the Back fills up early in the evening, at which time the Front Room fills with walk-ins and guests on the waitlist for seating in the Back Room around mid-evening, then the Front Room will be packed with only standing room available in the late evening hours. Having two separate concepts and spaces allows the bar to distribute guests between its two rooms and minimizes the need to turn people away.
Chan notes that the profit margins of each drink menu are relatively similar, although the Back Room’s menu takes a bit more R&D and prep time required to create complex ingredients such as the house-made chocolate-and-coffee-flavored Oreo-like garnish made in a custom 3D-printed mold, which accompanies the French Toast cocktail made with Grey Goose vodka, roasted barley, brioche, coconut, milk, maple syrup, and egg.
“Although the capacity of the Front Room is smaller, the guest turnover is faster, due to the speed and efficiency of the tap delivery service,” says Chan. “However, the volume of cocktails on a day-to-day basis is typically higher in the Back Room.”
And, of course, the two concepts can consolidate into one as needed, to better manage their resources. “When Dead Rabbit reopened after the shutdowns, we [initially] reopened the entire building as the Taproom, which was great,” says Aidan Bowie, the bar’s beverage director. “It allowed us to control inventory better, staff the venue appropriately and manage costs.” The Taproom is the bar’s more casual concept; the Parlour, the high-end concept that usually occupies the upstairs space, has reopened in the meantime.
The Tayēr + Elementary team also found that during pandemic times, the flexibility of having two spaces meant that they could manage their resources better. “Financial benefits were considered extensively,” says Berg. “We discovered new ones with time and thanks to the pandemic, like running half of the venue and keeping the other half closed when we needed to keep things tight, or being able to manufacture Tayēr RTD bottled cocktails but still operating Elementary at the same time.”
There are some downsides to the dual-bar concept, the bars’ owners admit, but agree they pale in comparison to the advantages. “The communication of our concepts has been a learning curve for guests, which in turn has been a bit of a struggle having customers understand the difference in menus and service,” Chan admits. “Aside from the guest understanding of our bar, running two menus—essentially two bars—means there’s a lot of prep for our bar team. We're still improving our systems and making it work day by day.”
With some of the world’s best bars successfully adopting the dual-bar concept, it’s a business model that cocktail enthusiasts can likely expect to see in increasing numbers in the coming years. It allows the bars not only to connect with a wider range of guests, but also offers a degree of flexibility to keep the businesses as financially viable as possible, which bar owners find particularly important after having endured pandemic-related bar closures.
“We are constantly looking for ways of generating more revenue and diversifying business,” says Kratena. “While I don’t think two-concept venues are anything new, in my opinion, there are a lot of fresh ideas in the game right now, which makes it more fun and exciting for the guests and also for the staff. I think we will see more venues of this nature in years to come.”