Behind the Bar The Business of the Bar

6 Small Tweaks to Upgrade Your Bar Program

These easy changes will make a huge difference.

The Oceanside, Ken Burns Effect and Full Windsor (from left) at Polite Provisions in San Diego
The Oceanside, Ken Burns Effect and Full Windsor (from left) at Polite Provisions in San Diego. Image:

Lyudmila Zotova

As cocktail culture spreads across the world, a thoughtful and creative drink program is now a basic necessity rather than a boundary-defying novelty. Many time-honored establishments have struggled to compete with the new generation of precision-pouring, ingredient-experimenting bars. And it’s a struggle shared even by newer restaurants and bars where the focus isn’t only on cocktails. With this shift in consumer interest, restaurateurs and hoteliers may find themselves wanting to hire a beverage consultant or agency to help reimagine and upgrade their bar program. 

While hiring outside experts or collaborating with industry heavyweights is an excellent way to make a statement and generate buzz in the drinks world, there are some simple and low-impact steps business owners can take without spending a fortune or making significant changes to their inventory and workflow. From fresh citrus to candles, these are six small tweaks that will upgrade your bar program instantly, according to top hospitality consultants. 

Eastern Prospector made with fresh citrus at Polite Provisions
Eastern Prospector made with fresh citrus at Polite Provisions. Arlene Ibarra

1. Don’t Settle for Less Than Fresh

First things first: By now, fresh citrus, rather than bottled or from-concentrate juices, is the accepted standard in the bar world. And guests can certainly tell the difference. “There’s no reason for a bar to not have day-of fresh lemon and lime juice on hand—it is cheap and makes a huge difference in taste,” says Devon Tarby, a partner at Proprietors LLC, which owns Nitecap in New York City and Death & Co in NYC, Los Angeles and Denver. “Similarly, citrus garnishes should always be cut fresh daily; they’ll look and taste far better than anything day-old.” 

2. Spruce Up Your Menu

Of course, this refers to creating interesting cocktails and menu themes, but it also refers to your bar’s physical menu presentation and the language used to describe its drinks. “We like to artfully describe how cocktails taste—their flavor and sensation,” says Jason Williams, the creative director at Proof & Co. “Describe the ingredients in a more creative way rather than simply listing them. Maybe list the brands if it's pertinent to the concept or the drink. Stating on the menu such things as ‘We only use fresh produce,’ ‘We don’t use any single-use ingredients’ or ‘All produce is sourced locally’ could also help.” 

Hustle & Cuss at Death & Co
Hustle & Cuss at Death & Co. Eric Medsker

3. Get Organized

Having a well-organized bar means you can serve drinks faster, waste less and improve overall workflow. It’s also visually appealing for guests too. “Ensuring that the backbar is neat and tidy with all bottle labels facing out, no speed pourers in sight, all bar top containers placed in neat rows or groups, all bar tools polished and clean and all other service items in their places is a 100% free way to instantly look more professional,” says Tarby. 

4. Set the Mood

Depending on the kind of bar you operate (or hope to operate), the vibe can be just as important as the drinks. Williams cites advice from San Diego bartender Erick Castro of Polite Provisions and Raised by Wolves: “Sometimes you just need to turn the lights down and the music up.” Tarby echoes this approach, adding, “If there’s no room in the budget for major repairs or redecorating, you can always turn the lights way down and light more candles than you think are necessary. Candles make everything look nice.” 

Cocktail stirring at Raised by Wolves
Cocktail stirring at Raised by Wolves.  Raised by Wolves

5. Touch Up the Decor

Barring some serious funding for a total revamp, it can be tough to change the overall look of a bar. But don’t discount the low-cost additions that can help pull a space together. Tarby suggests plants, flowers, unique votive candle holders and coasters in place of beverage napkins. On the bar front, give your bartenders the latest in bar gear so they can be as stylish as they are professional. Companies like Cocktail Kingdom specialize in fancy and creative bar spoons, glassware and more. “There are so many great options for affordable craft bar tools these days that this is a great low-impact area to target,” says Tarby. “We always make sure tools are rust-free, match and allow bartenders to perform their tasks more easily.”

6. Put Extra Effort into Hospitality

A little special touch can go a long way in showing that your establishment cares about its guests. “Offer something on arrival: a nonalcoholic palate cleanser, a refresher towel or a beverage amuse bouche of some sort,” says Williams. “At the end of the night, after a bunch of drinks, the guest is going to remember how they felt, and how the service and hospitality impacted that, and make a judgment on the value for money in some way. Great hospitality definitely trumps better cocktails, and that’s what people often want.”