Learn how to Upgrade Your Cocktails at the 2018 VIBE Conference

A red cocktail and a clear cocktail on a bar
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Getting chain restaurants to upgrade their beverages has been David Commer's career and he intends to share what little things can make a big difference at the 2018 VIBE Conference.

David Commer has been helping with chain restaurants improve their beverage programs for years. At this year’s upcoming VIBE Conference, he’s been tasked with showing how important little things are in making a big difference when it comes to cocktails. In his interactive session titled “What Really Matters? When it Comes to Cocktails it’s the Small Stuff,” Commer will taste attendees through several examples in order to experience how small variations in ingredients can sometimes make dramatic differences.

VIBE: In your intro to your session, you note that "small changes can take a drink from ordinary to extraordinary." Can you share some examples of how that gets done?

David Commer: One example of a small thing is proper technique. Just as with food, following the proper technique in preparing a beverage recipe can have a noticeable impact on the finished recipe. Another interesting small change is the effect that ¼ oz. of an ingredient can have on a cocktail. I will show a couple of examples of that. And I still love the eyebrows that raise when they taste a cocktail before and after bitters are added.

VIBE: Even at many chain accounts, cocktail prices have been going up, but the quality of the drink and the presentation often hasn't. Is that a serious problem?

Commer: It’s a very serious problem. Many chains are beginning to recognize that it takes quality ingredients to create quality products. I’m happy to see many of the chains that I work with making the effort and investment necessary to get back to quality ingredients. They realize there is a balance to providing quality ingredients at a fair price while still maintaining profitability.

VIBE: Chain restaurant beverage programs were once considered cutting edge. These days, not so much. What steps can chains take to counteract that change in perception?

Commer: One of the challenges in staying cutting edge is how rapidly trends change. In addition, much of the cutting edge that we see and hear about was created just for the purpose of getting attention. Chains must be disciplined not to chase every trend and to recognize that not everything that gets attention is really a trend (or trend worthy). Moving fast is important. Beverage innovation is low risk but chain restaurants often have excessive rigor around proving beverage concepts that prevents or delays them from moving. They could simplify and accelerate the approval process of getting ideas into market test. A lot of innovation today requires execution at the operations level. The chain restaurants that do a good job with innovation have commitment from operations to execute the programs.

I remember talking to Robert Plotkin shortly after I took over beverage at Fridays. I don’t remember what the story was about but I asked Robert if that was really something that he saw going on (because I hadn’t really seen that) and he reminded me that not everything that gets ink is necessarily deserving of attention.

VIBE: In your work, what are some of the overall changes that chains could most easily make to upgrade their beverage programs?

Commer: Two answers. The easiest and biggest impact on their beverage programs would be to improve the quality of the Margarita mix and sour mix. Those mixes touch a majority of the cocktails and if you are still using a mix that you were using in 1980, you have a problem.

The biggest impact operators of all kinds can make to increase sales is staffing. The shortsightedness of cutting staff to save money boggles the mind. How many drinks does a bartender need to sell an hour to pay for themselves? Many operations seem determined to save their way to the poorhouse. Staffing to build sales is a much better approach.

VIBE: What are the more positive trends you are seeing in chain accounts you consult with or visit?

Commer: I see chains working on improving quality in their mixes, which is exciting. Many are also recognizing that you generally get what you pay for with ingredients and that you can charge more for a better drink. I also see marketing working more closely with operations to decide how they can execute new innovation vs. pushing it to the side because "there's no way we could do that".

VIBE: What's the one cocktail practice common at chain accounts you'd most like to do away with?

Commer: Sloppy techniques and lack of accountability to execute proper techniques. Bar managers should encourage their bar teams to execute proper techniques and hold each other accountable so they are consistent as a team.

Also, over-prepping of garnishes. Some bartenders like to prep everything and get it over with versus just prepping what you need to get through a shift. Or they like mounding the fruit into the fruit caddies so they do not need to refill so often. Bar managers should coach bartenders so they have better habits of cutting what is needed and restocking fresh garnishes so the guest gets the freshest garnishes in their drink each time.

VIBE: Finally, what’s the one practice you'd most like to see adopted universally?

Commer: Do I have to pick just one? How about five? Staffing to build sales is huge! Better ingredients and recipe adherence (including proper tools and technique) will make the biggest impact to quality of cocktails. Use of proper techniques such as shaking with ice and straining over fresh ice. Use of proper tools including the Boston shaker and a four-prong strainer to strain, not the back of the mixing glass (or your fingers). And more bars organized and set up for efficiency; well stocked with sparkling clean glassware and properly working equipment.

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