Why Menu Changes are About the Guest Experience

Okay, hear me out: Fantasia, Sorcerer's Apprentice...but with cocktails. Image: Volodymyr Goinyk / Shutterstock

When cocktails are an integral part of a brand and the guest experience, how an operator approaches menu changes is of the utmost importance.

Some bars change their menus with the seasons, some make changes just once or twice a year. Others can go years without making significant changes, occasionally adding a limited specialty drink.

The approach to cocktail development is heavily reliant on brand identity and working knowledge of what guests want from a particular venue.

Matt Levy, founder and operator of Brooklyn’s Covert Cocktail Club (CCC), develops his cocktails to work with seasonal changes.

Given that CCC provides educational tastings deeply entrenched in cocktail history, Levy’s creations are a crucial experiential component. They’re balanced, spirit forward, and designed to teach and tell a story.

The menu is also prix fixe, so the drinks must, at a minimum, deliver on guests’ expectations. In reality, the perceived value of the cocktails must over-deliver so guests will spread the good word and return.

Levy is incredibly engaging—there’s zero debate about that. He’s also packed to the proverbial rafters with booze and beverage information, and he’s the type of educator that can transform a staunch wine drinker into a cocktail curious customer.

But would he have loyal, repeat guests if he didn’t regularly reinvigorate CCC with new menu options? Likely not, even as amazing an educator and host as he is. So, does Levy keep up on current trends or does he go his own way when programming new menus?

“I’d say definitely more of column B than column A,” says Levy. “However, I will say, to my credit and patting myself on the back, I had a turmeric cocktail on the spring menu two months before The New York Times wrote about it as a fad.”

Check this out: What This Secret Cocktail Club Can Teach About Guest Experience

He was also ahead of the aquavit trend, creating an Aquavit Negroni before it was “a thing.” For the most part, Levy doesn’t seem to follow trends too closely. Much of his inspiration comes from his impressive and eclectic collection of spirits, what lessons and experience he wants to give his guests for the next few months, and what makes sense seasonally.

“I don’t think I’m ahead of the trend, I just have my finger on the pulse,” says Levy.

In his opinion, operators who are paying attention to their guests and what’s going on in the industry are somewhat preternaturally aware of fads and trends, and how to leverage them for their own ends.

“Anybody involved in a niche industry—and certainly the general public—you’re gonna be ahead of the trend,” says Levy.

He doesn’t try to be ahead of trends, he just ends up there more often than not, and many operators and bartenders likely find themselves in a similar position. From interacting with guests to observing the front of house, to obtaining feedback from the service team, operators have several built-in resources for discovering guest desires and programming their menus intelligently.

Making smart menu programming choices can be helped by seasonal changes. When an operator know he’s going to change his menu—either in part or completely—every three or four months, they have an idea of lead time, ingredients, and flavors.

CCC is currently offering a fall menu but Levy is already looking toward winter. We had our conversation last month and Levy mentioned a cocktail he had during dinner out with friends that “hit all my senses” for winter.

“That’s how I get inspired for cocktails,” says Levy. “I think of them seasonally.

The CCC approach works in part because the menu isn’t a few dozen or more drinks deep. Another reason they work is the guest experience that Levy has chosen as an operator—education. What approach should a more traditional venue with a larger menu take?

Check this out: A Deep Dive into HIDE, Part Three: Beverage Ops and Menu Changes

HIDE, a cocktail bar in the Deep Ellum neighborhood in Dallas that we featured in a three-part series, has taken multiple approaches to menu refreshing and programming. Beverage director Scott Jenkins has learned from his mistakes and staying true to the concept’s vision to land on the proper menu strategy.

During the first year of operation, Jenkins made four to five menu changes. Each menu had 30 to 40 drinks on it. In its second year, Jenkins created three menus that offered 20 signature drinks, eight to ten classic cocktails, and a few bottled cocktails.

This year, not including HIDE’s involvement in the Miracle Pop-Up (the Dallas bar was ranked third among all participating bars last year), the bar went through just two menu changes. HIDE will probably only see a single menu change in 2020.

Obviously, Jenkins doesn’t design seasonal menus. His approach is informed by the guest experience he wants to deliver. Jenkins wants HIDE guests to try every cocktail on the menu two to three times to decide if they like it and discuss it with friends, family and other guests. With more than 30 drinks on the menu, that process can take weeks or months. Seasonal menus simply wouldn’t work with HIDE as a concept.

“If you change your menu too often, people won’t have time to talk about it with others,” he says.

At the same time, Jenkins sees refusing to ever change menus as a detriment to the guest experience. At the very least, he feels that operators should commit to annual changes.

“People want to try different things, and team members want to make new things,” says Jenkins.

Changing a menu, whether seasonally, annually or somewhere in between, is never just about changing the drinks available. Because this is the hospitality industry, because this is an experience-driven industry, menu changes are about the guest experience.

Check this out: 3 Menu Challenges: Maximize Your Menu Mojo

They’re also about employee engagement. But even that circles back to the guest experience—an engaged staff excited about a new menu will give guests superior service.

Regardless of how often an operator chooses to change menus, guest experience must be at the forefront of their decisions.

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