Food & The Bar Part III: Increasing Profits with Food & Cocktail Pairings

Photo Courtesy of The Hungry Hound and Niner Ichi Nana 

In Parts 1 and 2 of this four part series on food and the bar, we looked at the many benefits of offering a small plates menu and then how to plan and execute the right small plates menu.  In this third installment we will look at the opportunities to pair food and cocktails and the financial benefits that result.

Why? Why Not?

The craft cocktail movement has migrated from fad to trend to mature industry segment in a relatively short time.  One big reason for its continued relevance is the constant evolution of offerings provided by an army of professional, committed, creative practitioners.  It’s no exaggeration to claim that the efforts of these bartenders have defined and redefined the preferences of the drinking consumer.  And yet, some space exists within the segment where commitment and creativity have been applied inconsistently, in fits and starts, resulting in real estate that has yet to be fully exploited – namely, the intersection of food and cocktails.

Why?  Some argue that cocktails simply don’t lend themselves to pairing with food.  Others argue that consumers aren’t ready to accept cocktails as a compliment to their food.  Still others reach back into history, pointing out that for thousands of years, humans have drunk beer and wine with their meals.  As a relatively recent alternative, cocktails are unlikely to supplant this tradition.

But, Why not? Carefully crafted cocktails can lend themselves to being paired with food.  In fact, unlike with beer and wine, cocktails can be created at your bar with ingredients specifically designed to pair with your menu.  Your consumers are ready; they are characterized as adventurous and always looking for the next thing.  Our industry has continually provided them this thing.  And stuck on tradition?...not so much.

Offering beverage pairings with your menu adds interest and increases sales.  Adding cocktail pairings to traditional beer and wine pairings adds even more interest and holds the possibility of even higher sales volume and improved profit margins.  You can do it and your customers are ready for it.  Here are some tips and factors to consider when adding cocktail pairings to your offerings.

A Primer on Pairing Food and Beverage

Matching the right food with the right beverage can seem a daunting task.  Most of us have a basic understanding of what pairs well (Oreos get dunked in milk, not lemonade).  Craft bartenders are much further along, understanding the subtle effect ingredients have on a great drink.  These different foundations require differing levels of effort to get to some of the specifics of food and beverage pairings.  These basics will provide a start.

  • Alcohol dulls the senses – No kidding! This is one of the reasons often given for cocktails not pairing well with food.  No one said you have to pair anything on your menu with a martini.  Offer mixed drinks at lower abv.
  • Match the weight of the cocktail to the weight of the food – Light-bodied foods with delicate flavors will be overwhelmed by full-bodied cocktails with robust flavors.
  • Be careful with sweet, but not too careful – Cocktails that are too sweet can give foods an unwanted impression of sweetness.  However, there’s no need to offer cocktails that are out of balance in an effort to minimize sweet.  Keep in mind that most of your customers drink sweet tea, soft drinks and juices with their meals.
  • Treat the cocktail like a condiment – Fish is good with lemon.  Steak is not.
  • Sweet and bitter calm spicy heat.
  • Tannins, acids and bubbles cleanse fatty foods from the palate.

Practical considerations

Expanding your offerings always has an impact on operations.  Before you dive into pairing cocktails with your food, there are some practical matters to consider.

  • Consider capacity.  It can take a long time to make craft cocktails…certainly longer than it takes to pour a glass of wine or draw a draught beer.  Be sure that you have sufficient production capacity behind the bar in case the pairings take off.
  • Consider batching.  Especially if you are offering just a few cocktail pairings to start, you might consider batching them in advance.  Be aware that because of the flavors likely to pair with your foods, these cocktails are unlikely to hold well for very long.
  • Consider flights.  This is an especially good idea if your food and cocktail pairings will be confined to the bar, especially if the cocktails will be paired with a “bar snack” or “small plates” bar menu.  Cocktails in flights should be offered in smaller portions, so be sure you have appropriate glassware available.
  • Consider Promotions.  Offering food and cocktail pairings on a given night might be best, especially as an effort to increase traffic on a slow night.  Additionally, it eliminates the problem of capacity on a busy night and allows for batching cocktails that are specifically offered with food on that night only.

Part one of this four part series can be found here - Food and the Bar Part I:  Increasing Profits with Small Plates

Part two of this four part series can be found here - Food and the Bar Part II:  Increasing Profits with Small Plates – A How-to

Back by popular demand Author & Professor Brian Warrener will once again be presenting at the 2016 Nightclub & Bar Show. Join our mailing list to make sure that you receive all of the show updates here

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