Work the Plan

Americans drink in good times and bad, that's the conventional wisdom. Historically accurate or not, it's nevertheless safe to anticipate that in a slumping economy there will be fewer people on the street and they'll have less money in their pockets. The moment the markets stumble and crash is when it's no longer business as usual.

Perhaps the best piece of business advice for rocky times is coming up with a plan to increase revenue and sticking with it. Taking a breather and maintaining status quo solidly fixes you at a point in space, allowing competitors to surge past. This is no time to be tentative. Armed with the right plan, the only difference between financially under-performing and exceeding expectations is commitment.

So recession or not, here are a few field-tested strategies proven to send beverage revenues skyward.

Passé Product. A restaurant that doesn't routinely change its menu will always have plenty of open tables. The same holds true for the bar. Shake things up and add some pizzazz to your line-up. Spicing things up helps keep your guests interested. If yours is the only place on the planet where they can get those particular libations, where else will they go?

If it's true that the better the spirit, the better the cocktail, why not brand your signature drinks with super-premium spirits? Consider also switching to bottled mixers; despite their higher cost, they make crisper, livelier drinks. When in doubt, always opt for quality.

Likewise, bartending staffs typically operate without a clearly defined set of recipes. The result is a loss of product consistency, fluctuating costs and shoddy, hit-or-miss drinks. Determine what they're to pour, or they'll do it for you.

Slash Marketing. The only marketing some operators do is to slash prices during happy hour. Promote your business from the inside out instead. People are open and receptive to timely suggestions on what to drink. Develop bar menus and table tents that market your house specialties. If you've created delicious signature drinks, make sure you announce your success. You'll notice that sales for whatever you actively promote in-house will skyrocket.

Alcohol Orientation. If you're not actively marketing alcohol-free beverages, you're leaving money on the table. More than a passing fad, they've become part of the dynamics of our industry. If you need incentive before jumping onboard, consider the magnitude of this untapped market. The demographics of alcohol-free drinkers include literally everyone, and today's consumers are increasingly predisposed to socializing without alcohol. Consider also that alcohol-free beverages and drinks incur no liability and are chock full of profit.

Drink Flourishes. Swizzle sticks are enjoying a renaissance in bars and nightclubs across the country and rank among the coolest collectibles around. More than mere implements for stirring, swizzles are contemporary memorabilia for the taking, mementos embossed with your company's identity. Swizzles have function and bang for the proverbial buck.

Along the same lines, you'll likely never spend less raising a smile out of your guests than by giving them a groovy plastic orangutan in their drink. Hangers-on — those cute plastic chimps, lounging mermaids or blue whales that hook onto the rim of a glass — are universally appealing. The kid in us is thrilled to get them ("You mean I can keep this pink flamingo fruit spear?"), while the operator in us appreciates their value-added aspect.

Close Strong. The smallest nuances can make a lasting impression. Such is the case with garnishing. Give your Martini drinkers something to talk about by garnishing their drink with vodka-steeped, anchovy-wrapped green olives or pepper-infused, almond-stuffed green olives. Put some pizzazz in your Bloody Marys with a shrimp and scallion garnish. Embellishing drinks affords an opportunity to add some sizzle with adding significant cost.

Secret Ingredients. Everybody loves secrets. During the golden age of bartending, homemade elixirs, potions, syrups and infusions were the rage. They helped distinguish one establishment's specialties from the next. What if you followed suit and created your own orange bitters, agave-flavored syrup or rose petal tincture?

The alchemy involved is uncomplicated. A little research online should send you in the right direction. Once you devise a winning concoction, keep the recipe in your vest pocket and don't tell a soul. Now let's see the competition try to duplicate your specialties. Such efforts prompt buzz among bartenders and guests alike, delivering highly effecting but low-cost word-of mouth marketing.

Adopt a Spirit. Despite talk of trading down, spirits, especially the top-shelf brands, remain hot commodities. Per capita consumption is steadily increasing back to the highs of the early '80s. Now is the time to jump onboard and leverage their popularity into greater sales.

Choose a spirit and become known for it; be recognized as a great bourbon bar, tequileria or single malt haven. Educate your staff and expand your back bar selections to offer guests an interesting array of brands from which to choose. Then prominently feature that spirit in your signature drinks. Tap into the guests' sense of discovery and you'll need to order more bar stools.

Solicit Feedback. Bartenders are the resident experts on every subject regarding operating the bar profitably. They have loads of firsthand, real-time information about your clientele and they'll tell you everything you need to know. All you need do is ask.

Not only do they possess credible intel regarding drink prices, products and promotions, they also have the skinny on your competitors. Soliciting the staff's feedback fosters a sense of involvement among the staff and often leads to a more positive work environment.

Weakest Links. A business is only as strong and vital as the weakest employee. It's especially true behind the bar. The bartending staff impacts every aspect of an operation from portioning and marketing the bill of fare to rendering prompt and gracious hospitality to the clientele.

A crucial step toward improving the staff's degree of professionalism is through ongoing training and education. What your people don't know can most certainly hurt you. Their lack of expertise reflects poorly on your business and prevents them from reaching their potential. Ongoing training is a revenue-generating investment, not a financial hardship.

Staff Gone Flaccid? If bartenders could be replaced by tuxedoed robots or drink-making holograms, someone would have done it by now. The fact is no machine, gadget or computer can generate the dynamics necessary to transform a body-filled room into party central the way a few great bartenders can.

Boost their capabilities with some working flair techniques and watch the magic happen. Guests are enthralled with bartenders who occasionally flip about a few bottles or mixing sets. It keeps people in their seats longer and reinforces that they picked a cool place to hang out. Short bursts of flair translate to higher sales.

Work Demands. Another method of increasing sales is removing any impediments to great bartender execution. For example, bartenders are often required to provide beverage service to guests seated at the cocktail tables. When business is brisk, it becomes challenging to wait on the people at the bar, fill drink orders for servers and still provide hospitable service to patrons in the lounge. In this case, the solution may be as simple as scheduling a barback or cocktail server to provide extra coverage during peak trade periods. Remember that the more difficult and stressful it is for staff to perform their jobs, the more hassled they'll be and likely to fall victim to job burnout.

Value Menus. Who doesn't want to think they are getting the most for their hard-earned money? Considering the nature of the economy and our collective sensitivity to prices, offering your clientele drinks with high perceived value will become an increasingly important success factor.

Value from a guest's perspective means something is worth the price paid. Regardless of what the economy might be doing, marketing impeccable cocktails at reasonable prices provides guests ample reasons to return another night. A loyal clientele is an effective hedge against a soft economy.

In the final analysis, increasing bar sales involves exceeding people's expectations and occasionally doing the delightfully unexpected. This is true in any economic climate, but in an environment like the current one, your clientele will appreciate such efforts more than you may realize. They're in need of a boost, as well, and good hospitality always lifts the spirits.

For example, imagine applying the concept of random acts of kindness to your business. What if you unexpectedly bought a couple of loyal guests their dinner or a round of drinks? "It's just our way of saying thanks," you'd say. They'll be on the phone telling their friends what you did before they get home. And they'll come back soon.

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