By Lara Creasy
It’s 2017, and like it or not, image is everything.
We reached a point not too long ago in the food and beverage world where quality was expected, if not assumed. Most chefs now use produce straight from the farm and cure their own meats. At the bar, savvy guests expect fresh juice, housemade syrups and shrubs, quality spirits and proper technique. The craft cocktail revolution is no longer a revolution, but something that every restaurant bar aspires to, at least a little bit.
As social media evolved and Instragram took hold over the last 5 or 6 years, restaurant guests started documenting their every restaurant order and posting it to their accounts. The ubiquity of the habit can sometimes approach overload.
Cultural and restaurant critics lately have bemoaned that in today’s climate, quality counts for far less than image when it comes to attracting the attention of young people, who merely want to check an experience o their list and, of course, document it on Instagram. It’s far better for drinks to look good than to taste good, and if you don’t snap a pic, it didn’t happen.
How do you navigate that environment, as a beverage manager of integrity, and still sleep at night?
At the bar, savvy guests expect fresh juice, housemade syrups and shrubs,
quality spirits and proper technique.
Start by pivoting your perception of the situation. Yes, it’s true that there are many guests who care more about image and looks than taste or quality. But that has always been the case. If, instead of trying for easy post-bait, you take the approach of offering the guests something truly original and special, the likes will start rolling in with your integrity intact.
Deliver on the “Wow Factor”
Every bar should start by focusing on the quality of their cocktails, on really getting the details right. Make a truly great drink, and the posts and likes will follow with just a little attention to presentation. I like to think of it as expanding the reach of that “wow” moment that I always strive for in the dining room.
For years, long before Instagram was a consideration, I’ve thought about making beautiful cocktails. I wanted guests to express delight when the drink was put in front of them, for them to drink with their eyes before they ever tried it, and for the guest next to them – and the guest sitting by service bar – to ask, “What is that?!” I’ve even gone so far as to ask servers to walk through the dining room slowly, with the drink on a tray where everyone can see it, because I know it will lead to more sales of that drink!
Instagram does the same thing for bar business, only that slow tray walk is a post that reaches a guest’s 4,239 followers and gets 749 likes.
There are numerous ways that your bar can increase the “wow factor” of your cocktails, delight every guest that orders that cocktail, and potentially get likes that lead to new bar guests.
Choose Interesting Glassware
There is really no excuse to be using boring glassware at this stage of the game. Most glassware manufacturers responded to the craft cocktail movement by ordering readily available, affordable – and often even tempered! – glassware lines for commercial use. Libbey offers numerous types of coupes, copper Moscow Mule mugs, Mason drinking jars and even an entire “Retro” line. Arcoroc’s “Fusion” and “BeBop” lines are very unusual visually. And restaurant supply companies such as Atlanta Fixture and TriMark can easily order anything you want from these companies.
Many spirits brands have caught on to the fancy glassware trend, and they will offer you unique vessels for your cocktails, provided their brand is featured in the drink. Absolut Elyx is one prime example. Elyx has taken the copper mug craze and amplified it by offering copper coupes, copper owls and copper gnomes, and they even debuted a copper squirrel at Tales of the Cocktail this year.
I had great success with a Bay Breeze for Two on the menu at Ford Fry’s BeetleCat in Atlanta’s Inman Park neighborhood. Served in a large copper pineapple and featuring Absolut Elyx, the cocktail was designed to be shared, and numerous Instagram posts ensued.
Fair warning: the more unique your glassware, the more likely it is to disappear. For large or pricy pieces, consider putting a note on the menu that the glass is available for $50. If it goes home with a guest, you can consider putting the glass on their tab. When a bar in Buckhead instituted this policy for their Elyx copper owls, at least one guest returned the missing owl for a refund.
If you want to take your glassware game in a different direction, consider looking for vintage glasses. Search vintage stores, thrift shops, antique shows and eBay for one-of-a-kind finds. Just know that when these glasses break during service, as they inevitably will, they won’t be replaceable. Other ideas for unique presentation include disposables. I’ve heard of cocktails being served in Chinese take- out containers, fancy paper cups and even tiny plastic hats.
I’ve been to a renowned bar on the West Coast that served a cocktail in a delicate glass bird, and another one inside a lightbulb. The breakage must have been epic, but the Instagram posts, even more so!
I find that way too often, garnishes are an afterthought, and that shouldn’t be the case. Rather than letting your servers grab that sad lime wedge as they run from service bar, why not put as much thought into the garnish as you do the rest of the cocktail?
Having a super fresh, colorful and edible garnish speaks to the overall quality of your bar program. Having one that is also rare or unusual will get people’s attention. Consider fruits that guests don’t encounter as often, like guava, kumquats or oven-dried blood orange slices.
Save the fronds from the fresh pineapple you cut to garnish your tiki-style drinks. Use fresh herbs or edible owers to add aromatics and visual appeal. Stack several small garnishes together on a skewer and balance them on the glass’s edge.
You can even consider using non-edible garnishes like colorful straws, interesting garnish picks or plastic novelties. Hang a plastic monkey o the edge of the Monkey Gland on your classics menu. Use little disposable mermaids to garnish your Cape Cods.
I read recently about a cocktail called “Mom’s Basement” that was garnished with a Dorito and a fake joint filled with fresh thyme. Too much? Maybe, but it’s certainly something for guests to talk about on their first date!
What’s in a Name?
The right name can sometimes make or break a cocktail’s sales. And when trying to get social media exposure, having a clever name will definitely get you those necessary hashtags.
Make sure the name is catchy, appropriate to the ingredients of the cocktail, suitable to its visual appearance and that guests will feel compelled to order just to say it out loud.
The cocktail I mentioned that came in the light bulb? “Bright Idea.”
One I’ve seen served in the Absolut Elyx owl? “Owl Have at One.”
If you’re really going for shameless self- promotion, why not just give the cocktail a name with the hashtag already on it? #thanksillhaveanother.
Set the Right Example
Allow your restaurant’s social media account to set the tone by posting clever photos of your own cocktails to draw guests in. Set the cocktails up in unexpected parts of the restaurant, preferably with gorgeous lighting. Use the wood grain of your floors or the fabric of your drapes to set a pretty backdrop. Shoot from interesting angles and get extreme closeups of that perfect foam right after the cocktail is shaken.
The hashtag game can be a fun one. The right mix of silly hashtags that make people laugh (#makecocktailsgreatagain), hashtags that identify your business and hashtags that will bring your posts up on the right people’s search tab are key. Oh, and #cocktailporn is real, guys. Use it.
Don’t think that every drink on your menu has to be Instagram bait. If you have a cocktail menu with eight great drinks on it, make one or two of them real stand-outs. People may come to your bar to order “the one” that they saw on Instagram and check it off their list, but the real goal is to make them so wowed by everything else about their experience that they stay for one or two more. And more importantly, they come back!