Raising the bar

Semillon martinis anyone? Genevieve, from Danks Street Depot in Sydney, lines them up.

Semillon martinis anyone? Genevieve, from Danks Street Depot in Sydney, lines them up.

Increasing competition from pubs has restaurants looking for other options to keep their customers. By Micaela di Piramo

On 28 September, Sydney restaurant Danks Street Depot officially opened its renovated premises. The already popular restaurant increased its seating area from 47 to 84 and put in a designated bar area. The reason for the renovation? “To have some fun,” says owner and chef Jared Ingersoll. On a more serious note, he says the bar is another facility to offer diners in an increasingly competitive area. People can drop in for an after-work drink at around 5pm. By 6.45pm they might decide they’d like a cocktail and half an hour later, they might order a main course. “It has definitely helped our bottom line,” says Ingersoll.

Echoing Ingersoll, Ken Burgin of Profitable Hospitality says cocktails are “a great way to spark up your drinks menu and introduce a bit of fun and theatre”. He believes many restaurants haven’t fully realised the potential of cocktails to generate extra revenue. With increasing competition from pubs with smart restaurant-standard dining rooms or pubs offering $5 steaks, restaurants can offer customers an extra service with a stylish drinks list that includes traditional cocktails and at least four or five original ‘house drinks’.

“Just as specials are offered on the food menu, a restaurant can offer special drinks that aren’t available anywhere else and the staff can be really creative with these. Don’t think you have to serve the perfect martini. Putting your own name to a cocktail can be a chance to experiment.

“More importantly,” he continues, “BYO is an entrenched part of the Australian culture, even for fine-dining restaurants, but people can’t bring their own cocktails”.

And while cocktails are traditionally seen as pre-dinner drinks, he suggests offering a sweet cocktail (see the Honey Dip recipe on page 43) as an alternative to dessert. “Often, when people have had a nice meal and are sitting back to relax, they may feel too full for dessert but a cocktail is a lighter alternative.”

He also cites the return of the Irish coffee and its many variations and the Italian ‘affogato’ dessert—an espresso poured over a scoop of vanilla ice cream with a shot of Sambuca or Frangelico. As for the future, Burgin sees a trend towards fruit-and-ice, frappe-style cocktails and aperitifs.

A friendly face

Blame it on the longer days, the warmer weather or even the approaching festive season but cocktail consumption is on the rise.

“There is a cocktail culture developing,” says John Hudson, national business manager of Coca-Cola Amatil. “More people are drinking cocktails and as a result there are now more places offering cocktails.”

Dedicating valuable space to a bar area is a substantial investment for any restaurant, says Tony Eldred, managing director of Melbourne-based Eldred Hospitality. There are the setting-up costs—the stock, the refrigeration and display equipment and the extra staff. And there is the risk of downtime outside the traditionally busy nights (Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays).

Careful recruiting and training staff is critical to ensuring your bar is a success, says Eldred. “Waiting staff is sales staff. They need to talk to customers and encourage them to try a new product.” Ingersoll concurs. “A good bartender plays a huge part in selling cocktails. I’ve watched people walk up to the bar and get involved as the drinks are being made,” he says.

If the decor and ambience are right, a friendly face with the right approach can turn a quick pre-dinner drink into a more elaborate affair. People tend to order the same drink out of habit and a cocktail list full of new and exotic drinks can be overwhelming. But often a recommendation is all it takes to sway someone from their habitual drink of choice.

“Train and coach your staff,” says Burgin. “A little conversation goes a long way but it needs to be subtle. Start by offering water, build a rapport, then introduce the possibility of a pre-dinner drink.”

What never fails, he says, is a personal endorsement such as ‘our bartender makes the best martini’ or a reassurance that what’s on offer has been tested and approved. And, he warns, make sure your staff has tried the cocktails and can answer questions about them. When promoting cocktails or mixed drinks, Hudson stresses the importance of visual merchandising on tables, such as pictorial tent cards. “People are willing to try something different if they can see it.”

Generally, he says, whichever drink is on the tent card will end up being the most popular drink on the night.

Eldred suggests going further and offering customers samples of house drinks. This proactive approach, he says, is “a great way to get people to try something new”.

Both Eldred and Hudson have noticed a surge in the popularity of pre-mixed drinks. While these don’t offer the glamour of a cocktail, they do have several advantages: they are more cost-effective than stocking mixers and spirits, they simplify stocktaking as they are already in measured portions and they are quick and easy to serve, saving on time and wastage.

A fluid approach

But restaurant bars are about more than their liquid offerings. An inviting, well-run bar area can help increase table turnover, says Eldred, especially if the restaurant doesn’t take bookings. People are more likely to turn up and take a chance on getting a table if they know they can have a drink while waiting. “It gives people something to do if they have to wait 20 minutes for a table,” he says.

Perry Sampson, restaurant supervisor at Brisbane’s Il Centro Restaurant and Bar, says his restaurant often caters for big groups and the bar is their meeting place. The bar, he says, is also the restaurant’s only smoking area and as such it attracts “an after-dinner crowd in search of coffee, liqueurs and cigarettes”.

Over at Melbourne’s Red Orange Bistro & Bar, assistant manager Thomas Jones has found that “about half of our customers drink cocktails”. The set-up of the bistro—there’s a formal dining room upstairs, and a ‘fairytale’ courtyard and a more casual eating area downstairs—means customers have several eating options, from snacks and quick lunches to special occasion dinners. The fact that they are able to offer cocktails, says Jones, has broadened Red Orange’s appeal even further.

Dank Street’s Ingersoll agrees that the newly added bar has made his restaurant a more viable option for functions. “And since we’ve had the bar,” he says, “people are taking us more seriously. Whereas previously they would haggle over the price of a function, now they accept it much more readily.”

The man behind such kitchen-meets-bar creations as the Quince Royale, the Pear Martini and the Rhubarb Mojito (see recipe below) is definitely having fun- behind the counter. But the driving force, says Ingersoll, is the customer. “It’s all about giving them something different and exceeding their expectations. It all comes down to having a fluid approach.” Lets drink to that.

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