The past year has felt like death by a thousand cuts for and his business partners, the on-trade. As bars were preparing to reopen – albeit with further restrictions – Laura Foster spoke to some of the industry’s savviest operators about how they’re planning to maximise their takings.
Covid hasn’t been the easiest ride for Alastair Burgess and his business partners, but he still seems remarkably buoyant. The Happiness Forgets and Ever After owner recently announced the closure of Original Sin in Stoke Newington, but he declares that the rest of the business is looking a lot more stable.
This isn’t stopping him from employing some robust measures to ensure his bottom line is healthy, however. “We’ve changed around all of our cocktail menus to be only pouring spirits, and we got retros on, to maximise GPs,” he explains. “Beefeater is a really good gin, so let’s put three Beefeater drinks on our menu, so that we could still turn a profit on what we’re selling.”
Burgess acknowledges that the business has had great support from distributors.
“I didn’t want to go down the route of brands paying for everything, because I like to run my business like I want. There are no pouring deals or listing fees on the menu. But we pick things and get a good price on it.
“The Perfect Storm, for instance, is one of our bestselling drinks and uses Skipper dark rum. So we went to Mangrove and said ‘I’ve already got Skipper’s on the menu, I like it, it’s going to sell well, can you give me a good retro?’”
As for product choice, Burgess thinks now is the time to identify the quality workhorses of the spirits world. “There are great spirits out there that don’t cost the earth: Beefeater, Buffalo Trace... you don’t have to sit there and be wanky about products. You don’t need the world’s greatest vermouth when you’ve got Martini Rosso.”
Strength in numbers
For Adam Wilson, head of menu development and drinks training at The Liars Group, it’s about creating “smashable” drinks that will sell hand over fist, rather than increasing GP on drinks per se.
“Our menus have always been a mix of about 60% to 80% GP across the different drinks, averaging out to be about 70% across a menu, and we won’t really be changing that approach,” he says. “We’re not consciously nibbling away at value for the guests.
"My ethos is to make super-fun, easy-drinking cocktails. We’ve focused on making the product more attractive than making more money out of a given product.
“I’d rather sell 100 drinks at 60% GP than 30 at 80%. People up here are very price conscious. We’ve had to up the prices a touch due to the increase in minimum wage and reductions in venue capacity, but rather than chase our tails and make up money for the past 12 months, the general attitude across the business is let’s just get back and get people in again.”
With a plethora of different venues in the group, all with completely different ‘personalities’, Wilson is approaching the drinks menu for each business separately, but he constantly uses the word “fun” when discussing them.
The plan for Cane & Grain sounds sensible. “Cane has always been quite rock ’n’ roll-y, so we’re going all-out with delicious party drinks without doing anything too clever.
“With the staff having been off for 12 months we’re keeping things simple, minimising prep, using readily available ingredients in fun ways and minimising potential waste. We don’t know what our level of custom is going to be like, so we’re focusing on ingredients off the rail.”
Need for speed
In Edinburgh, Sian Buchan, co-owner of late-night venue Uno Mas, the past year has been a bizarre rollercoaster, given that she and John Mclellan launched the business just weeks before the first lockdown.
While restrictions have meant that by autumn they were “a late-night music venue without music or late nights”, the systems they’d put in place to ensure that drinks could be pushed out quickly have stood them in good stead.
“Simplicity is something that we knew we wanted, so if you ordered a drink at 5pm or at 2am it would be the same quality that you’d get,” she says. “So we have a draft cocktail system and everything is pre-batched and ready to go to make it as quick, efficient and simple as we can.
"All the draft cocktails are carbonated, tall, over ice. Easy and delicious is the vibe we are going for. It’s less about how good the GP is as how quickly and efficiently we can get it out to people.”
Buchan says that it’s still early days for the business, but they’re watching what there’s demand for and finding the smartest ways of meeting those needs.
“What we planned for and what we’ve ended up with are two very different things. If you told me we’d be selling 10 kegs of Tenants in a night I’d have said ‘No we’re not, I’m a cocktail bartender!’, but if something’s popular, then have lots of it.”
The reopening of bars and the restrictions that come with it will bring more challenging times for operators, but a bit of business savvy and some hard graft will hopefully see most venues pull through.
BUSINESS- BOOSTING DRINKS
Created by Geoff Robinson for Happiness Forgets
“It’s one of our two signature cocktails, has a GP of 79% and has been consistently our first or second biggest-selling drink over the last nine years.” – Alastair Burgess
Garnish: Grapefruit wedge Method: Shake ingredients, strain and top with soda
• 25ml Beefeater
• 25ml yuzushu sake
• 25ml grapefruit juice
• 15ml lemon juice
• 15ml sugar syrup
• Soda top
Created by Adam Wilson for Cane & Grain
“The fact that half of the drink is made with Barr’s cream soda balanced out the cost of Black Cow Strawberry. I tried it with a fancy cream soda and it didn’t work.” – Adam Wilson
Garnish: Pink grapefruit slice Method: Build ingredients over cubed ice, top with cream soda
• 25ml Black Cow Strawberry
• 20ml Dolin Chamberyzette Strawberry Liqueur
• 5ml Cocchi Americano Rosa
• 100ml Barr’s cream soda
Created by Kat Stanley-Whyte for Uno Mas
“This is really simple but really popular. If people order one they order two or three more, and it’s a GP winner.” – Sian Buchan Glass: Highball
Garnish: Dehydrated apple and mint sprig
Method: Shake and strain over ice
• 37.5ml Bacardi
• 12.5ml Ancho Reyes Verde
• 15ml homemade spice syrup
• 20ml lime
• 40ml cloudy apple juice