Behind the Bar

How to Take Your Bar Program From Good to Great

A person lighting a flame over a cocktail.
Taking your bar from good to great means heightening every aspect of the guest experience. (Photo: MaximFesenko /iStock)

As a bar owner, it’s only natural to strive for excellence. Whether you hope to see your bar become a neighborhood favorite or to win highly competitive international awards, why settle for good when your bar can be great? Although “greatness” is a subjective distinction, there are experts in the matter. For the past 10 years, Tales of the Cocktail has hosted the Spirited Awards, in which a group of esteemed judges recognize some of the world's best bars in a variety of categories. We spoke with four judges about what takes a bar to the next level to learn how you can push your bar program to new heights.

To begin with, don’t overlook the little things.

We asked Spirited Award judges about what aspects of the bar often get overlooked, but actually make a big difference in setting some bars above the rest. Whether it’s an attitude, a physical feature of your bar or some combination of the two, the distinguishing elements of a noteworthy bar might be different than you think. So, what are the things bar owners shouldn’t leave unnoticed?

Phillip Duff (Director of Liquid Solutions Bar & Beverage Consulting, Tales of the Cocktail Director of Education): “Lighting!”

Jackson Cannon (Owner of The Hawthorne, U.S. Judging Committee Chairman): “Friendliness with cleanliness.”

Giuseppe Gallo (Founder and Director of Ital Spirits): “Guest relation and service should be the core and not just one of the topic to be covered during a beverage program. We tend to overthink cocktail techniques instead of focusing on customers.”

Ian McLaren (Director of Trade Advocacy & Training for BACARDI USA Inc.): “The gulf in understanding of cocktails between bartenders and guests is a lot bigger than most think. Cocktail menus often don't carry vital information which would allow guests to make informed choices without needing to consult staff. Use the menu to tell people what the drink is going to taste like instead of using the limited real estate to list the multiple and sometimes obscure ingredients. If you as a bartender have only just heard/tried an ingredient, it could be years before it enters the general public's consciousness so don't try to get them order that obscure amaro by listing its name — describe it in terms more people understand.”

Harness the power of social media

Looking to get noticed as a former nominee going for the gold, or as a newcomer flying under the radar? The solution is, quite literally, at your fingertips. Social media and PR can be a bar’s best toolset. After all, what’s the use in making beautiful, delicious, inventive drinks and tending to every element of your bar if no one knows what you’re doing? Express what makes your bar exceptional. When it comes to creating widespread awareness of your bar, communications can make all the difference.

Duff: “[Social media] creates a connection between the bar and the wider world, so people who have not yet visited can feel as if they know it. Social media also allows you to enhance any real world efforts, for example, sharing beautiful photos of beautiful cocktails, menus and events.”

Gallo: “Ensure the bar industry is aware of your establishment with the right PR strategy. Deliver a high standard beverage program and don’t imitate or copy others, but try to be different and unique.”

McLaren: “A bar with no social presence and a socially reclusive bar team will always struggle for recognition.”

Get out there

But it takes more than a thriving web presence to set your bar apart. As a bar owner, you and your team have to join in the (real life) bar community at large. Plug in, gain inspiration, share ideas and foster community — this won’t just improve your bar, it will enrich your life.

Duff: “Get out there. Come to Tales. Meet people. Go to all the cocktail, liquor and bartender events you can. Engage on social media. When you have seen enough and thought enough, start doing things. Make sure as many judges as possible visit your bar, by hook or by crook.”

McLaren: “Get active! Communicate at every opportunity; share your success and get out and meet people. Failing that, make sure that the people who like what you are doing are sharing on your behalf. Work with as many people as possible who can help you to be recognized. Be humble and generous with your time and try to bring others on the journey as, typically, winning programs come from strong communities.”

Keep on keepin’ on

At many major awards ceremonies, there are bars that are nominated repeatedly, yet they don’t win. Although it’s an incredible honor to receive a nomination, these bars often return home with renewed determination to bring home the prize next year. So, how do these bars go from “nominee” to “winner”?

Duff: “Almost always they began to make winning one of their overall business goals, and devoted time, effort, planning and budget to it.”

Mclaren: “In most cases I can't think that they changed their program leading to a win. For most it is the confluence of visibility, judge patronage and quality that leads to an eventual win.”

The moral of the story

Gallo: “Awards are important but not everything. It's nice to be recognized, but only one can win. Respect the winners and learn from them, and don't complain or criticize. Be reasonable and never forget that only one can win each year!”

Mclaren: “Keep doing what you do ... don't try to be something else to win an award. Strive for continuous optimization of your own idea; can you be faster, more creative, cleaner, more social, more engaged in the support of the community around you? All these things will move you closer to the elusive win.”

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