Behind the Bar

Should You Change Your Menu Seasonally?

Bar drink menu shaped like a spinning zodiac wheel
Changing your drink menu offers the chance to create excitement about your bar program. Trick Dog releases a new menu concept twice a year, like the 2014 zodiac-inspired menu pictured above. Photo courtesy of Trick Dog.

A cocktail menu is a delicate beast. The selection of drinks has to be intriguing enough to make customers choose your bar over the one down the street, while also including the classics. Then there are the questions of how much a drink costs to make, and how stressful it is for a bartender to make five of them in a row. And once you’ve built your perfect menu, it’s time for another question: how often should you change it?

At The Roger Room in Los Angeles, the menu changes seasonally. Four times a year, the bar releases a seasonal menu to complement their core drink menu, which doesn’t change. The seasonal drinks reflect the bounty of fresh produce available in LA, and gives the bar a chance to experiment with different spirits. It’s a way for the bar to constantly offer something new and exciting, and it gives them built-in opportunities for press: every time the menu changes, they send a press release, which attracts new customers while also giving their regulars a reason to keep coming back.

The bar’s menu is also good for employee morale. General manager Matt Wise encourages his bartenders to come up drinks for the menus, and if a staffer is excited about a new product, he’ll bring it in for experimenting. It’s a way to make employees a vital part of the decision-making process, to show that their opinions and expertise are valuable.

“I ask all of our guys to play with ideas and develop drinks,” Wise says. “Once they submit a recipe, we’ll try it and tweak it, and there’s always debate over an eighth of an ounce here, an eighth of an ounce there. The process is really collaborative.”

That creativity can come at a cost. Without constant and careful calculations about par levels and inventory, it’s easy for bars to get stuck with dead stock that can’t be used for another season’s drinks — no one wants a drink with pine liqueur in the middle of July.

“Well, we do get stuck with bottles,” Wise says with a laugh. “If we do a cocktail and we order a case of this or a case of that and it doesn’t move as well, we definitely sit on product sometimes, but we’re willing to take that risk.”

There’s also the issue of consistency. At The Roger Room, they keep a compendium of all the drink recipes from every seasonal menu. If a customer comes in asking for the blackberry cocktail they had in May of 2011, any Roger Room bartender, even if they started the week before, can replicate it. But it’s a risk inherent in a seasonal menu: if you have a list that depends on constantly changing variables like what’s available at the farmer’s market, you might disappoint customers if they visit in September and can’t get the rhubarb cocktail you made them in spring.

At Minneapolis's Marvel Bar, they’ll do some blended drinks in the summer and hot drinks in the winter, but they’ll rarely make big changes to their menu. “The big grand seasonal menu change, it’s one way of forcing creativity, but on our end, we see it more as a disservice to the customers if we can’t then make every one of those drinks every time someone comes in,” says Peder Schweigert, general manager. Instead, the bar focuses on perfecting their carefully arranged list of drinks and making them perfectly every single time.

Besides, their customers aren’t necessarily looking to drink seasonally, Schweigert says. “Year after year, in the summer, our best selling drink is an Old Fashioned. In the winter, people like to take vacations, even if it just means walking into our bar and ordering a Daiquiri. We go through phases [where] in January, we’ll sell more Daiquiris than we do in the summer.”

Marvel Bar changes things in other ways. Instead of a seasonal menu, they might do a one-off event highlighting a particular ingredient. Or they’ll incorporate different, small batch spirits, which are a lower financial risk than a box of fruits that spoils in a week.

In San Francisco, Trick Dog has an approach somewhere between Marvel Bar’s stability and the ever-changing Roger Room. Twice a year, Trick Dog changes their entire menu, including their menu design and decor to focus on a new, abstract theme: a politics themed menu with cocktail descriptions printed on campaign buttons, a conspiracy theory menu encased in a confidential-looking file, an rotating astrological wheel of drinks. (The artistic menus have become so popular that the bar was forced to start printing them in larger sizes to make them more difficult to steal.) Since they keep the theme a secret, there’s always a flurry of excited local press and big crowds the week of the menu release.

“When we first opened, I had the idea to change the menu every six months, [a] bottom to top design change to keep us entertained and interested,” says Scott Baird, one of Trick Dog’s founding partners. “The point was to challenge ourselves.You can’t just create drinks, you have to create something else creative. For some people, maybe it’s an all brandy menu, or ‘this is my take on turn of the century whatever.’ Whatever the thing is, I think a point of view and a perspective is great.”

Since the menu only changes twice a year, the staff has to be careful when designing drinks, ensuring that whatever seasonal produce they’re using will be available for six months. Or they’ll figure out a way to preserve an ingredient, creating a blood orange liqueur or kumquat syrup.

Occasionally, customers will come in asking for a past drink that staff can’t replicate, since it required a hyper-specific ingredient like white sage or chestnut honey. But since the bar has built a reputation as a place for dynamic, original cocktails, most customers are understanding, Baird says.

“It keeps our clientele excited and interested,” he says. “It’s expansive for everybody. It’s expansive for us and our imaginations — delivering creative and fun new drinks and menus — and it’s expansive for them and their appreciation of new flavors and new things.”

Deciding whether or not to switch to a seasonal menu is a personal decision, one that depends on your bar’s location, your finances, your customers and on a more philosophical level, your identity. Who are you as a bar? Why do customers go to your bar? If you can afford to take a calculated risk, it’s easy to test the waters with a small menu of seasonal cocktails. It might be a success, or a dismal failure — what works for Trick Dog, Marvel Bar or The Roger Room might not work for you, and that’s ok.

“Just be you,” Baird says. “If you want to have ten really classic drinks, and you just make those perfectly, that menu is as good as any menu in the world. [If] you go super high concept — ’this is my menu I’ve created because I put myself in my mind on Mars in 3010’ — great, that’s also an awesome menu. As long as you're fully committed to it, you really believe in it, and you have an honest connection to it, I think the menu will deliver. Trying to please everyone is when you fail.”

Try Chamberlain's Sunset, a cocktail from The Roger Room's forthcoming spring menu.

Shelby Pope is a writer in Berkeley.

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