The coronavirus pandemic has had devastating effects on the restaurant business. Experts estimate that more than 20,000 restaurants have closed their doors permanently and many more are likely to follow. Some restaurants, however, have been quite resourceful in figuring out ways to survive, if not exactly thrive. In many locales, outdoor dining has been a key to survival in conditions where demand and capacity have been reduced. Takeaway and delivery programs have also played a part in the new normal for restaurants. This is especially true in the case of high-profit specialty cocktails.
In an effort to support their bars and restaurants, 30 states and DC have passed some sort of law allowing these establishments to provide their customers to-go alcoholic beverages. (At the end of June, the state of Iowa made its law permanent). As was the case before the pandemic, these laws vary widely. Operators have had to be keenly aware of the specifics and tailor their programs to comply. But many have provided their clientele with high-quality popular offerings. Some may even be looking to continue and grow these programs beyond the current necessity.
There’s nothing simple about crafting a great to-go cocktail program. But the experiences of some successful operators certainly do provide some direction. Here are some of the key considerations.
The old adage says, “We eat with our eyes.” We drink with them, too. For all time, savvy operators have known that the appearance of a drink and the environment in which it is consumed are critical to a satisfying experience. Off-premise consumption doesn’t allow for creating the atmosphere within which cocktails are consumed, so it’s important to provide other pleasant aesthetics. The most important is packaging. Like a great glass, a great package enhances the enjoyment of the drink. For example, clear glass bottles are weighty and allow for beautifully displaying colorful liquids and garnishes. Carefully curated fonts, logos, graphics and photos can help communicate the vibe in your establishment. Messages and recipes can turn an impersonal experience more personal.
Choosing which cocktails to offer to go can be a difficult choice. Some customers will certainly prefer to offer their favorite from your specialty menu while others will want to drink what they want to drink. For most it may be unrealistic to provide a full complement of offerings. This might be especially true for bars and restaurants that are currently offering in-person dining and need to service these customers at the same time. Considering unique formats and packaging, making your entire menu of drinks to go “a la minute,” can slow things down in house.
Also, some cocktails simply don’t hold or travel well. Carbonated mixers should be consumed immediately or go flat and mostly alcohol forward drinks hold best. Avoiding the former and focusing on the latter gives you the best chance at success.
The format in which you offer your drinks is a final and key consideration. At the beginning of the pandemic, the state of Massachusetts allowed restaurants to sell beer and wine to go, but not cocktails. Ran Duan is a James Beard Nominee and Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Award Winner. He is a creative bar owner and practitioner and a Johnson & Wales University alum. He began offering Blossom Mixers, cocktail kits that included everything a customer needed to mix signature Blossom Bar Cocktails … everything, that is, except for the booze. Duan has gone so far as to offer cocktail ice cubes, garnish kits and glassware to help take the experience to ever-higher levels. He has since moved on to offering mixed drinks that include the spirit, as Massachusetts Governor Baker has eased some restrictions but Duan still offers his popular Blossom Mixers.
Some operators have focused on fresh-made cocktails ordered and ready in time. Others have focused on bottled or batched cocktails to ease the stress during whatever peak busy periods still exist. As mentioned above, drinks in this format can be limited by mixers and are best if more alcohol forward. Some prior experience with batching and bottling is best for successful results to be achieved. Still, others have created a pleasing combination of the two on their menus.
Again, in some cases format can be dictated by the law. Some states only allow for two portions of mixed cocktails to be sold at a time. I recently spent some time with a former student of mine whose bar is offering something similar but who is considering offering spirited cocktails and kits in larger formats to accommodate customers looking to serve their drinks to smaller groups of guests.
Some Final Thoughts
Without a doubt, laws allowing to-go cocktails have provided a welcome lifeline for restaurants struggling to survive during these unprecedented times. That said, there are still a number of questions that need to be answered if the service is to continue. While 80% of Americans are in favor of to-go alcoholic beverages, some public health advocates are concerned about overconsumption, public consumption, and especially underage consumption, as the result of loosening tight controls. The efficacy of third-party delivery by companies like Uber Eats and GrubHub has also been questioned. In response, Health Communications has tailored its TIPS Responsible Beverage Service Program to account for this new mode of delivery as many operators hope that their locales follow the lead of Iowa and permanently allow service to go.
Are you interested in this topic? Considering a future in the industry? Give yourself a headstart with a bachelor’s degree in culinary arts & food service management from Johnson & Wales University. To learn more, complete the Request Info form, call 855-JWU-1881, or email [email protected].