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5 Ways Restaurateurs Are Building Better Bar Programs

The creative new ideas and revenue streams experts are using to future-proof their business.

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It’s no secret that a buzzing bar program can be the difference between a restaurant that’s barely squeaking by, and one that’s comfortably in the black. It’s why loosened restrictions on alcohol sales are very good news for restaurateurs. But when the tavern on the corner, bistro down the block, and your favorite pizzeria are all selling cocktails to-go, it’s challenging to stand out from the crowd. That’s why smart restaurateurs have built creative new lines of business like cocktail delivery services, wine clubs, to-go food pairings, and retail experiences that keep even the most discerning customers coming back for more.

In a recent panel presented in partnership with Square, host Aarti Sequeira spoke with three experts at creating successful bar programs: Chelsea Gregoire, owner of hospitality consulting group Drinkable Genius; Linden Pride, founding partner at Figure of 8 Hospitality and owner of acclaimed NYC restaurant Dante; and Nelson German, owner of Oakland favorites alaMar Kitchen & Bar and Sobra Mesa. Ahead, they’ll share how they’ve streamlined operations, and pioneered new business models and revenue streams that are performing so well, they’re here to stay.

1. Take the ambiance to go

All panelists agreed that their bar programs have buoyed — or even saved — their business during difficult times. As consultant Chelsea Gregoire, who helps restaurateurs implement and optimize their bar programs, puts it: “If you’re an operator that’s dealt with alcohol at any point, you know that’s where your best costs and profit margins live.” But how to stand out from the crowd when you’re one of hundreds of restaurants serving takeout cocktails? At Dante, owner Linden Pride focused on serving to-go with a side of ambiance.

At first, that meant repurposing the restaurant’s standard takeaway coffee cups — which are cheekily printed with the phrase, “Next time, join us for a Negroni” — to serve actual Negronis. Customers loved the slightly subversive thrill of sipping their cocktails out of a coffee cup. Next, he developed uncommonly stylish to-go cocktail kits, such as The Martini Hour, which contains small-batch servings of four different award-winning martinis. Each kit is styled with custom labels, and includes a selection of Dante coasters, matches, and a QR-code-linked playlist to stream at home.

These thoughtful audio and visual touches enhance the experience of sipping at home and help recreate Dante’s in-person ambiance. It’s a reflection of Pride’s philosophy: “We like to surround the experience of our guests. It’s not just about the cocktail — it’s the music, ambience, lighting that allows you to check out of your day and into a relaxing moment. We wanted to take that into people’s homes.”

Shutterstock / Andrii Medvednikov
Shutterstock / Brent Hofacker

2. Focus on fun

In a year when entertainment options were limited to say the least, smart restaurateurs capitalized on customers’ hunger for fun as well as food. Nelson German saw success by introducing virtual cooking and cocktail demonstrations through alaMar and Sobra Mesa. Cleverly, demos were bundled with meal and cocktail kits providing all the ingredients fans needed to make their favorites at home. Key to the program’s success is personalization — German works directly with virtual experiences customers to craft their meal or cocktail kit, and demonstrates the cooking himself, offering trivia and tasting notes along the way.

For restaurant lovers, the chance to create alongside a beloved chef is too good to pass up. The virtual events have also proven popular as corporate team-building and birthday-party activities. They’ve been such a success, German will continue to offer them even as indoor dining re-opens. “People want to do something unique, hands-on, and have fun with loved ones,” German says. “It’s a way of connecting and having this amazing, creative experience.”

3. Cultivate a community

The panel members stressed the importance of giving to one’s community during difficult times — and noted that the community you support will often support your business, too. For several years, Linden Pride has worked closely with the NYC non-profit God’s Love We Deliver to bring meals to those in need, and during the pandemic he served daily, free “family meals” to hospitality workers who were unemployed as a result of dining shutdowns. Chelsea Gregoire will soon open a bar in Baltimore called Church — a name referencing both Gregoire’s Master’s degree in theology, and the bar’s mission to serve community and staff. Church will offer services like free enrichment classes for staff, and provide free gathering space for local non-profit groups.

In the last year, German and staff have provided hundreds of meals to healthcare workers, people experiencing homelessness and food insecurity in East Oakland, and to those protesting in the wake of the George Floyd killing. “I wanted to be out protesting, but I couldn’t because I was one of the only ones cooking in my restaurant,” German says. “So I decided to give some meals, some cocktails, be part of the community and be there for those who are fighting for people like me.” In turn, he says, many of those community members have become loyal customers. “People we helped out during those times came back to purchase from us and started doing virtual demos with us to help us out. When you do good deeds, it always comes full circle.”

4. Leverage technology to streamline systems

The panelists agreed that technology has played a key role in how they connect to their customers and introduce new revenue models — one reason why Gregoire often focuses on helping clients improve their social media and web presences, and choose the right point of sale system to coordinate product offerings. In a time when many owners are doing more of the cooking than ever before, Gregoire points out, “you don’t have a ton of time, so finding the right point of sale package takes that burden off of you and allows you to streamline and automate your processes. It’s really helpful in this time.”

For many restaurateurs, that means using Square to help automate and coordinate workflows. Square offers a suite of solutions for your bar or restaurant, like services to help you get your web storefront up and running fast, point of sale solutions that streamline orders from multiple platforms, and marketing tools to help you find and keep your best customers.

Linden Pride also leaned into tech, creating an app for his restaurant that allowed him to “create a cleaner interface between customers and the restaurant.” The app is integrated with Square, which was “seamless and allowed us to get online really quickly,” Pride says, and customers continue to order through it daily even as NYC loosens dining restrictions. “I never imagined the restaurant would need an app, but it continues to be a great source of revenue for us,” he says. “It’s one of those things where we’ve accelerated by about five years from a technological standpoint, but we’re grateful we had the time to build it.”

5. Subscription services for the win

Another successful new revenue stream is the subscription-based model. Nelson German introduced Sobra Mesa’s “Cocktail Club,” which offers subscriptions at multiple tiers ranging from $50 to $125 per month. Subscribers get a selection of cocktails and tasting flights curated around a featured spirit, tapas tailored to their drinks, plus tasting notes, educational materials, and an invitation to a “virtual fireside chat” with German and a mixologist demonstrating how to recreate each item at home. Subscription packages have been so successful, some are sold out.

German embraces it as a way to “tell a story,” educate, and give customers a great time. It’s a program he intends to carry forward. “I think it’s the way of the future — and it’s really fun.”

Pride echoes those sentiments. “A lot of these programs are very exciting. They’re here to stay. I’m hoping this will be the roaring ‘20s for our industry as we see more vaccinations and so forth. I’m very optimistic and excited about where we’re headed as an industry.”

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