The advent of iPhones and Instagram has put bars under increasing pressure to reinvent themselves and their menus. Michael Butt looks at a cycle threatening to spiral out of control
In 2005, I created one of the most famous cocktails ever. It fails to be classed as a modern classic – the goal of all creative bartenders – for two very important reasons. First of all, although very popular, it failed to make the jump from being a drink enjoyed in one bar to one called for in bars across the world. Second, it was just a rip-off of a Fish House Punch served in a big wooden box.
Mahiki’s Pieces of Eight was a triumph. This despite the fact that its name was too much of a mouthful for our well-to-do consumers, who just called it a Treasure Chest. They ordered and paid extortionately for it in their thousands. When originally equipping the bar, we only ever thought we would need two chests, not the 25 that were regularly in simultaneous use during a service.
So why was it not a global hit? The advent of the camera phone. In 2005, we were all carrying Razrs or Nokias with a pop-up function. Phones were only just starting to have cameras with megapixel resolution. You still couldn’t see much on the photos, but you could just about recognise a treasure chest. It was one of the first Instagram-style moments.
Before long we were doing ski boots and ice chalets and camel toes and thunder gods, Mayan temples and Luchador masks, ammo chests and warheads and Heath Robinson mousetraps. Basically anything you could put a drink in and photograph.
The point is that the ‘occasion’ was a hit and each venue realised that it had to have its own signature sharing drink for people to photograph themselves
and their friends drinking.
The camera phone allowed them to recreate the sharing shots of drunken royals, which become the best way to ‘share’ great experiences… and in the case of the Treasure Chest, piece together what the hell happened after you drank half a bottle of rum, a bottle of champagne and a bit of juice through a really long straw.
It always got the party started, which you could argue is why Mahiki is still going strong after 13 years.
With all of us now generating countless terabytes of content, someone only had to figure out how to monetise its distribution – and along came Zuck. But for us in the bar industry, the real understanding of the value of user-generated content probably hit in 2013 with Dominique Ansel’s transformation from being a relatively successful baker to a worldwide patisserie phenomenon with hours-long queues outside the shop.
The need for recipes to fulfil a preconceived presentation leads to ass-backwards mixology
Customers bought one of her new ‘cronuts’, then voluntarily marketed it to all their friends, who came and bought one and voluntarily marketed it to all theirs. This shift away from expensive paid-for PR to free advertising at the point of production changed the drinks world.
The menu at Mahiki was ahead of its time – although if you were Trader Vic’s founder Victor Bergeron you would say 70 years behind. We invested a good deal of money and time differentiating each individual drink with its own glass, ceramic or vessel, and then having these drawn by an artist.
This was to help customers choose a drink not only on the basis of its ingredients, but also with an eye to its appearance. The approach has been a success, at least for the creator of the drinks, as that initial investment has ensured the longevity of the majority of the recipes. But the pace of promotion ha accelerated to such a speed that this approach will no longer guarantee even that.
The art of reinvention
The Artesian was voted best bar in the world four times in a row; indeed, it had to abandon a whole spirit category just to be able to fit all its awards on the bar shelves. Alex Kratena and Simone Caporale were consummate hosts, with a cohort of unsung service heroes, delivering fantastic service in a busy bar.
The reason one year of being the best bar became two, two became three, and so on, was its continual reinvention of the drinks offer.
How to do it right
Invest creativity and money in the menu This is the first thing the guest sees and possibly photographs. The drinks listed are then freed from the requirement to all be new or exciting, and only have to taste delicious. Callooh Callay is a past master at this approach and I love Scarfes Bar’s menu.
Don’t change all the drinks Unless you are willing to make a lot of unlisted classics for bemused customers. A well-promoted seasonal section of new excellent drinks, with creative presentation, will provide sufficient camera fodder without requiring bartenders and customers to totally leave their comfort zone.
Bartenders get bored easily If you see ‘open drink’ appearing high up on your product mix, your menu needs work or refreshing, as the staff are bored of making the drinks. Help them express their creativity externally by pushing them to enter cocktail competitions.
Don’t forget the basics Every ingredient needs to justify its presence in a stock list, ideally by being featured in more than one drink. Every customer needs to be catered for, with drinks for neophytes and cognoscenti. Remember the idea of a treat. A drink that stands out sells through theatre to the next table and is more likely to be shared on social media.
If you are launching a new menu with the goal of creating a splash, give it your all. Bartenders need time to practise every drink until it is not just perfectly made, but quick. Spend the money to realise ideas properly, half-cocked always looks that way. Be proud, invite everybody and give them free stuff. Sexy Fish is the archetype here.
The combination of innovative menu presentation with bespoke service-ware and vessels was not that different from Mahiki’s the decade before, but the level of creativity demonstrated was unique. Add in the financial backing of the hotel, whose increase in both rack rate and occupancy percentage from having such a great bar meant that normal bar economics could be suspended, and the individual drink presentations were perfectly realised.
There was a difference though. Artesian embraced the concept of high fashion. Some drinks were the equivalent of walking down the runway wearing a chicken coop and crochet neoprene. But more importantly, they changed faster, with the regularity of high-fashion trends. Last season’s drinks were discarded, their vessels decommissioned and their specs consigned to the backup hard-drive.
Scourge of the new
Now we get to the problems of social media-based marketing. Visual content requires visual differentiation. A beautiful glass will only hold the attention if it is a new object or has a new garnish, so the constant quest for something new begins.
Success encourages imitation, but as each Instagrammer has their own distinct set of followers, it is possible for a parallel evolution of ideas to occur. You could invest huge amounts of effort on an idea, only to find that its novelty has been wiped out by someone else’s news splash.
The focus on visual appearance and point of difference, alongside the ever-increasing speed of menu cycles, means the quality of a drink’s taste is suffering.
The glass has become more important than the liquid, and the demand to fill 20 spaces on a new list has led to the inclusion of drinks that have not yet been properly perfected and, unfortunately, quite a few that no amount of tweaking will ever save from being undrinkable.
The requirement for a recipe to fulfil a preconceived presentation leads to ass-backwards mixology. Drinks are engineered to fit a pre-chosen vessel or menu theme, and these shackles on the organic process of drinks creation often lead to compromised drinks.
Recipes should taste delicious first, then a presentation should be found to suit. This applies equally to trendy ingredients. Don’t try and shoehorn them willy nilly into totally unsuitable recipes.
Recipes should taste delicious first, then a presentation should be found to suit
This also happens with whole menus, especially when they are designed to a deadline. It is hard to produce a truly balanced menu, with the perfect number of short or long, boozy or easy-drinking, vodka or amaro, everyday or treat options that have all been correctly costed, their production times measured and their preparation feasibility studied.
These errors cost bars money, in both the short and the long term, and that’s before you get into the money spent on the production of the new list.
The voracious nature of social media consumption, where hundreds of hours of work can be swiped past in a matter of milliseconds, means that the chance of creating a cronut is very small. It’s almost like panning for gold.
In the gold rush, it wasn’t the prospectors who succeeded, it was the people who sold picks and shovels. If you make good drinks, serve them with charm and sell them at a sensible price, then the rest will take care of itself.