If you’ve heard of Leo Robitschek, it’s for good reason. Before becoming vice president of food and beverage for Sydell Group, he amassed years of experience consulting on bar programs between Europe and the Americas.
For Robitschek, most important is that any concept you choose must be clear to the customer.
“There are amazing bar programs that have existed that have not been successful because they're in places that just don't make sense.”
He cites an Italian bar in New York City founded by some industry stalwarts which decided on a tiki bar concept. “People just had no clue what to expect…So while the restaurant was good, and the bar was good, together it didn't fit.”
Of course, this still begs the question of finding the right concept.
Look around you
The environment is an obvious source of inspiration, even in frost-covered Sweden. Hampus Thunholm at Roda Huset in Stockholm has won acclaim for his menu map that takes customers on a cross-country taste tour – and there’s nary a meatball or herring in sight.
Cocktails are named simply for their ingredients: Frozen Cloudberries, Burnt Apples, and who could go passed Raspberries from Hampus Mother?
“I want to show how our grandparents build up our beautiful country. What it's actually like working, living up north, as we do when things don’t grow for half a year.”
The same approach is taken at 360 in Athens. Over the balmy summer, while its rooftop gave customers a view across the city, its Discovering Greece menu took them around the country. The northern city Florina, known for sweet red peppers, was honoured with a namesake cocktail that was spirit-forward, umami and dry. “Like biting a red pepper stuffed with Greek cheese,” explains bartender Agapi Tropoulou. If you’d like to know, she makes the cocktail with Beefeater 24, olorosa sherry, dry vermouth, and an onion pearl.
Dare to be different
The stakes are higher at 360’s sister bar, A for Athens. Its autumn menu is based on the eternal struggle of logic versus emotion, six cocktails arguing the case for either side. Dare, a riff on a Prohibition-era Southside, is paired with Fear. For Tropoulou, who helped design the menus at both venues, little is more fear-inducing than the on-screen cannibal Hannibal Lecter, who famously boasted, “I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.” The Fear cocktail is thus made with aquafaba and Chianti – though as for the liver, we did not dare ask.
Be a good sport
Muhammad Ali has long been an inspiration in the world of sport. But in cocktails? Absolutely, says Konstantinos Theodorakopoulos. The cocktail entrepreneur behind Rumble in the Jungle bar – Ali fans will recognise that name – looked to his sporting hero to devise his menu, which also draws heavily on local sourcing and zero waste principles (the bar’s jungle theme is a double entendre for the environment).
Bold customers can jump in the ring for a Rope a Dope – an Old Fashioned style cocktail that gives a second life to the coffee, spices and peels used in other drinks, while the evocatively named Spit Bucket has an acidity that makes the mouth water, and is garnished with a brilliant red dollop of blood-red fruit paste. The resulting cocktail definitely goes down easily.
Follow the news
To find more current references, there is nothing newer than the news. News-jacking – that is, taking advantage of current events for promotional purpose – can drive publicity and excitement.
As reports Clube do Barman, earlier this year The Arch Bar at the InterContinental London Park Lane hotel tapped into the national mood with a menu commemorating the Queen’s Jubilee. Cocktails included Pop Art, referencing Andy Warhol’s famous portrait of her majesty, and the Delhi Durbar Tiara cocktail, inspired by the famous jewellery worn by Queen Mary on a trip to India in 1911.
Though choose your news event wisely: for example, it’s unlikely the bar similarly celebrated the monarch’s passing a few months later.
Remember what’s good for business “Entertainment, a story, a conversation starter, a clear set of values” – that’s what customers are looking for, says Rory Shepherd, the owner of new hospitality consultancy AVANT ET CO.
Shepherd knows a thing or two about award-winning menus. The prominent, beloved even, global bar industry figure just finished a seven-year tenure at Little Red Door, helping to conceive its Flourish menu, named ‘world’s best’ at the 2022 Tales Of The Cocktail Spirited Awards, and Grounded.
“I always like to talk about the menu scene in Monty Python where the menu is a list of conversations they could have. It’s exactly this, it creates memories and it gives you something to share.”
His key advice for bar managers looking to create a menu from scratch? Start by understanding if it’s necessary or not. “You can have successful menus that are just pieces of paper, the main question is: ‘Will doing this help my business?’”
Forget any concept at all If the inspiration is still lacking, why offer a menu at all? That’s what Bar Bisou in Paris has done, where bartenders ask customers their preferred spirits and tastes then create original concoctions from there.
“At Bisou we work without menus, meaning we make special drinks for everyone,” Bastien Bonnefoy explains. “It’s pretentious, but we’re trying to educate the customer on their drinks.”
The secret sauce – distilled
For the last word, let’s return to Leo Robitschek. "There are some amazing bars that have 400 cocktails on the menu, and that's what they do. It's not about what you're offering. It's about knowing your guests, defining who you are, knowing your limitations and being able to execute what you do in an amazing way consistently, every single time, while providing great hospitality.”
If that’s the case, we’ll have what he’s having.