Mixology Talk Podcast, Episode #175

Chris and I are finding ways to adjust every day to the new “normal” (if you can call it that). This includes changing our content this month to talk about relevant issues for the bar and restaurant industry during these very uncertain times. With laws suddenly changing to allow take-out cocktails, Chris thought it’d be a great idea to interview someone who can provide advice on launching a take out cocktail program.

Enter: Chris Elford. (yes, another Chris!) Perhaps best known for his bar Navy Strength, winning the 2018 “Best New American Cocktail Bar” award, he’s launched an incredible take out cocktail program that balances the customer experience with profitability. Depending on your state’s current laws, this to-go service is a great option for staying in business during the COVID-19 shutdown.  Listen in for some incredible advice!

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MEET CHRIS ELFORD

Chris Elford is an accomplished bartender, bar owner, educator, and advocate living in Seattle. He came up through the beer industry, fell into cocktails at Amor Y Amargo in New York, and went on to direct influential beer and cocktail bars before opening his own spots with wife, Anu. Together, they own Navy Strength, No Anchor, Vinnie’s Raw Bar, Rob Roy, and the forthcoming Here Today brewpub. He is a Certified Cicerone beer expert and a graduate of the BAR 5 Day program.

@NavyStrengthSeattle @RobRoySeattle @ChrisElford
@NoAnchorBar @VinniesRawBar

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS:

Chris E. currently has two of his four bars open for to-go beverage service, so he offers a lot of advice on how to make your program unique and fun for your customers. Use these timestamps to jump to a particular topic: 

  • 1:50– Introduction into the new to-go cocktail program
  • 4:08– Packaging and customer experience 
  • 7:35– Unique tips to make your kit personal: instruction sheets
  • 10:00– Setting up the to-go service & cocktail kit with what you (and your customers) have 
  • 13:55– Creating a larger-volume to-go program
  • 22:00– Navy Strength’s to-go kit & tips on what to include (check out details of the instruction sheet at 30:20)
  • 33:40– Most valuable lessons, how businesses are trying to survive, & challenges
  • 45:20– Vendors’ support & supporting small vendors

Tips for Creating a To-Go Cocktail Program

Everything in this industry– and the world– is changing on a daily basis right now, so being adaptable and thinking outside of the box are key. As COVID began to spread in China, Chris E. prepared for similar shutdowns here in the States and immediately put a non-alcoholic to-go program into place when establishments began to close.  When Seattle began allowing alcohol to be sold to go, Chris and his wife, Anu, were ready. Here are a few big realizations they quickly came to about creating a successful to-go cocktail service:

 

1. It is not cost-effective to sell single-serving drinks, especially if you are delivering.

  • Chris E.’s bars currently offer a drink kit that makes 10 drinks, which cuts costs in packaging and labor.
  • When given the opportunity to choose, many people will pick the smaller or less expensive option; also, giving people too many choices can make them second-guess why they’re spending money at all. Keep it simple… for them and for you!

 

2. Navy Strength and Rob Roy are offering cocktail kits for pickup only on the weekends, which cuts out delivery costs. (Remember, depending on your area, it might not be possible for your customers to come to you due to your state or county’s shelter-in-place orders.)

3. Work with your current inventory instead of purchasing new alcohol right now. As Chris E. puts it,

“We’ve been essentially […] liquidating all the spirits in our cabinets, and my thinking there was ‘all of these bottles of unopened spirits are money that could be going into our bank account right now or going to our employees to pay their insurance or their rent.’”

  • Be conscious about using what you already have instead of spending money during these times.
  • If you are going to order new alcohol, consider supporting smaller brands who are struggling along with the rest of the industry.

 

4. Advertise through your customers!

  • Besides making it clear on your website and social media pages that you’re offering to-go cocktail kits, ask your customers to post photos of the drinks they make and tag your business on Instagram or Facebook.
  • This is free advertising for you, but it also connects you to your customers during this time when the social element of bartending has been eliminated; it enhances your customers’ experience and helps you get the word out about your business.

 

5. Offer alcoholic and non-alcoholic kits.

It’s safe to say that most people are tightening their budgets right now (we can certainly relate), so give your customers the option to use their own spirits they already have at home.

It’s All in the Packaging

The tricky thing about offering a to-go cocktail service is that you still want to offer your customers some of the unique bar experience to bring home with them. As Chris E. explains:

“Our kit needs to be unable to be reproduced without us. […] It needs to include everything including some special things, for example, garnishes […] I think those things create a lot of value, but just trying to create something that people view as worth buying.”

Everything you offer is an extension of the customer experience (from afar!), so you want them to be excited about your business, even if they can’t actually enjoy their cocktails in your bar right now. And don’t forget to make yourself available to your customers through social media if they have any questions! That will help feed the bartender-customer connection during these times.

Get Creative with Your Instruction Sheets 

Probably the most useful thing to include in your kits is a succinct yet detailed instruction sheet. Be creative and make it fun with your own voice, and focus on the narrative to draw in your customers!

  • Include the background of the drink.
    If it’s a classic, give a little history on the cocktail and explain why your version is different. If it’s an original cocktail to your bar, paint a story (metaphorically speaking, of course) for your customers about the inspiration, background, and name of the cocktail.
  • Give detailed instructions for mixing the drink, including how to garnish.
    Don’t forget to include the equipment they might need– and the substitutions they can use with what they have at home!
  • Provide options!
    In your non-alcoholic kit, explain the spirits you use for this drink and then list alternative liquors that your customers can substitute based on what they have at home. Not everyone has some of the more obscure spirits, so take that into consideration when planning your to-go menu.
  • If possible, include a photo of the finished drink.
    People are really visual, so this will help your customers see what they’re end goal is as well as make them excited about the experience.

Putting Together a Complete Cocktail Kit

If you want to offer a to-go beverage program for your bar, consider offering 3-5 drink options that change every week. While you want to offer exciting new choices, you don’t want to overwhelm your customers. Based on what has been successful at Navy Strength and Rob Roy, here are Chris E.’s suggestions of what to include in a to-go cocktail kit:

  • Batch: All the spirits blended together in one container (leave this out for non-alcoholic options)
  • Mix: All the sweeteners and purees mixed together, including juices, acids, bitters, or other modifiers
  • Vacuum-sealed garnishes that can be thrown in the fridge
  • If you are required to sell food with your alcohol, include an easy snack in your kit (check out minute 22:00 for more advice on how Chris E. handles the law about selling food with alcohol).

Ready to Launch a To-Go Cocktail Program?

Before you start your own to-go program, make sure to check your local laws for what you’re allowed to sell and how. Also, decide if this is really the best step for your bar. Remember, even if you’re successful, a to-go program will bring in a minimal amount of income compared to what your bar is used to making. If it is the right step for your business, have fun with it and be creative, but also be realistic about the potential success or failure of providing to-go cocktails.

Whatever you decide is the next best step for your bar, we’re all in this together. If you haven’t already, come join our Facebook group for pro bartenders: Craft Bartender Community. We’re 4500+ strong and ready to help you execute an awesome take out cocktail program! Take care of each other, and wash your hands. 

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