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Branding with beverages: Telling a restaurant's story

David Flaherty is operations manager and beer and spirits director for Hearth and the Terroir wine bars in New York. He is cider and spirits editor for the New York Cork Report and writes about wine, beer and spirits on his blog, Grapes and Grains.

In film studies class in college, I was introduced to an idea that has stuck in my mind ever since: mise-en-scène. A cinematic term that in its simplest form means “placing on stage,” mise-en-scène is more a catch-all phrase that covers the look and feel of a movie — the costumes, lighting, set pieces, movements of the actors and all the details in between. It’s what makes a Scorcese movie feel like a Scorcese movie. When done well, the audience doesn’t even notice the disparate elements operating in harmony, but instead is simply swept away for the ride.

Restaurants and bars operate in much the same way. A dining experience is similar to a cinematic journey: The lights are adjusted to just the right glow, the decor catches the eye perfectly, the type of candles on the tables communicates a specific message, and even the font used on the menus heightens a guest’s feel for the place. And when all of those fundamentals are united, the concept comes alive and, like a great film, leaves people with the need to talk about their visit and come back for more.

One of the most impactful pieces of mise-en-scène to elevate a restaurant or bar’s overall concept is the beverage program. For instance, if you’re opening a tiki joint, there are many beverage elements that need to be in place to support that: the types of cocktails offered, the overall size of the wine list, the glassware the beers are served in, the types of spirits available and even the coasters the drinks are served on. All these components add up and help define the overall concept; the beauty is in the details.

We are in the experience business, and our job is to whisk guests away from their normal routines and take them to a new place. Today’s beverage directors must tap into their creative natures and make inspired choices, while keeping the practical business needs of the operation in mind.

John Bush, partner in the Three Kings of Kings County restaurant group, manages the beverage side of their operations. With three totally different concepts in the Brooklyn, N.Y., neighborhood of Park Slope, Bush is consistently looking for inspiration for his drink menus and is always aware of how they need to meld with their individual approaches.

“With Thistle Hill, our gastropub concept, the idea was that the place should feel like it’s been here for 100 years. The space is covered with old Brooklyn posters and filled with antiques,” he said. “I went through old cocktail books and really went for drinks that were reminiscent of that old Americana feel. I even named one of them the Brooklyn Eagle, after an old Brooklyn newspaper.

“For Pork Slope [a more scaled-down concept suggestive of a barbecue roadhouse], I needed drinks that go well with burgers and help capture the feel,” he continued. “Beer in cans and shots of whiskey give people the feeling that this is a great place to pop in for a few beers and watch the game.”

On its face it may seem obvious, but the kitchen’s approach to the food can be mirrored in the approach to the beverages with great success. For instance, the restaurant I work for has a hyper-seasonal food menu, concentrated on local purveyors and products. To match that respect for seasonality, the beverage list also changes throughout the year and features many local offerings. As summertime approaches, the wine list begins to focus more on styles that are lighter in body and that sing with refreshing acidity. And conversely, as the mercury drops, darker, richer beers begin to populate the list, and cocktails are often made with the same herbs and spices being used in the food. This creates harmony between the food and the beverages, often without guests taking particular note of it; they just feel it intuitively.

Inspiration can come from anywhere, and for a good beverage director, everything is up for grabs.

“It could be from a book or a smell or an ingredient,” Bush said. “My brain is always thinking, ‘What can I do with that?’ I had a lychee Martini in Shanghai in 2002 that was made with gin [instead of vodka] that was phenomenal. It toned down the sweetness and made the flavors pop. I remembered that 10 years later and used it for inspiration when we opened [Asian-inspired concept] Talde.”

But while creativity and inspiration are the fun part of the job, Bush has learned to meld his bartender sensibilities with his needs as a businessman.

“As a bar owner, you have to think about cost,” he said. “While bartenders are always looking for what new products to bring in, on the business side you have to price them out to see if they make sense, or you won’t make any money. All that whiskey sitting on the shelves is just cash sitting there. And perhaps 25 beers on draft is too many; you’re sitting on 50 kegs at $100 apiece. That’s money that can be paying bills.

“You’ve got to combine the restaurant dreamer with a business mind,” Bush added. “The secret, which I’m still trying to figure out, is how do I be unique with a limited budget?”

It’s important to remember that each item you offer communicates something about your brand. Having an artisanal local soda available, a rare Korean spirit in a cocktail, or even 20 of the world’s finest single-malt scotches featured prominently behind your bar leaves an impression on your guests, and it’s in your power to craft that message.

It’s most certainly not a situation where the operator with the biggest budget wins, for I have seen many a beautiful bar stock its shelves with the same 300 offerings you’d find at 90 percent of the bars around. Those operators are missing a huge opportunity to say something interesting with their selections. Conversely, I’ve seen many restaurants offer a super small list of wines, beers and spirits, but one that was smartly curated and filled with whimsical surprises – offerings that told me reams about their approach to the business.

Ultimately, though, it’s your own tastes that truly matter, so trust your gut. The passion you have for the drinks you love is infectious to your staff, and having them on your side, ready to tell the story of your vision, is the most invaluable asset you have. Share with your staff the wine that swept you off your feet in Tuscany, let them smell the herbs that inspired your spring cocktail, and give your managers an opportunity to bring beverages into the program that they feel enhance your vision. Keep it interesting, keep it fresh, and keep it smart. Your guests will keep coming back for more, eager to see what pops up on the list next.

How are you building your bar or restaurant's brand with distinctive beverages? Join the conversation in the comments below.

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