TGI Fridays’ bartenders go through training to maximize efficiency and quality of drinks like the Strawberry Mule and Ruby Red Greyhound. The interest in complicated cocktails poses a major set of issues for the average operator. First among them: How do I upgrade the quality of my drinks to match current trends without keeping my customers waiting?
It’s a serious issue for Frank Lewis, director of alcohol for food and beverage at AMC Theatres. “For us, it’s extremely important because we operate in movie theaters where we’ll have a lot of people at our bars all at once,” he says. “How do we balance great drinks that our guests enjoy with a focus on executing these things very quickly? It’s a question we ask all the time.”
The Need for Speed
As customers become more interested in drinks that go beyond simple highballs, high-volume operators must connect with those trends without suffering from slow service and lost revenue. To keep up, some operators have focused on bartender speed as a remedy. Having the bar at the core of a concept makes it easier, says Matthew Durbin, vice president of marketing, brand strategy and menu innovation at TGI Fridays.
For Fridays, it means making sure bar set-ups allow for efficient production and that training is up to date. “Doing this right enables us to make sure our bartenders can make drinks speedily—in fact, part of our annual World Championship competition includes a speed round for just that reason,” he says. “Repetition, rolling out proper training techniques, training videos—all those things keep production levels high.”
At AMC Theatres, bartenders are tasked with executing a shaken drink in about a minute, and they’re instructed to cut waste by building the drink in the serving glass rather than in a shaker. This way, over- or under-pours are eliminated.
But most operators turn to shortcuts for help. Many service tweaks that allow more complicated drinks to be served swiftly—draft or bottling, punches, pitcher service—are based on the simple technique of batching: assembling part or most of a drink in advance to cut steps out of the process.
Make a Batch
Some high-volume casual-dining chains have turned to more batch-oriented service lately. “There are three reasons to employ batching, which I think of as speed scratch: quality, consistency and speed,” says Commer Beverage’s David Commer, who advises chain restaurants on beverages. “The best example of it for casual dining is using fresh juices in sour and other mixes. It may be easy to squeeze fresh lime juice for a drink on the spot, but across a broad chain, we don’t want each bartender figuring out the best ratio for sweet and sour.”
Fresh-made sour mix is perhaps the most widely batched, as it has multiple uses and is fairly inexpensive to make. But the easiest fixes are sometimes the hardest to manage, says Tobin Ellis, of BarMagic beverage development agency. “You can convince an operator to switch to fresh juices and mixes, but if the right people aren’t in charge, it could be a disaster.” Ellis points out that many operators task bar backs with little drink-making experience with batching and maintaining freshness, which he compares to allowing the dishwasher to approve a restaurant’s Béarnaise sauce.
Starting with fresh juices or sour mixes, bars with high-volume drinks can easily introduce their own mixes, like a combination of orange juice, pineapple juice and coconut cream for a Painkiller cocktail. Having a good understanding of daily usage is key to creating pars for drink batches, but the extra steps saved are usually worth the effort.
Cocktails served through a draft system have grown in popularity. The system can be an invaluable delivery method when done right, says Tad Carducci of Tippling Bros., a consultancy for numerous operations including Chicago’s Mercadito, where some 1,000 draft margaritas are served on Friday and Saturday nights.
“Kegging cocktails is just batching with a delivery system,” he says. “Any location with high volume can batch drinks that contain a spirit plus a modifier, like a Negroni or a Manhattan, taking three or four steps down to one when served draft or even bottled.”
Batching requires as much care as the making of a bespoke cocktail, if not more. Obviously, messing up the recipe of an entire batch has a far higher cost than that of a single wasted drink. The procedure requires constant tasting, but when organized like any other kitchen prep and produced with consistency, syrups, juices and even complete cocktails can be a great boon, says Carducci.
Kegging speeds service but also extends a drink’s life by multiple days. Carducci and his partner Paul Tanguay recently published The Tippling Bros., A Lime and a Shaker: Discovering Mexican-Inspired Cocktails (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015), which includes a section called “Batchology.” He points out that kegged batches, free from oxidation while kept under gas, minimize a potential drawback of pre-made drinks: loss of freshness. Adding sugar to citrus extends usability, as does bottling, but not as well as draft systems promise.
Hard Rock Cafe’s refreshing Magical Mystery Mojito is a simple combination of gin, cucumber syrup elderflower liqueur, lime juice and soda. Bonnie Wilson, director of independent bar concepts for Front Burner Restaurants in Dallas, serves nearly 20 drinks using a draft system at the group’s Mexican Sugar restaurant, pulled from 18-liter kegs. But her batches are made without most citrus, watermelon juice, egg white, bitters and purées—these ingredients are added after the diluted and chilled batches are dispensed.
Wilson says this allows her to use batches for as long as 45 days without losing flavors and aromas. The success of the program has helped her figure out a way to manage a problem at another operation, Whiskey Cake Kitchen and Bar, where one especially popular six-ingredient non-alcoholic drink—The Little Pink Drink—is ordered up to 200 times per lunch. Her batching experience convinced her to prepare that drink in large volumes daily, freeing bartenders for other duties. Now she believes batching for high volume is the only way to guarantee both fast service and quality.
There are limits, however; Hard Rock International’s drinks must be uniform throughout 63 countries, so worldwide director of beverage Cindy Busi sometimes turns to suppliers to solve problems. “If I can’t get fresh ginger in every country and I want to roll out a drink using ginger juice or syrup, we’ll make our own syrup or try to partner up with a company that has products available worldwide that we can add as a flavor enhancer.”
Lewis of AMC Theatres did something similar, turning to spirit suppliers to develop three- to four-ingredient cocktails that deliver high quality flavor efficiently. He also is deliberate about limiting the number of spirits and mixers stocked to control guest options.
Set the Bar Right
Busi says cooperation between culinary and bar has given the chain a workable system for producing fresh juices and mixes. But she points out that different bar setups at various locations can be problematic, as they were not built with current mixology trends in mind.
“Bar setup is one of the biggest challenges we face on a day-to-day basis. We have to optimize our spaces,” she says. In some cases, they incorporate the many fruits, herbs and other ingredients needed for their drinks in vertical arrangements. Where a unit has more than one bar area, like in the large Orlando operation where demand can run high, all specialty drinks are produced in one service bar prepared for that volume.
Ellis says designing the bar area for speed and efficiency is a neglected part of most bar design—it’s a situation universally criticized by experienced bartenders. Proper placement of ice bins, sinks, rails and other equipment saves bartenders many steps, which can translate to more drinks made per shift and a less frazzled bar staff. The problem inspired him to create a bar design now sold by a major supplier. “What’s important about design is that it should solve problems of efficiency by combining space in a way that saves steps and movement.”
Busi suggests managing drink volume can start at the menu. “We set up our service bars relevant to the menu and that helps them be more efficient. We know where we’re going to lead our guests especially when it comes to limited time offerings.”
It’s something Lewis believes helps create service efficiencies at AMC. “We make sure the menu works for us, using placement of drinks our guests have proven to love and that the bar staff can execute,” he says. Using photo placement to drive selection is carefully considered, and drinks that score high with guests and can be made in less than one minute get prime positioning.
It may seem a reverse-engineered manner to speed drink service, but anything that ensures a customer is served a high-quality drink faster these days is worth considering.