Seasonal Cocktail Menus – A Six Week Guide

A seasonal refresh of the drinks menu is a great way to increase beverage sales, improve margins, and drive engagement to your restaurant. However, without a solid plan, it can be a missed opportunity that fizzles on arrival, stressing out staff and underwhelming guests while failing to improve the bottom line. With some strategic planning, you can transform the menu development process into a series of fun learning activities that prepares your team for success.

Week One – Set a target date for the menu to launch, then create a schedule with key milestones, dates, and team members assigned to each workflow. Review at your weekly manager meeting to keep the team on track.

Run a Dog/Star Analysis – … of your current menu to identify which drinks should be targeted for removal. Low-selling, low-margin drinks (Dogs) should definitely go. Popular, high-margin drinks (Stars) should stay when possible. If a Star uses explicitly seasonal ingredients, consider sticking with the same drink template and adjusting the flavors as appropriate. For instance, Watermelon+Tajin could be changed to Blood Orange + Cinnamon to “winterize” a Margarita. For high-selling, low-margin drinks (Workhorses), look for ways to increase margins without compromising quality.

Week Two – Select your “hero” ingredients and start brainstorming flavor combinations and production methods. A calendar of upcoming seasonal fruits, herbs, and vegetables (your produce supplier can provide one) is a great place to look for inspiration. For the most part, try to choose ingredients that celebrate the season, are practical to work with, and are consistently available locally. Ultra-seasonal or finicky ingredients require more technique, but the payoff can be worth it. For example, a large batch of wild ramps could be pickled to preserve freshness and used as a garnish throughout the entire run of a menu.

Wireframe the new drinks menu – …keeping in mind the “vibe” of the season and occasions for drinking. The best cocktail menus are concise and diverse, containing cocktails with a balance of flavor profiles, base spirits, preparation techniques, and glassware.

Assign menu slots to each team member – Even a reasonably well-trained junior bartender can create a great drink when given a focused assignment, such as “a gin sour using snap peas and a herbal element”. Senior bartenders get more challenging assignments and gain valuable experience mentoring less experienced teammates as they work through drinks.

Week Three – Taste, taste, and taste again. It is impractical to create all your cocktails in a few marathon drink R&D sessions; instead, schedule a few minutes each day to check progress with your bartenders.

Engineer the menu to support your financial and operational goals – When drinks are close to finished, calculate pour costs and walkthrough the prep and production process, keeping an eye out for red flags. Look for ways to ensure consistency, streamline prep, and reduce production time without compromising quality.

Contact suppliers for pricing and brand support – Menu placements are a big win for brand reps, and they should be motivated to support the goals of your program. Make sure that any brands highlighted on the menu and any brand initiatives you participate in align with your brand identity.

Week Four – Plan to draw down your inventory of items not included on your new menu. For example, review ordering par amounts and reduce batch sizes for prep ingredients. Consider the effect of 86’s as you wind down the menu; how much is okay? Now is the ideal time to negotiate returns of overstock to suppliers. You are about to place large orders for new products, and they should be excited about upcoming menu placements.

Week Five – Organize a final tasting for owners and senior management. Begin tasting the staff on new drinks in daily lineups. Use the leftover test batches to hand sell as off-menu specials or giveaways to regular guests. A “sneak preview” gives your staff time to get comfortable making and selling drinks and makes regular guests feel special to be included.

Week Six –  Update your training and operational documents, such as drink build instructions, recipes for house-made ingredients, menu training guide, station diagrams, and ordering guides. Staying organized is critical to a stress-free menu launch and demonstrates professionalism to your team.

Launch Day – Roll out the menu at the beginning of the week so the kinks can be worked out before a busy weekend. Continue to taste and review a few drinks daily at line-up to ensure the staff is comfortable with recipes and messaging.

Keep tasting for consistency – Are your bartenders sticking to the recipe? Does a large batch taste different from the test batch? Do you need to adjust for a slightly different product from your supplier than what you bought at the grocery store for R&D?

One Week Later – Review sales data and guest feedback to evaluate menu performance. For low-sellers, did you miss the mark on flavor? Are the name and description landing with guests? Sometimes a great drink gets lost in translation. Are there any surprise winners? Adjust ordering par levels and batch sizes as needed to avoid 86’s, overstock, and wastage.

Congratulations! – By following a schedule and delegating appropriately, you will have launched a successful menu that achieves financial goals, provides high-quality media content, and gives your guests and staff something to get excited about. Relax for a few weeks, and then it’s time to start on the next one! In great programs, menu development is an ongoing process that involves many stakeholders, develops the team’s bar skills, boosts morale, and keeps you ahead of the competition.

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