Yes, they sell delivery cocktails, and so should you!
Global Dispatch: These internationally awarded bartenders spill the beans on keeping the curtains of their bar [semi] open, how it’s working out, and why you should perhaps consider it as well.
I don’t think I need to introduce the situation that the world is going through now. For the past couple of weeks, hospitality businesses are slowly coming back to life after being ordered to close during lockdown. The risks of these policies were palpable from the very onset, with a grave tone as now and then we see posts on social media about a place we used to love “deciding” to close for good.
On the other hand, there’s a big surge of businesses committed to at least not go in silence. They are the ones supplying dinner for the other part of us who either can’t find their way in the kitchen or want to get treated every once in a while because we want a respite from this new confined life. And then there are the bars that will provide you with the drinks to go with that mood. We talked to a handful of bartenders and bar staffers from around the world to get their perspective on how that business is doing, how they are doing it, and whether they’d do it again… their answers are definitely worth sharing. Read on.
A natural choice
For Yao Lu, bartender and owner at Shanghai’s six-year-old Union Trading Company, it all started in late January, as they closed the bar so that everyone in their staff could celebrate Chinese New Year (January 25), which he dubs “the largest human migration on this planet” with their loved ones. He reopened in early February but only for a couple of nights before they were ordered to shut down. Being 500 miles from Wuhan, Shanghai was the first “global city” to be hit by measures like these.
China, he says, is a place where deliveries are part of your everyday life. From food to your dry cleaning to tailored suits, you can get pretty much anything delivered to your door. Also, regulation in China allowed them to deliver drinks without the need for a special license. The culture, infrastructure, and internet-based delivery platforms were already in place… so the idea of cocktail deliveries came naturally as the only way for them to make some sort of revenue.
How did they do it?
• I was going to tell you that the first thing they did was look into what they had in stock, but in all reality what they did first was talk to their staff. From the very beginning, Yao was very transparent with them. He shared the finances to the extent of disclosing money balance in the bank so that every member of the team knew the kind of situation they faced. The money would only take them to a certain point down the road and what he wanted to do was not to fire a single person. He asked the team if they would consider working on an hourly basis instead of for a monthly salary. Everyone was on board. “Actually not all of them were sure that they wanted to work through this. A few preferred to stay with their families, so we assured them that they wouldn’t get fired and that they could take this period of time as their holidays.” That allowed them to cut down on labor costs by about 50%.
• Then, they saw what they already had in stock and designed a complete cocktail menu around that with the clear idea that they couldn’t afford new purchases to keep control of costs and cash flow. This menu has kept changing regularly to help move stock.
• A friend of theirs who is in the wine industry gave them a big bunch of corks, so the finished product started taking the shape of a corked bottle. Each one of the bottles contains two servings and is being sold at about 60% of the usual price. Garnishes are put in a bag with the bottled cocktail and they’re ready to go.
•They have 2 people working behind the bar every single day. One starts at 11 am, the other at 5 pm.
• Delivery services close at 10 pm, so they deliver cocktails for eleven hours a day.
Has it worked?
Yao mentions that the revenue was about 5-8% of their usual figures. “It’s been basically our regulars who order these drinks. We’re so thankful for their support!” Some of his friends, he adds, are wondering if this might be the future of cocktails but he begs to differ. “This whole situation has reinforced the idea of why people go to bars. Don’t take me wrong but, delivered to your house, that cocktail is literally a bottle of booze. That’s not why people come to a bar.”
Taking care of each other: that’s hospitality
Megs Miller from FAM Bar in London’s Marylebone explained that when the order to shut down came, they couldn’t even consider staying behind the bar for cocktail pickup or deliveries.
During the shutdown of the bar, she tried very hard to speak with many other bar owners & brand ambassadors in the industry. “Firstly, to try to get an idea of where everyone else was at, show mutual support & to have a more rounded perspective of how the community can survive this, which we will. People that work in hospitality tend to be very creative, determined & resourceful.”
“The biggest thing to remember in these times is that our industry is called hospitality and the definition of that word is to take care of one another. This does not just translate to your guest, it means everyone. The more we work together, the stronger we will be to get to the other side.”
From FAM’s side, unfortunately making delivery or pickup cocktails wasn’t so straightforward to set up and run. The British government is offering a furlough scheme, which means that they will pay 80% of wages for staff unable to work due to Covid-19. “If we do bottled cocktails, I cannot have any of the staff help me with this or they will not qualify for the government funding. As a small venue, this support to our labor cost is essential,” Megs says.
Batching for the future
Paul Voza of Himkok in Oslo and his team took an entirely different approach. They were also ordered to close but delivering drinks is not even an option for them, as the Norwegian government has a very firm grip on all things related to alcohol. The answer was just “no, you can’t.” Being used to making tap cocktails of exceptional quality by the thousands for their nightly service, that is exactly what they are doing now. The big change? He, Maros Dzurus, and Odd Stranbakken have developed a completely new menu of semi-RTD (ready-to-drink) cocktails with a shelf life expectancy of one year. That way they have kept all the ingredients they already had in stock from perishing and, on an even brighter note, on the day their doors are open again, they won’t even need to produce. Paul takes care of development and production. “We keep most of our stock in 20-liter containers and ten-liter vacuum bags, then we can choose to bottle in 700 ml flasks or keep it in 20-liter kegs. Before Covid-19 a colleague and I were in charge of production. Right now it’s mostly myself.”
Keeping the lights on
In his hometown of Rothenburg Ob Der Tauber almost smack in the center of Germany, Simon Kistenfeger of Mucho Amor Cocktailschmiede feels like continuing to make cocktails–even if guests have to pick them up at the bar, is like “carrying the torch” of sorts for the whole community. For many in the small city of ten thousand inhabitants, the severe lockdown feels like a true imposition, so Simon feels obligated to keep making quality drinks for his regulars.
In their case, the government granted the bar €5,000 in aid, which took care of rent and insurance. Talking to his landlord got him a very generous 50% off the usual rent!
Adapting to the constraints
Legislation in Bavaria dictates that a place needs to sell food to be able to sell alcoholic drinks, so Simon and his business partner are now offering a delicious side of popcorn with every drink. But they have also started to work with a Moroccan chef. The collaboration has created a new avenue of income with tasty Mediterranean snacks and uncomplicated dishes.
When life gives you lemons
For a few weeks now, every Saturday between 6 and 9 pm he makes enough revenue to represent around 20% of the usual business. With six drinks on the menu, his focus is on showcasing seasonal flavors that come from strictly local produce and fruit–sometimes, actually from his own garden, too. “We are serving in cups that are compostable and plant-based. We definitely don’t want to generate more waste even if these are desperate times.” Working for three hours prepping and three additional hours behind the bar now, he says that he could get used to this. “Of course, that is not the meaning of hospitality,” he adds. But he certainly is starting to look at bottled cocktails as a new business opportunity moving forward.
A fruity and affordable luxury experience
On the other side of the pond, José Luis León and his team at Licorería Limantour in Mexico City are mixing some of their most popular cocktails and putting them in 750 ml bottles before they’re delivered around the city. Unlike most bars in North America and Europe, they’re trying to push the drinks that have a high content of fruit juice. Fruit is inexpensive in Mexico and being it that spring is the warmest time of the year, right now there seems to be a glut of fresh ingredients at very competitive prices. They are working with spirits that they have in overstock and have decided to sell the whole lot at a little bit below cost to benefit the guests who order the drinks at home. “We needed to move the product, as well as the income. We don’t know if this is the right thing to do and are hoping to get support from spirit brands in the near future, but right now, we need to keep things moving,” he says.
Out of the four drinks that they always have on offer, two are all-time Limantour best-sellers Margarita al Pastor (inspired by the famous Taco al Pastor, it is made with Altos Plata tequila, triple sec, cilantro, serrano chile and pineapple juice) and Mr. Pink (made with gin and grapefruit juice). The other two drinks showcase high-profile collaborations with bars and bartenders from around the world, which is brilliantly on brand. To round things up, the bottled product itself is neatly designed, so a big bottle of a very good, inexpensive cocktail is also perceived as a treat, a little bit of affordable luxury. Their strategy seems to be playing out well as a big audience has been engaged and is buying directly through Instagram and WhatsApp DMs, cutting out delivery platforms that would cost them (and the final consumer) a big chunk.
Their biggest challenge
The same advantage of operating independently from the internet-based courier and food delivery platforms has at many times become a burden. When asked about key learnings and challenges for the team, León doesn’t hesitate to answer “without a doubt, the delivery logistics. It’s been complicated, also given the size of this city. We want to improve everybody’s experience when they order their Limantour drinks, but guests have been super kind and understanding with us.”
In New York’s East Village, Sother Teague of Amor y Amargo is bottling cocktails, too. His tiny bar is part of what he refers to as “the complex” because two other bars in an adjacent building and Amor share a kitchen and some other facilities. The venues are all part of a group of 16 locations that, between bar and food concepts, are owned by his business partner Ravi DeRossi. “All of them except for Avant Garden, which serves food and Amor y Amargo, serving cocktails, are closed. Right now if you want to order food from any of the other venues and go to their website the menu on offer is gonna be a hodgepodge of all the places’ offerings, but all is being served from one location. It’s part of our take on cutting operation costs while keeping some people working and, hopefully, make a profit… but it’s a distant cry from it.” For three days a week, you can also order cocktails that Sother is producing only a few blocks from their food production center along with your food delivery. Or you can choose to pick them up yourself. If you choose the latter, you’ll also find that Amor has now become a de facto liquor store since the restrictions for that type of sale were lifted in the city. “We are offering any bottle that we have in any of the other bars for sale,” he adds.
The cocktail flasks are 200 ml, so contain about 2.5 servings each. Sother says all these recipes will last a good month –or even will take well to freezing. At first, he was behind the bar every single day but “it felt futile,” he says “we seem to be selling the same amount in those three days. We’re trying to encourage people to perhaps come once a week and stock up. “I have a six-year-old sour that I keep in the basement of Amor y Amargo. We drink a couple of bottles of it every Christmas and it tastes delicious. Has it changed its flavor? Absolutely. But will these drinks change in a few weeks or a couple of months? Not noticeably.” Every time he has someone pick up cocktails at the bar, he also reminds them to bring the bottles back to be washed, sanitized and reused. “Early on I didn’t until I thought–I’m gonna run out of bottles! I offer a discount if you do. And then well, probably if you’re handing in your empties it’s likely that you need to buy more.”
The band kept playing, and so must we!
It also is keeping his bar in the light, showing his loyal guests and neighborhood that he’s still there and fighting. “I also am aware that I’m luring people out of their house, but until the government tells me that it’s going to take care of us, I feel very obligated to my team. We have to try and save this thing.”
It’s been tough and he’s been filled with anxiety. “I’m a pretty vociferous advocate for mental health and wellness and not shy at talking about how I suffer from anxiety and depression. Right now the anxiety is the bigger problem in the room. It is at a red line trying to hold shit together and making sure that we can come back to something when all this is over. It has kind of put my depression in the backseat, which is strange,” he goes on “ keeping the bar open has helped me keep my anxiety and depression under control… the depression is manifesting in other ways but for instance, I’m sleeping a lot more. The sun’s down and I wanna go to bed.”
“If I were to look at this and think «this is all happening to me» I would feel very sorry for myself and it would eat me alive from the inside out. But this is happening to all of us: I gotta keep my head up, gotta keep moving forward, I gotta try to be personally hopeful and offer some hope to other people.”
Sother Teague, Amor y Amargo, New York
Back on deck at the Union Trading Co.
“Since we’ve been open, people are coming back very, very slowly. After almost three weeks, we’re still down to 50% of our usual revenue,” Yao says, and he knows that he is now living in that light at the end of the tunnel that kept him going in the darkest days. Although the Chinese government started telling the population that it is alright again to not wear masks about a month ago, everyone in Shanghai is still hanging on to them. “I don’t go out without a mask myself, people seem to be even more conscious than ever before. Plus they’re scared.” He mentions that he read somewhere that there have been more than 460,000 bankruptcies in China in the first quarter alone “so there’s a lot of people that are not getting paid, or are being paid just a fraction of their usual income, or have lost their jobs.” Hospitality being “all about the pleasure” will take time to recover.
So what are they doing to mitigate this situation now? It feels like it could drag on for a while…
“Well, we went back to work on our cocktail menu, just as we did back in February” The usual Union Trading Co. cocktail menu would have a good thirty to thirty-five drink options and right now they’re down to ten.
“We’re running on a very limited cocktail menu and the reason for it is that we need to minimize waste. We don’t want to make any additional purchases so that we can keep the costs low.” Trying to find creative ways to create alternative revenue, he has also resorted to streaming cocktail-making classes. In times like these, every penny matters.”
Yao Lu -Union Trading Co., Shanghai
Taking care of the family
When asked whether the team is fully back on deck, Yao sounds very grateful “yes, starting in early April everybody is back on their usual schedules and back on a full salary. Don’t ask me if that’s a good idea or not… I have no clue! But they’ve sacrificed a lot just to keep us alive, and they as well have families to take care of.”
The light at the end of the tunnel
Yao can’t help feeling bad for the rest of the world still catching up to the whole lockdown situation. He’s well aware that right now the only business strategy that makes sense is “just survive” and doesn’t even hope for a profit in this fiscal year.