I recently read an article by friend and one of the UK’s most talented bar people: Tristan Stephenson, on the psychology of menus. It’s not a very long piece and the subject could (and has) take up thousands of words in someone’s thesis and online articles. I’ve been fascinated by this topic of ‘menu engineering’ for years now and at Tales of the Cocktail in 2014, I moderated a seminar on this very subject, along with Ian McLaren from Bacardi, Joaquin Simo from Pouring Ribbons, Jack McGarry of Dead Rabbit fame and Ryan Magarian, owner of Portland’s Oven & Shaker, all of whom have very thoughtful menus and had a lot of amazing insight to inspire the audience.
As I was preparing for the seminar, my research online took me to many great articles, one of which used New York’s Balthazar restaurant as a case study, a venue which in many ways set the standard in menu design from which many others have followed. I suggest you visit their website to check out their savvy tricks. I also wrote this article, which I’ve re-printed below, which was first published on the website, Shakestir, where I am a regular contributor . . . .
. . . . Language is a powerful tool. Especially when reading a menu. I’ve long been a student of menu psychology, especially as it is something that not enough people in our bar industry think about a great deal. Which seems silly to me given that the menu – or the cocktail menu in this case – says a lot about a venue and is often the first thing people see (or want to see) when they enter. You can tell a lot about a bar immediately by glancing over their cocktail list and other beverage offerings.
Every single word, comment, image or gesture on a menu sends a message. Sometimes that message is clearly transparent, while at other times it’s more subliminal and may need some further explanation from the staff. Either way, don’t underestimate how different people decipher and interpret your menu. The message you are trying to convey might not always come across how you intended. Ambiguity is a bitch.
Ever wondered why that uber geeky, grossly potent, bonded applejack-Islay whisky-chartreuse-thingy at the bottom of your menu rarely sells? (except to your bar nerd friends who make up a tiny proportion of your customers). Whether you own the bar you work in or not, if you are at all responsible for implementing cocktails, you should take an interest in which cocktails are selling and which are not. It is very easy to print a report that gives you such information. If a particular drink is not selling, try moving it to the top of the menu and then see if things change (or look at the way it is written on the page).
The order in which drinks are listed can be very important to their success. Not every drink has to be a big mover. On any menu, I always preach that curating a balanced list is the most important thing over size or design. I’m not a big proponent of those high octane cocktails that were all the rage a couple of years back (and still are in many places), but that’s just my palate.
I think it’s fine to have a couple of drinks that fill this gap as long as they’re balanced by a series of crowd pleasers that are your big sellers and have the best profit margins. I typically don’t put my big ticket drinks at or near the top of the menu (even though menu psychology and common sense might suggest otherwise).
For example, I had a drink called a Yankee Mule on our menu at Saxon + Parole with Absolut vodka, fresh lime and house made ginger beer. It’s not at all complicated or intimidating, the ingredients are very familiar and self explanatory, customers pretty much know what they’re getting and finally, vodka is an easy sell.
This drink (pictured above) comes in at a cost of 13%. It’s an extremely profitable drink. It is, however, listed near the bottom of the menu because if it was the first drink on the list, I feel a lot of the more esoteric drinks that we have might not move. The wording of your menu is of even more importance. Always use words that sound enticing and leave out any that are superfluous or uninspired. You don’t need to list every single ingredient in your drinks.
*Above is a menu from my time at Sydney’s Bayswater Brasserie
For example, no menu should ever have the words ‘syrup’ listed anywhere. Guests will automatically assume the drink is sweet, even if it isn’t and if you don’t use the right language on your menu, then typically most people will already have an image in their head about how that cocktail will taste, even if they’re completely wrong. Instead of saying ‘raspberry syrup’, just say ‘raspberry’. Or ‘spiced pineapple cordial’ instead of ‘spiced pineapple syrup’. You get the picture. *The above menu sample is from Oven & Shaker in Portland, Oregon
There are two schools of thought here: go simple, listing a drink’s ingredients with extreme minimalism, such as this: blanco tequila + mezcal + yellow chartreuse + lemon + chili tincture + yellow bell pepper. The drink certainly sounds tasty, right? At The Aviary in Chicago, under the watchful eye of Charles Joly, their menu was extremely minimal, as can be seen in the Hermoso: orange, gentian, cigar, reposado. *Above is the last menu from Charles Joly at The Aviary, Chicago.
This angle certainly frees up room on the menu for more space (or more drinks) but it does rely on staff who can articulate the flavor profile of the drink and expand on this brief description on the fly. Know what words and ingredients to leave off or find alternatives that sound enticing. Less is sometimes more.
*Above is one of the iconic menus from London’s LAB Bar
I do like this approach but I also appreciate those bars that provide a more detailed description, an approach that was very big in London from the late 90s to the mid 2000s. The first place I saw this done successfully was at the legendary LAB bar (menu pictured below) in London’s Soho. Each drink was described in such a fluid, poetic way that each and every one sounded exciting and delicious.
That was a very creative time where a drink might read something like this: “A mouthwatering mixture of Stolichnaya Oranj, raspberry cordial, LAB vanilla sugar, fresh watermelon & lemon juices, muddled with a whisper of Campari & ginger, served tall & charged with Champagne”. Now doesn’t that sound inviting? *Above is from the wonderful and thoughtful menu from New York’s Pouring Ribbons
As you can see from this description, a guest can get a pretty clear picture of the drink: how it’s made, how it’s served and most of the ingredients, yet using evocative words that help bring the drink to life. This angle takes a lot more work and does require the person compiling it to have some skills in writing. I employed this angle for many years at several bars and with great success. If you can also keep it cheeky, humorous and light hearted like they often did in London, then even better. Cocktail names are also something to consider. I’m tired of seeing cryptic cocktail monikers that take a dissertation and a PowerPoint presentation just to understand what the long-winded and unnecessary explanation actually means. Keep names short and punchy that arouse interest but can be described quickly during a busy service. I am a big proponent of adding slight and subtle touches to classic drinks and therefore they sound familiar to people. People like familiar: Celery Gimlet, Winter Crusta, Rhubarb Daiquiri, Shiso Collins, Lavender Fizz, Our Summer Julep, Sherry Cobbler. *Above is a page taken from the menu at The Merchant Hotel, Belfast (Vol 3)
Of course there are an infinite number of tricks and tips – far too many to mention here – to help make your cocktail menu more exciting, while still being original, eye catching and user friendly. As long you’re aware that language plays an important role in the success of your menu and that some simple changes can make a big difference, especially in terms of consumer perception and how they read and comprehend your cocktail list, then you can certainly count on greater sales. And wouldn’t that be nice? *Above is the menu from The Artesian, circa 2013