Keeping a fresh, current, and relevant menu is more art than science. You need to consider seasonality, up-and-coming trends, specifics of the market you’re in, and the guests you’re serving — not to mention the appropriate cadence for changes.
For Cameron Mitchell Restaurants, a group that operates brands such as Ocean Prime, The Avenue, and The Pearl, the process is even more complex because they have restaurants from coast to coast. A guest visiting Ocean Prime should feel like they’re having a consistent experience whether they’re dining in the Beverly Hills location or the Indianapolis one, although the markets behave completely differently.
“Some concepts we change twice a year, in the spring and the fall, and others we change more for local reasons, or just to freshen up,” says Ryan Valentine, Director of Beverage for Cameron Mitchell Restaurants. “Everything is specific to each concept. For a concept to resonate with a guest it has to feel like it fits together — whether it’s more seasonal or more local.”
Ryan partners with Andrea Hoover, CMR’s Beverage Operations Manager, to develop new cocktails and beverage menus for all of the group’s many, varied concepts across the country. Here are some of their tips for building (and evolving) menus that work.
Play to your team’s strengths. The process for developing new cocktails depends on the concept, Ryan says. Sometimes Andrea will come up with ideas on her own, and other times she’ll collaborate with local bar teams to tinker with recipes. The success of that partnership really depends on the bartenders: are they passionate about the creative side of cocktails, or are they more focused on the guest experience? If it’s the former, give them a chance to weigh in.
Create a consistent experience within a brand. Ryan looks at each of the group’s concepts as a distinct brand. For Ocean Prime, for example, “whether you’re in Washington D.C. or Denver you should see some of the same items,” he says. They keep a core list of items on the menu at all times.
Listen to your locals. That said, the same flavors aren’t equally popular everywhere. In Dallas, Ryan says, tequila sells very well, so for that market his team will incorporate more tequila cocktails. “You want your brand to be in place, but it’s not one-size-fits-all everywhere — you have to customize your brand within the market to react to what’s unique, interesting, and vital to the people who live there.”
Match your glassware to your brand. In addition to creating unique cocktail menus for each concept, CMR is thoughtful about the way drinks are served. Ryan describes drinks at The Guild House as “spa-like,” with handblown glasses. At The Avenue, cocktails are presented in coups and etched martini glasses reminiscent of the 1920s.
Consider East vs. West Coast. Many beverage trends tend to start in New York, says Ryan — that’s where he first saw Amaro gain popularity, then sherry. It’s also where bitters exploded years ago, and where egg-white drinks caught on. On the flip side, the west coast is more driven by a culinary philosophy, inspired by fresh ingredients and produce. “It’s fun to watch those entry points,” says Ryan. The same is similar with wine: on the east coast consumers drink more European wines (Sancerre, Chablis) and French and Italian sell especially well, but further west, consumers are more focused on California wines. (Denver is the one exception; the city’s diners consume a lot of international wines.)
Stay ahead of the curve. Reviewing sales is just one way CMR measures success, but the art of what they’re trying to accomplish is much larger, says Ryan. “The whole country is different, and trends hit at different times. We want to bring something that’s great and interesting to a market, but not way too early and certainly not late. We want to be just a head of the curve.” For example, he introduced a margarita with smoky scotch at the first Ocean Prime, and almost every guest sent it back. “People weren’t ready for the smokiness.” Nine years later, of course, mezcal is everywhere. It’s all about hitting the right trends at the right time.
Research, travel, and never stop learning. That’s the only way to stay abreast of trends, Ryan says, and it’s also why the group introduced Andrea’s position a while back. She’s devoted to reading about new developments, traveling to different markets, attending seminars, and seeing what’s hot — and what’s going to be hot — in different places. “If we didn’t have her we’d be falling behind.”
Focus attention and effort on your bar. Whatever your approach, that’s Ryan’s #1 tip for other operators — because if you don’t, guests are going to notice. “We’re in an arena now where there’s so much access to information about breweries, wineries, distilleries, and that sparks guests’ interest,” he says. “It takes hard work to have great cocktails, interesting wines, and an interesting coffee program, but you have to execute at a certain level to be successful. It’s not a good time to be asleep behind the bar.”
Photos courtesy of Cameron Mitchell Restaurants.