Because the bar world is motivated by awards and rankings, bar operators and owners are on a constant search for ways to innovate and conceptualise their approach - whether it be for drinks or venues: speakeasy, high volume, tiki, local ingredients only, zero waste, food pairing you name it. There has been a surge in creativity in bar concepts, and many fantastic bar programs have been developed recently. Like any industry, innovation is the driving force of the bartending world: it’s a simple mechanic where competition fosters innovation, quality and a strive for improvement.
The power of clear concepts
A strong concept delivers a direct message to the customer: this is what we do and we do it well. It is what makes a bar stand out from its neighbours. Bar concepts are a great way to funnel down your clientele on by making sure that every guest that walks in knows what to expect from your operation. It also creates an array of possibilities for the guest to decide from, a clear example of supply and demand.
If your bar is the only one to make Manhattans, then congratulations - you make the best Manhattan around! However if there are ten other bars making Manhattans within five minutes of your venue, then your Manhattan had better be the best.
Having a clear cut concept also facilitates promotion and business communication. Press releases and interviews are made easier if you can answer the question “What is your bar’s concept?”. In a time where information is flowing and overflowing, a strong message and clear communication will be your best marketing weapon.
Innovation, competition, marketing are now a cornerstone of our industry. After years of romanticising, the bar world has achieved the status of legitimate industry and therefore should be treated as such. Bars need to keep up with the evolution of the industry, and if you snooze, you lose.
However, there is one important factor that often gets overlooked when bar concepts become the centerpiece: the guest experience. And I can’t help but wonder: when does a bar concept becomes a disservice to the guest experience?
Bar concepts can tend to be very dogmatic. We’ve all been to bars that won’t make shaken drinks or use citrus. How many times have you been to a bar that refuses a guest a mojito (while pointing out the Southside on the menu)? I have to ask myself: why? Often a conceptual approach will come with a set of unspoken rules, do’s and dont’s. While concepts are often self-explanatory for other bar professionals, they are not always as accessible for guests. So I often ask myself: who does the concept end up being for, if it excludes the clientele?
I understand that an operation might choose to leave certain drinks or practices out for ethical or sustainable reasons, but all too often the reasoning given is “we’re too good for that”. This approach automatically suggests that a guest who would have liked to order that drink isn’t good enough for the bar.
And here comes my somehow romanticised philosophy: a bar should be the most neutral, non judgemental place for its guests. It should remain a safe place for the guest, where the problems of the outside world stay at the door. Simple bar etiquette. If your bar has a strong concept, make sure that it is clear for the guests. Explain it to them, let them discover what makes your bar special, rather than making them feel embarrassed if they don’t ‘get’ your concept.
Dealing with wishes that cannot be fulfilled
I would even suggest that tactfully navigating guest requests you can’t fulfil should always be part of a bartender’s the hosting skillset. This doesn’t mean that the customer is king, but rather that the guest should feel comfortable, even if they expected something different from your bar. If a guest orders a type of cocktail that makes your eyes roll, it means that your establishment simply hasn’t made it clear what to expect, and that’s not the fault of the guest.
The role of technology and methodology
Bar techniques like clarification, modification, rectification and even distillation have been another huge area of innovation, and inspiration for bar concepts. Bar professionals love to discover the wide range of tools, and the drinks they can create. They can talk about these techniques on a high professional level. But what about the guests? Simply stating the technology and methodology used can risk coming across as irrelevant at best, and as bragging at worst. These techniques can certainly be impressive - but give your guests a chance to appreciate that. Sharing information or storytelling can be a great way to welcome the guests, especially when done with care not to intimidate them.
Concept just for the concept?
In a conceptual bar, take the time to ask; Who is the concept for? It sometimes seems like bar concepts are developed for bartenders by bartenders, and not easily comprehended by the guests. At a time and age where rankings, awards, visibility and recognition by our peers are huge motivators for bars around the world, we should always remember who pays the bills: your guests.
The role of the pandemic
As bars around the world are slowly starting to see some light at the end of the pandemic, our focus turns to reopening bars, and how to do it in the best way possible. Some factors will be determined by the government, like capacity limits, distancing, compulsory tests, vaccines, and curfews. Our biggest concern will be keeping our guests safe, but we will also have to find ways to give them the best experience possible despite constant fluctuations in the cards we are dealt. Concepts will play an important role, as the innovation they inspire is incredibly important to our industry.
It is thanks to the conceptual approaches of many of our predecessors and industry leaders, that simply enjoying a cocktail crafted with fresh and high-quality ingredients in a comfortable atmosphere has become a benchmark for guests and bartenders around the world. Our generation is now leading the way in more sustainable and socially conscious practices. Let’s keep innovating, improving, and creating - but let us also take our guests with us and not leave them behind.