Mix it up!

Mixed drinks have come a long way from their early days, when Prohibition-era drinkers were forced to add ingredients to their alcohol to mask the unpleasant taste of bathtub gin and homemade whiskey. Nowadays, customers across the country are well-versed in the newest flavored martinis and vodkas; the best scotches and malt whiskeys; and the latest mixed drink choices that offer thousands of possible combinations. Meanwhile, old-fashioned classic cocktails are making a comeback, while standbys such as the margarita continue to thrive. So how do you sort through all of the options to best serve your customers and your business? 

If you have a full bar at your pizzeria, or are thinking of adding one, you’ll encounter myriad unique challenges—as well as benefits for your business, if handled properly. This article will give you a rundown of what you’ll need to know to elevate your bar business and make your pizzeria stand out from the competition. We’ll cover the essentials—mixing techniques, mixer options, marketing your drinks, creating specialty cocktails, finding the right bartender and more—to get you well on your way to running an efficient bar that rakes in the cash!

Straight Up: Marketing

You can market your drinks in a variety of ways, but your tactics will depend on what you offer at your bar. Are you mixing only simple basics, or are you creating specialty cocktails? Once you decide how detailed you want your bar’s options to be, get your alcohol distributors involved in promotion. “Table tents are supplied by the distributor for free, as long as you feature their brands,” says Larry “Vito” Preston, owner of Vito Goldberg’s NY Pizzeria, Marietta, Georgia. “That’s a major plus. Ask what swag is available—neon signs, placemats, coasters, table tents, etc.” 

Educating servers is also key; make sure that all staff members are updated with the latest drink creations and are taking the time to sell and explain them to customers. “Your staff is the only link a customer has to a product, so their knowledge of that product is of utmost importance,” says Jeffrey Morgenthaler, an 11-year veteran bartender based in Eugene, Oregon (www.jeffreymorgenthaler.com). “Holding regular sessions that allow the staff to learn about house specialties and new/existing products is the most powerful tool an owner has for using staff to sell drinks.”

To make your restaurant stand out, why not create a specialty drink? Preston’s pizzeria has been featured in Bartender magazine for a unique house drink called The Soprano. “We invented it, and it’s unbelievably popular,” he says. The drink contains vodka, Frangelico, Amaretto and chocolate liqueur, and is available as a shooter, martini or blended drink.

If you want to offer a signature drink, do some research. Many experts advocate putting a spin on a classic: “With your best sellers, just add a dash of something that enhances the taste or puts a twist on it; then give it a name that’s special for your place,” suggests Doug Rogers, owner of Johnny B’s Pizza Pad & Watering Hole, with two locations in Charlotte and Gastonia, North Carolina. 

“Start with a known beverage recipe and give it a twist,” agrees Stuart McAllister, director of marketing (foodservice) for Dole, based in Carrollton, Texas. “Customers should be able to identify the drink, and then you give it the yum factor. Also, savory works; add herbs or spiced alcohol.” 

You can also create limited-time specialty drinks to coincide with food specialties, local events or seasons. John’s Pizzeria, in the heart of New York’s Theater District, makes drinks that complement Broadway shows: “We’ve created drinks for the different seasons; for example, we created The Grinch (a green martini) to coincide with the musical playing next door,” says Ric Mancini, general manager. 

Think about how well your drinks pair with your food. “Pair the drink’s flavors with the food in such a way that the drink complements the food rather than competes with it,” suggests Morgenthaler. “Drinks with a little extra sweetness tend to accompany spicy foods well, while drinks higher in acidity can cut through flavors high in fat, like cheese.” 

“I think it would be wise to have a menu with pairing suggestions,” says Kristi Howard, a pizzeria cook in Sapulpa, Oklahoma, “such as ‘Shrimp Pesto Pie (description) pairs well with (drink name).’”

Looking around you for inspiration—at local chain establishments, bars and restaurants—can’t hurt either; take note of what’s selling in your area. “Look to see what’s hot in chains with a bar-type atmosphere, and try to duplicate the trend that best matches your food and restaurant environment,”  advise Mark and Tammy Perez, owners of Pizza Club in La Habra, California. 

Finally, don’t forget the fun factor! Casual, laid-back pizzerias are made for fun drink concepts. “Pizza is all about having fun and sharing with family or friends,” says Morgenthaler. “Think about drinks that might work well in a group setting: small punchbowls to share, pitchers, or flights of differently fl avored cocktails to pass around and share.”

“Put together a package, like a ‘margarita ménage à trois’: a Margherita pizza with two margarita beverages, or something else catchy,” suggests Jim Hlavacek, senior vice president of The Hart Group, a restaurant coop food-buying group based in Providence, Rhode Island. Overall, keep your guests in mind when designing your drink menu or specialties. “Just have a pulse on your guest base and what they would like to see,” says Rogers. “We have added or replaced almost all of our liquors based on comments from our guests.”

Layered: Mixology 101

Terminology. Familiarize yourself with the basic terms used by bartenders and customers when discussing mixed drinks. “There’s an almost limitless number of arcane terms used in the world of cocktails, but a beginning bar staff can rely on a few of the basics,” says Morgenthaler. “‘On the rocks’ [on ice], ‘blended’ and ‘neat’ [served straight] should need no explanation. ‘Up’ typically refers to a drink shaken in a cocktail shaker and strained into a cocktail/martini glass. You will often hear the term ‘muddled,’ which refers to ingredients being pressed in a mixing glass with the end of a wooden pestle.”

Some additional general terminology refers to the type of liquor used in the drink: A “call drink” is one in which the brand of alcohol is specifi ed, such as a Tanqueray and Tonic (for gin and tonic) or Jack and Coke (for whiskey and cola); a “top shelf” (also called supercall or super premium) refers to a drink made with premium-grade alcohol, such as flavored/high-end vodkas or aged malt scotches; and a “well drink” is one made with an unspecified brand of liquor (such as a rum and Coke).

Equipment. Michelle Benoit, a former bartender from Toronto, lists the basic equipment you’ll need to serve mixed drinks at your pizzeria: “a soda dispenser and/or a fridge for soda, juices and mixers; an ice machine, or the capacity to make a lot of ice; an ice scoop; a sink with running water; many shot glasses, or measuring dispensers to put on the liquor bottles; glassware of all kinds to suit the mixed drinks you want to serve; a glass-washing machine (comes in handy and saves time); metal shakers with strainers and lids; garnishes (lemons, limes, maraschino cherries, oranges, olives and cocktail onions—if your drinks look more appetizing, your chances of selling them will increase); a clean cutting board and a sharp knife; swizzle sticks; and slender straws.” She also suggests stocking house brands of basic liquors, including vodka, rum (dark and white), gin, whiskey, tequila, brandy and vermouth (white and red). “Then you can carefully consider which mid-level and premium brands of those liquors to stock to upsell to guests.” You’ll also want to add certain specialty liquors, such as Cointreau, crème de cacao, Kahlúa, apple liqueur, peach schnapps, etc. Most of the experts interviewed for this article agreed: Carry quality brands, even for your well drinks. “Don’t skimp on the highend stuff; people will pay!” says Cris Ginn, owner of Hague Firehouse Restaurant, Hague-on-Lake-George, New York. “We offer decent booze in our well—Dewar’s, Cuervo, Meyer’s. It looks good for the bar, and it doesn’t cost much to have a quality reputation.”

“Our best sellers are our higher-end vodkas and tequilas, and we even keep some really good scotch on hand,” says Jeff Jackson, co-owner of Area 41 Pizza Company in Birmingham, Alabama. “I would stress: Don’t forget the higher-end stuff.” “Brands are important,” agrees Rogers. “They might not tell you, but they’ll pay more for the better brands.” Ultimately, your bar setup will depend on you and your customer’s needs, so it’s a good idea to have a clear idea of what you want to offer to your customers before investing in supplies. Think about your business’ image: Are you running a casual place with a neighborhood feel, or do you want to cultivate a hip image with trendy cocktails and unique ingredients? “First off, decide to what extent you want to be involved with alcohol,” advises Hlavacek. “If a simple addition of several mixed drinks is desired, then an extensive setup isn’t needed.”

Finally, regardless of how much equipment you have in your bar area, keep everything well-organized, attractively displayed and easy to work with. “Having the proper workspace is the single most important component in making great cocktails,” says Morgenthaler. “Ample counter space and readily available storage, both refrigerated and nonrefrigerated, are crucial.”

Preparation. Most drinks you make will already have prescribed preparation methods, though some drinks can be served in more than one way; for example, a margarita may be served frozen or on the rocks, while some prefer martinis shaken as opposed to stirred, and vice versa. If a drink can be made in more than one way, bartenders and wait staff should be trained to ask a customer’s preference. “Blended and shaken options are very popular,” says McAllister. “Layering adds dimension to a signature drink.” Layered drinks are more complex and must be poured carefully: According to the website www.drinknation.com, layering relies on density; the higher-density liquor will sink to the bottom of the glass, while the lowerdensity liquor will float on top. The site says that “the common technique today is to pour the liquor slowly over the back of a spoon, touching the side of the glass. This allows the liquor to trickle into the drink without too much downward disturbance.” Add the densest ingredient first, then add the next densest, and continue to the least dense liquor. (The Drinknation website provides a density chart for finding out the relative densities of your ingredients.)

Layered drinks, however, are definitely a specialty item; most of the usual requests will be relatively simple to prepare. “Drinks shaken and strained into a cocktail/martini glass have been popular for 10 to 15 years now,” says Morgenthaler. “Several years ago, the mojito came back into fashion, which requires muddling. But drinks served on the rocks are still the most commonly ordered cocktails in a bar.”

Shaken: Mixers 

Choice of mixers is every bit as important as choice of alcohol, because customers will judge your bar by their quality. You don’t want to serve a premium alcohol with a cheaply produced mixer; you’ll muffle the quality of the liquor and detract from the overall experience. Use the following information to bone up on some of the mixer options available: Fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs. Some companies now offer easy-to-use packaged fruit that you can use in blended drinks. For example, Dole Smoothie Starters are available in three varieties (Mixed Berry, Strawberry Banana and Mango Peach), each in a premixed, individually frozen single-serve pouch; simply add to the blender and mix.

Infusions are another hot option right now; trend-setting bars across the country are allowing fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs to instill unique flavors in liquor. Though some bars are now starting to infuse whiskey and gin, you can begin by experimenting with vodka, which is the most common liquor to infuse. The benefits are plentiful: “You can better match food and drink pairings by creating your own infusions,” says Matt Coleman, vice president of The Titan Agency, Atlanta. “You can also adjust your bar menu seasonally by incorporating fresh, seasonal ingredients into your cocktail list. Try doing different infusions on different nights of the week; it gives customers a reason to come back.” (For more information on how to infuse and for infusion recipes, check out www.frisvodka.com.)

Syrups and sauces. Syrups also provide an easy and convenient way to add flavor to your martinis, margaritas and other house drinks. “We love using the Sonoma Syrup flavors; we use Pomegranate, Black Currant, Vanilla-Almond, Ginger and Cinnamon syrups,” says Vince Albano, COO of Mary’s Pizza Shack, Sonoma, California. “They enhance true, fresh flavors and give wonderful aromas, rich color and exceptional balance to our Shackatini cocktails.” Monin Gourmet Flavorings, Clearwater, Florida, also makes a range of syrups that are ideal for behind the bar: True Brewed Espresso Concentrate (for coffee-flavored drinks); Chipotle Pineapple and Spicy Mango; Organic Syrups (available in five flavors); and a full range of other syrups. Meanwhile, the company’s gourmet sauces, in four flavors, are a great addition to chocolate martinis or after-dinner drinks.

Mixes. You’ll need to have mixes, sodas (tonic water, club soda, energy drinks, etc.) and fresh juices on hand to make popular drinks such as the margarita, Bloody Mary and screwdriver. To sweeten drinks, simple syrup is a must-have (you can buy premade or easily make in-house). Special mixes (such as sour mix) can be made fresh or ordered premade. Some in the industry believe that homemade mixers are a premium upgrade that you should offer customers: “For a little bit of effort, it’s so worth it to make your own Bloody Mary or sweet-and-sour mix,” says Preston. “If they’re going to buy high-end liquor, I can accompany it with quality mixers; a few customers even ask if they’re fresh-made before ordering.” 

On the other hand, premade mixers have certainly evolved from the artificial-tasting blends of days past. For example, Ocean Spray has recently introduced BarPac Mixers, available in six popular flavors, each in a 32-ounce size that fi ts in the bar well: Sour Mix, 100% Orange Juice, 100% Pineapple Juice, 100% White Grapefruit Juice, Bloody Mary Mix and Cranberry Juice Cocktail. On each bottle is a “date opened” area to ensure product freshness. 

Cocktails, like any other food or beverage category, are constantly evolving. But knowing the basics will keep your bar running smoothly and your customers happy. Use this article as a springboard to help you develop even more ideas, and don’t forget to constantly analyze what’s selling, what’s cooled off and what’s coming up in mixed drinks to keep your business at the cutting edge. In other words, don’t be afraid to mix it up!

Tracy Morin is a PMQ managing editor.