Food & Drink Complexity in Hospitality

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The bar world of today is a vast collection ranging from grimy dive bars to the top 50 in the world, glistening examples set on a pedestal by their peers. From neighborhood bars churning out Blue Moons and Vodka-Sodas to European hotel bars serving drinks inside ornate sculptures instead of regular glassware, the concepts are endless. Wine, beer, spirits, and cocktails are served to guests in every type of environment, from every skill level of bartender. Restaurants and bars tailor their menus to what they believe the guests in their market will buy… one would think. But far too often, the opposite is true. Cocktail menus, like their culinary counterparts, have become complexity contests meant to one-up the place down the street or earn more Instagram likes than orders at the bar. I’ve witnessed this–and been a part of it–more than once. There comes a time when you’re designing a menu that you have to step back and ask yourself, “Am I putting this drink or this dish on the menu because I like it, or because I think guests will like it?”

As restaurant professionals, we’re exposed to a far greater number of flavors, ingredients, combinations, styles, and examples of food and drink. Our tongues grow stronger taste buds over time as we get more used to obscure ingredients. So when it comes time for us to create a drink or dish for our guests to enjoy, we sometimes forget that the outlandish flavors we’ve grown to love and feel comfortable with, aren’t always approachable for our guests. This is especially true in markets outside of culinary-hipster-hubs in many downtown areas. Suburban restaurants love to think they can keep up with the coolest in-town joints, but that isn’t always necessary. More often than not, your guests crave (we’ll get back to cravings in a bit) something comfortable. Something they know they can rely on, something consistent. Sure, it’s fun to step out of that comfort zone every once in while and splurge hard-earned cash on a drink or plate of food you’re unfamiliar with, but the average guest isn’t trying to reinvent their palette–they’re trying to satisfy it.

This is especially true of repeat business, when guests are drawn back to the same restaurant again and again, to satisfy a craving they have. These cravings come about because they are relying on a consistent flavor that they can’t get anywhere else, flavors they trust that particular spot to deliver time and time again. So when restaurants change menus hyper-seasonally, use obscure ingredients for the sake of them looking cool on a menu, and over-complicate dishes, it can do the exact opposite of satisfying a craving, the very thing that secures repeat customers, the holy grail in a restaurant.

Cocktail bars around the world are locked in an arms race of weird ingredients, scientific techniques and wild garnishes. And while these are impressive and beautiful to the bartender down the street, is it really what the guest wants to drink? Just because I love bitter, herbaceous flavors and boozy, spirit-forward cocktails doesn’t mean John the software sales guy does. Some of my favorite cocktails I’ve ever created have been the biggest flops on menus I’ve made. As I sat there frustrated, wondering how on earth someone wouldn’t like my darling drink, it started to dawn on me that I wasn’t creating all of my drinks for the market I was in. If I spend my day admiring cocktail genius from San Francisco and come up with a drink that would fit right in that market, it doesn’t mean it fits in my market.

Thus came the realization of “dumbing-down” a menu or certain items on a menu and maybe sliding in one or two complex creations for that once-a-week guest and my own pride. And that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? Pride. As we progress in the restaurant world, learn new techniques, discover new flavors and ways to showcase them, we feel as if we’re moving backward to not implement these on a menu for others to enjoy (be impressed by). If we only check our pride at the door and ask ourselves, “What does the guest really want?” we may find that we create more successful menus, with better margins, happier clientele, and more cash in our pocket. And at the end of the day that’s what it’s all about, for 95% of hospitality businesses. Staying open, making guests happy, making money. There are of course outliers, El Bulli comes to mind, but they either service such a niche demographic, or are only around long enough to make a name for themselves before sadly closing up shop because of impossible margins and nearly non-existent profits.

When we create our wildest cocktails, dishes, and desserts, we aren’t really trying to impress our guests. We’re trying to impress our peers. And that’s not hospitality.

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