Operators are creating themed food and beverage bars that encourage customization and exploration.
This article first appeared in the 1 November 2007 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).
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By Kate Leahy, Senior Associate Editor
The salad bar was a novel and exciting addition to foodservice operations before its ubiquity moved it from commonplace to passé. Now, with customization and consumer control among the watchwords of hospitality, salad bars are back, and they’re spawning a wide variety of similar stations—from wine bars to baked-potato bars—where guests can get food or beverages exactly as they want them.
Themed bars add a new attraction: culinary discovery. Offering carefully selected and often higher-quality items, these bars inspire guests to try new things in a casual, comfortable setting. They play upon the idea of house specialties and make their allure tangible.
Special experiences are what consumers crave. Chapel Hill, N.C.-based Yankelovich MONITOR finds that consumers say they will seek out originality in products and experiences. A thirst for culinary education also drives the popularity of specialty bars. Just as wine bars capitalize on guests’ desire to broaden their knowledge and appreciation of wines, cheese bars, chocolate bars, tequila bars and specialty-cocktail bars take advantage of customer curiosity by being one part educational and one part fun.
Here are case studies of four themed bars. Some bars are recurring special features at existing restaurants; others are stand-alone concepts. What they share is the ability to provide guests with customized dining and education, resulting in a value-added experience.
The Concept: Cube Cafe, Cheese Bar & Marketplace, Los Angeles
The Players: Owner Alexander Palermo; Executive Chef Erin Eastland
The Experience: A bar lined with neat rows of cheese greets guests, who are presented with a nibble of cheese as soon as they’re seated. A cheese consultant advises on an extensive range of international cheeses. Meanwhile, the full menu features regional Italian soups, antipasti, pastas and entrées. At the end of their visit, guests often buy cheese to take home.
The Menu: Six-year-old Parmesan cheese, four-year-old Parmesan cheese and Red Cow Parmesan cheese with 12-year aged balsamic from Modena, Italy
The Word: “Much like a proper sushi bar, I wanted customers to come in whether alone or with company, to sit at the cheese bar, and to be in the hands of the cheese bar. … It really is a true way to be comfortably adventurous.” – Alexander Palermo
The Concept: Mercadito Cantina, New York City
The Players: Co-owner Alfredo Sandoval; Chef-owner Patricio Sandoval
The Experience: In a casual, modern setting, Mercadito Cantina offers creative tacos and refreshing drinks inspired by Mexico’s casual taquerias. Building off of the success of sister concept Mercadito’s tequila-only bar, Mercadito Cantina limits its drinks menu to beverages traditionally found in a taqueria: Mexican beer and micheladas, Mexican beer-based cocktails; white and red sangrias; and aguas frescas.
The Menu: Guests can choose from traditional side dishes such as rice and beans and from an extensive guacamole and salsa bar with selections designed to complement the micheladas.
The Word: “People seem to be more open to expanding their horizons and experimenting with cocktails. Plus, I think people are looking for a complete dining experience, with food complementing drinks and vice versa.” – Alfredo Sandoval
The Concept: The Chocolate Bar at the Langham Hotel, Boston
The Players: Executive Chef Mark Sapienza and Executive Pastry Chef Alejandro Luna
The Experience: For many Bostonians, visiting the Langham Hotel’s chocolate bar (now entering its 19th season) is an annual tradition. To keep things fresh, a few years ago Sapienza and Luna decided to bring in action stations and build desserts designed around a theme. This year four chocolate stations entice with desserts inspired by the elements: air, earth, fire and water. Smaller versions of the chocolate bar often are requested for banquets. Each element has corresponding desserts, be it chocolate cotton candy at the Air table or flambéed crêpes at the Fire table.
The Menu: Although the four tables alone have more than 120 chocolate desserts, chocolate-enhanced savory items, such as a braised pork shank with cocoa nibs, also are offered.
The Word: “People are looking for the whole package—dining and entertainment rolled into one. If you can make your dining experience entertaining for the guest, that’s what people are looking for now.” – Mark Sapienza
The Concept: The Global Bloody Mary Bar at Viand, Chicago
The Players: Executive Chef Steve Chiappetti; Mixologist Steve Budrow
The Experience: Sundays and Mondays, while football games play in the background, guests can order hearty, globally inflected Bloody Marys. The $9 drinks are often so filling that many guests look to them as part of their meal. The presentation, in which all of the fixings are set on a tray that travels on a dining-room cart, also boosts beverage sales.
The Menu: Bloody Mary options include English and Russian, but the Mexican Bloody Mary is Chiappetti’s favorite. Chipotle-infused vodka with fresh tomato juice is served in a glass rimmed with crushed tortilla chips and a masa-coated Gouda cheese ball.
The Word: “It’s all about choice. With bars, it’s more than wine. We’re also seeing hard-liquor sales start to increase again. With that, there are so many more products. Sometimes people get confused. This helps us through the muddled mess. We have one good vodka.” – Steve Chiappetti