As bartenders, managers and owners, it’s often tempting to create brands, bars and menus around our own passions and tastes. While to an extent it is important to do what you love, what is far more important is to create something your guests will love, not jar with them or be a step too far.
I understand that the potential guests with similar tastes to yours will gravitate towards your brand, assuming they hear about it and you execute it well, ensuring amazing service and running the business well. However, if that market is a tiny percentage, you’re missing out on the big slice of pie everyone else is feasting on.
But Mainstream is Boring.
This is a perception that a lot of people have, and yes, you need to differentiate your brand in order to stand out from the crowd. Of course, there is a reason it’s called mainstream. It’s what most people want, or at least alienates the least possible number of clients. In the UK, Weatherspoons pubs are about as mainstream as it gets, a broad spectrum of spirits, draft and bottled beers, no discernible theme beyond generally having some local history related images on the walls. However, it’s one of the most well known brands in the country, and has a reputation now for cask ales, a range of craft beers sold in bottles and cans, a few super premium spirits and generally low prices.
Wetherspoons also generally have some of the best maintained beers, in terms of clean lines, temperature control and range in the UK. Of course there are a few independents that have a wider range or specialise more, but for a national chain, weatherspoons is known as a safe bet for food and drink at low prices. If anything lets them down, service can be slow and the bar staff, while they produce consistent drinks, they’re often overwhelmed by volume and don’t seem to be trained in aspects like multi serving and keeping track of who’s next. This is a problem in the vast majority of British pubs in fairness, as the tipping culture is undeveloped and basic pay is low, giving little incentive to be better.
The point is, Wetherspoons are super successful. Their food and drink menu has a strong core to cater to 99% of guests tastes, and then specialises out to give itself an identity. Without pitching itself at a specific group, it captures a huge amount of the market and welcomes everyone.
Of course there are speciality bars which thrive, gin parlours, specialist vodka bars and rum revolution cantinas, but they’re a niche which can’t support huge chains or multiple bars in a given area. While you may well be able to carve out a cult following and build a client base over time, if you only sell piña coladas or flavoured variations of that drink, you’re unlikely to get the regular passing crowd stopping by every week (though as Tom Dyer will tell you, the Piña Colada is the best drink on the planet).
I personally love hand smoked whiskey cocktails, where the guest can choose their wood chips and watch their drink being made stage by stage in front of them. I had a wonderful smoked Manhattan at Fumo in Birmingham a while ago mixed by Dan Upton, a bartender I trained at Fridays who is now amazing (I take very little credit for his skills), but I wouldn’t open a bar where that was a theme of the menu, and I certainly wouldn’t do that in a suburb where the guests just want a cold beer while watching the game. Given a metropolitan city centre bar where the typical guest is image concious and a little more adventurous, sure, I’d include them on a menu, but supported by a range of more mainstream drinks so that no-one looks at the menu and can’t see something they want to drink.
Your Decor Sets the Stage for your Drinks.
While the menu is what people will stay for, the look of your bar and its music are the setting for your drinks, along with the atmosphere that your team create within the venue. Unless you’re selling your brand on a specific music style, be that dance, retro, rock, whatever, unless that is a key part of your brand, keep the music neutral and inoffensive. You don’t want the music to be putting off your guests by jarring with their sensibilities. For example, a gangster rap gin parlor would feel very odd, as would a Japanese Sake bar playing thrash metal. Keeping the music at a level which allows guests to hear the burble of conversation but not hear specifics is optimal, as bars are a social environment and we want to encourage conversation, letting your guests completely loose track of time!