Drink Menu Engineering: A Step-by-Step Guide
Your drink menu is way more than a list of drinks and prices.
It is your bar’s soul, and your path to riches.
Your beverage menu says everything about your bar, and no matter when a guest comes in, where they sit, who serves them, or what they order, they all share one identical experience: your drink menu.
It’s crucial to representing your brand and creating a top-notch customer experience, but it’s also an amazing money-making tool.
In fact, most restaurants have substantially higher margins on liquor than they do on food.
All this hasn’t gone unrecognized in the biz. There’s an entire field of study dedicated to getting the most out of drink menu creation and design.
It’s called menu engineering, and we’re going to teach you all about it.
Menu Engineering 101: Drink Menu Analysis
The first step to wringing all the money out of your drink menu like a wet towel is identifying two things over a set period of time: the most profitable drinks and the most popular drinks.
The ultimate goal of menu engineering is to turn your most profitable drinks into your most popular drinks, and vice versa. Do that, and you win.
Profitability vs. Popularity
A drink’s profitability boils down to its pour cost, which is—in dollars—how much of that product you’re using divided by how much of that product you’re selling.
Your first goal is to figure out the pour costs for every drink on your drink menu. (If you’re looking to save hours upon hours of your life, BinWise Pro’s pour cost analysis can help you figure out the numbers in a jiff.)
Keep these numbers handy because you’ll need to compare them to the next set of numbers: popularity.
A drink’s popularity is an easy one. Pull the total number sold throughout the time period using your POS or a beverage inventory management solution like BinWise Pro.
Using a Menu Engineering Worksheet
Now you’ll use a menu engineering worksheet template. Just plot your two sets of numbers: pour costs on the vertical axis and number sold on the horizontal axis.
This will give you a look into the intersection of your drink menu items’ profitability and popularity.
It will also give you the ability to:
- Isolate top-performers. If a drink has great pour costs and is popular, leave it be.
- Isolate flops. A drink with a high pour cost and little to no customer interest should be rethought or removed from the beverage menu entirely.
- Identify popular drinks that can be optimized for profit. Is there a way you can lower pour costs for popular drinks? Tweaking ingredients, making cocktails with less expensive liquor, or ordering bulk from your distributor could all lower ingredient costs.
- Identify profitable drinks that should be marketed. Drinks that make money but aren’t selling well can be moved to a different part of the menu, visually emphasized, renamed, or redescribed.
Again, the goal is to lower the pour costs of your top-sellers and nudge your money-makers toward fame.
Once you have an understanding of what drinks need what kind of love, you’re ready to take a whack at designing your drink menu.
Menu Engineering 201: Designing and Creating the Perfect Drink Menu
Menu engineering offers two primary ways to go about handling the takeaways from the number-crunching above: placement on the menu and visual emphasis.
Crafty Placement of Your Money Drinks
Some drinks make money, but nobody’s buying. It could be that not enough people are seeing them.
The way eyes scan menus is a bit controversial. Conventional wisdom states that there’s a “sweet spot” in the upper right corner of a menu, where a gaze initially drifts toward. But that’s not the only opinion.
Professor Brian Wansink, author of Slim by Design, Mindless Eating Solutions to Every Day Life, and menu psychology researcher, told The Guardian, “We generally scan the menu in a z-shaped fashion starting at the top-left hand corner.”
Similarly, research from San Francisco State University found diners tend to read menus sequentially, like a book, from left to right, not necessarily spending more time on one section over any other. Which flies in the face of the “sweet spot” theory.
There’s no definitive way that all people move their eyes around, but each theory has its value, and they’re worth testing. Think of them when you’re trying to get extra eyeballs on a profitable drink that needs some attention.
Make Profitable Items Pretty
In addition to placement, you can attract wandering eyes to a lonely drink with some visual voodoo.
A box to highlight an individual item can work wonders, and can be combined with shading and borders for more emphasis.
A box does double-duty, too: imagine a cocktail menu with a select few cocktails boxed and highlighted, while their less-profitable brothers and sisters are banished to a text-only section in the boring old bottom-right.
Another option is a photo of the dish itself, or another kind of graphic or illustration. Picture the silhouette of a martini glass with olives next to the dirty martini on a cocktail menu—emphasizing the glamour and mystique that’s often associated with martinis.
Highlight Special Selections
This is a version of making profitable items pretty, but with some added words that give people even more of a reason to order the drink.
Think about setting off a drink, or a collection of drinks, with titles like:
- Special selections
- Top sellers
- Seasonal favorites
- Staff picks
- Tasty delights
Ok, the last one might not work in every bar.
But the idea is to make the menu feel curated. People don’t typically enter a bar with one drink, and one drink only, on their mind.
They don’t really have a reason to order any particular drink, so give them one.
Watching seasons change is one of the great joys of being alive. People just love it.
Rightfully so, too. It’s beautiful and it’s exciting. Your drink menu should harness the power of those feelings.
It’s one of the best reasons to give someone for ordering a drink when they otherwise have none. Or, heck, even if they do have a reason. If they walk in thinking “I’d really like a margarita tonight.”
Your menu would silently communicate something along the lines of: Not so fast pal, it’s fall. Have you thought about an apple sangria? What about cinnamon tequila sour? Look outside, for god’s sake. A margarita .. are you an animal?
Here’s a handy list of the seasonal flavors and basic ingredients that will make people feel special as the earth tilts and whirls around the sun:
- Spring: Subtle flavors like apricots, avocados, strawberries, and even avocado and celery remind us that life is once again blooming but we don’t yet need a beverage solution for the sun’s summer glare.
- Summer: As the heat rises, refreshment becomes paramount. Citrus fruits like pineapple, lemon, and mango, cooling cucumber, and creamy coconut are all summer staples.
- Fall: Mildly sweet and earthy flavors dominate as the leaves show us their true colors: apple, pear, ginger, nuts, carrot, cranberry, fig, cinnamon, and, of course, pumpkin spice.
- Winter: It gets even sweeter now. Warm, sweet, and cozy flavors like maple, peppermint, chocolate, and marshmallow melt our frozen hearts.
Your drink menu should be updated frequently, because a menu that maximizes profit in January may not be as profitable in June.
Things you need to consider when updating your menu:
- What items are now most profitable
- Where those items should be placed on the menu to maximize profit
- Tweaking visual emphasis
- Calling out new special selections and curating items differently
- Seasonal cocktails
Being agile and updating your menu often (which is why digital beverage menus are so important and convenient) is all about reacting to sales trends and profitability, and that is all about solid reporting and analytics based on accurate inventory management.
These are all things BinWise Pro can do for you, so you can spend your time getting the best possible menu on the floor.
Be Thorough and Descriptive
Your drink descriptions are another important touchpoint with guests, and effective drink descriptions are both informative and attractive.
Let’s dissect two drink descriptions based on actual menus and think about the difference.
Lychee juice, vodka, vermouth
The citrus and rose flavors of lychee fruit drive this fragrant vodka cocktail tempered with vermouth
The first description isn’t necessarily worse. There are some bars with a less-is-more mentality, and that works for them and their guests.
But if your menu descriptions are working for you, you’re probably not reading this.
Give guests more information about a cocktail, throw in a pretty adjective or two to evoke other senses (like smell and flavor), and a lot more eyes will find their way there.
This is especially important with wine, with which interesting information about wineries, grapes, histories, and flavor profiles are in no short supply.
Building a Profitable Wine List
The drink menu’s older sibling away at college, the wine list is still a part of the Menu family. Fine tuning your wine list presents some unique challenges to the menu engineer. Let’s consider them!
Food and Wine Pairing
Arguably the most important part of your wine list is how well it pairs with the food you offer, and a good general rule is to match the body of your wine with the intensity of your food’s flavor.
According to Vinepair, “as a wine contains more and more alcohol, it becomes more viscous (i.e., it becomes heavier and thereby feels fuller in our mouths.) This is why we call a heavily viscous wine full-bodied and a low viscosity wine light-bodied.”
They break it down further: An alcohol level of 12.5% and under for light-bodied wines, between 12.5 and 13.5% for medium-bodied wines, and over 13.5% for full-bodied wines.
If you serve mostly light, delicate food, then go with a wine list with a lot of light- and medium-bodied options. Alternately, if you’re running a steakhouse, a slate of full-bodied wines will pair perfectly with the bold flavor of red meat and luxurious sauces.
Further, you can fully embrace terroir and pair based on geography: an Oregon Pinot Noir as a suggested pairing to local, pasture-raised pork chops.
Wine List Variety
Once you have a feel for the size of the wines you need on your wine list, you can start thinking about their variety.
“If you’re only going to have one Pinot Grigio, it should probably be one that the vast majority of customers who are going to order Pinot Grigio will like and think they got for a relatively good price,” says Geoff Kruth of GuildSomm.com.
The main takeaway here is that, for the popular wines that you know people are going to order, have one on the wine list that a non-wine-nerd can order and feel good about.
He hilariously continues, “If you only have one Pinot Grigio and it’s fermented on the skins for three months without sulfur followed by four years of underwater aging and costs $100 .. then I probably hate you.”
For more obscure varietals, there’s really no need to have multiple choices unless your wine list deep enough to justify it.
What Information Should Go on a Wine List?
The more, the better, within reason. While it may be unnecessary to tell the budding sommelier looking at your wine list that a Fumé Blanc is the same thing as a Sauvignon Blanc, these types of things will make the menu much easier to engage with for others.
At a minimum, at least, a useful wine list will include:
- Name of the wine
- Vintage (year)
Your wine reps and distributors are likely very familiar with the wines they sell, too, and they may have some good tips for how to present certain bottles.
How Should a Wine List Be Organized?
There are three ways you can organize your wine list: geography, grape, and style.
Structuring your wine list by region or grape are fool-proof ways for people to get the lay of the land. It’s great because it lends a natural order to your wine list, it’s interesting to see what wines come from where, and you can literally not mess it up. Each wine has a region and a grape. It’s easy.
It’s not so easy organizing a wine list by style, though. While there are commonly accepted styles for wines (everyone agrees that Cabernets Sauvignons are full-bodied), not every wine is as obviously-bodied as Cabernet Sauvignon.
Further, not every style is about the size of a wine’s body: you could have a section for aromatic whites, for example.
Point being, organizing wines by style is far more subjective than by regions and grape, and much harder to get 100% right. If you want a controversial wine list, go for it.
Drink Menu Engineering
Combining an analysis of your drinks’ profitability and popularity with some battle-tested ways to create and design amazing drink menus is an awesome way to make customers happy and up your profits.
It’ll take time and effort to crunch all the numbers and get to a point where you can start getting creative with your drink menu, but it’s worth the soul searching.
One way to lighten the load is using BinWise Pro for your bar inventory management, which stores and tracks all your relevant inventory numbers for easy access.
Like for those times when you want to, say, look over all your pour costs and design the best drink menu ever. BinWise’s got you.