HOW TO CREATE AN AWARD-WINNING MENU
Menus are one of the most fundamental parts of the customer experience, and The Dead Rabbit Grocery and Grog, NYC, is known not only as the World’s Best Bar (2016), but also as having one of the most innovative menus (think a comic book featuring some of the industry’s renowned experts!) So how do they do it? Dead Rabbit Beverage Director and Bar Manager Jillian Vose takes us through how her team creates the menu and gives us some top tips that you can use in any menu you might create!
Why is it important to have a good menu?
Well, for us it’s because the menu is part of the whole customer experience. At the Dead Rabbit, we’ve established a reputation for having fun and engaging menus and it’s now the standard our guests expect from us.
Menus work for us, and I’d say 99% of the time, guests pick from the menu, or the bartender or server do so, and it’s a matter of having your mise en place reflect the menu to ensure efficiency.
We like to think that our menu is one of the highlights of coming to our bar. It’s different than anything else out there, which makes it memorable. You’re not going to forget the Rabbit Man (John Morrissey’s character, resurrected one hundred years after his death) in a comic book alongside a cartoon version of your favorite bartender. It’s part of the conversation and it’s a part of what we do and what people expect from us. It doesn’t have to be a comic book menu, but certainly finding your menu style and making it a reflection of your outlet will bring more customers in.
How we create our award-winning menus
To create our award-winning menus, there are a lot of moving parts. It’s not just the drinks.
Our menu concepts tell a story that has relevance to both the Dead Rabbit’s location and its name (based on the infamous 1850s street gang). Make sure your menu not only makes sense for you, but also gives your customers an insight into the look and feel of your bar.
We work with Drinksology, the company that does our fonts and menu layout, and they really are the brains when it comes to formulating the story we’d like to tell. It’s largely the Dead Rabbit owners, Sean Muldoon and Jack McGarry, who confer with them about the progression of the actual comic or menu-my main role is to work with our staff to come up with and then create the actual drinks that will be in the menu.
Serves to Include
We work as a team when coming up with ideas for our drinks and it is a very collaborative process. We brainstorm through a shared online document that everybody can see. This process helps to visualize the drink recipes while drinks are being presented to all staff, creating less redundancy with drink ideas among the team.
We will do research and development sessions roughly 6-8 times before the menu is complete. I typically allow the staff to present everything they’ve got and then I’ll fill in what needs to be completed for the menu. During this process, we also get samples from suppliers–this is a great opportunity to take inspiration from spice shops, farmers markets, grocery stores, meals and desserts, cookbooks, and cocktail books old and new. Go exploring!
Once all the drinks are presented, you have to put the menu together like a puzzle. I normally take a large poster board and sticky notes and put it all together. I can move the notes around until everything is in the appropriate section according to the style of drink.
After that, I’ll go through all the drinks and make sure they’re fine-tuned to perfection before sending the recipes out to the staff.
First, you’ll need to confirm the layout of the menu. We have multiple menus in our bar that all contain different seasonal serves under different categories, such as sours and fizzes or communal punches for sharable serves. One of our menus had 8 sections and 64 drinks based on seasons and then subdivided into shaken vs. stirred, whereas our current menus have 30 drinks. We reduced the number of drinks on the menu to avoid overwhelming the customers with options, but there are still plenty of drinks to provide a good variety. When deciding how to order the cocktails on our current menus, we chose to start with lighter cocktails and then progress into darker, more robust, and heavier-style drinks toward the end. I’ve found that dividing according to spirits categories or style also works well, as we’ve done at our sister bar, BlackTail.
Then comes the fun part–drink names! We name our drinks based on the scene that they’re in throughout the comic, giving us some guidance, but I’ve worked in places before where you could name a drink anything you wanted–as long as it wasn’t too offensive! Sean is definitely the one who comes up with most of the drink names, but we would both point out something we didn’t like if we felt strongly about it.
Once the menu goes to print, you have a few weeks to learn the recipes and do a tasting/training with both the bartenders and servers, ensuring that everyone knows the new drinks and how to recommend them to customers. During this time, you also need to formulate a mise en place map (workstation setup) for after the menu changes, just to make sure you’re not going in blind the day you change over. The map doesn’t have to be set in stone, but it’s essential you know how much space you have and how many bottles need a home in your back bar.
Finally, don’t forget to promote your new menus via social media, like Facebook and Instagram, and local industry articles–make sure the world knows about it!
My top tips for any menu
Here are some of my tips that you can apply to any menu you are creating:
- Make your menu diverse. There should be something for everyone once, twice, and (hopefully!) three times.
- It’s not about you, it’s about the guests that come to your bar–make the drinks for them.
- Make sure the drink descriptions don’t sound absolutely crazy, of course including anything that could be a potential allergen.
- Have at least one Vodka cocktail on your menu if you can. It’s actually helped ease the Vodka Soda drinkers into trying new drinks. You’d be surprised at the results.
- Make sure you can explain how your menu works to people in under 30 seconds.