Have you heard “Bar Bites”?
You should. Bar Bites are to American Cuisine the same as Tapas are to Spanish Cuisine. Hey it’s not rocket science…give the customer more of what they are looking for and you will increase revenues. Some restaurant owners are worried that Bar Bites might cut into full size entree sales and truthfully, yes they might. However, they also might come back more often and spend more money on wine and cocktails.
Jinja Restaurant in Albuquerque, New Mexico saw this trend as they took an in-depth look at their sales and what people were buying as well as where they were requesting to be seated at. Turned out the bar was hot property. They’re in the process of remodeling one of their existing restaurants to include another highly visible bar area with sliding panels that can increase or decrease the size of the room depending on the flow of business. From my viewpoint, this is one smart operator who doesn’t act like they know it all but instead has their finger on the pulse of what their customers are buying and makes adjustments to give them more of that. Is it risky? Oh hell yes! However, looking at recent restaurant trends the team at Jinja is right where they need to be to dominate their local market.
So why would you just what people to graze at the bar instead?
“I would much rather have someone come in twice a week — once for dinner and once for bar noshes — than only have them come in one time,” says Rick Tramonto, executive chef/partner at Restaurant R’evolution in New Orleans. “Little plates are a huge draw. You just have to reinvent them a bit, like lobster nachos versus traditional, for instance.”
Like most elements of culinary, if executed well and marketed well, people will follow. “Bar bites may drop check average that may result in loss of revenue,” says John Critchley, executive chef of Urbana Restaurant and Wine Bar in Washington, D.C. “Or you can look at them differently and understand that they are very popular and people will buy a lot of them.”
Bar Bites give customers an opportunity to guide their own culinary adventures. No commitment. No strings attached. Just one bite. They are the bachelors of the foodservice world. That free-loving, easy breezy vibe matches perfectly with today’s revved up cocktail culture. A $3 two-bite Korean taco? No risk, no problem. Let’s try it with a muddled mojito.
“With the continuing popularity of featured cocktail menus, it is only natural for restaurateurs to provide accompanying food,” says Steven Goldstein, a partner at The Culinary Edge. “This only works in their favor as booze and salty/savory foods work as a veritable echo chamber of purchasing, making it an easy business strategy to grow ticket totals.”
But can high-volume operations succeed here? If they boast a full-service bar, the answer is yes, says Technomic’s Darren Tristano. “You have to step out just a little bit. Try some items that are on the bar menu only,” he says. “Increase check average or get those starters on the check before they get into the dining room. Drive bar business with happy hour menus, late-night menus and well-executed bar-bites menus.” He points to The Cheesecake Factory as a success story here. “They have done extremely well with their bar bites. And we’re talking about the home of the gargantuan entrée.” Indeed, the chain’s “Small Plates and Snacks” menu is impressive, featuring diverse items such as edamame, sweet corn fritters and Vietnamese tacos.
Red Robin is currently road testing a bar bites menu. “Casual chains are looking for incremental sales at the bar,” says Dave Woolley, executive chef at Red Robin Gourmet Burgers. “We’re looking to give our customers options. Cost does come into play, so we’re putting less expensive items at the bar.” He also points out that adding bar bites increases reach with customers. “As is, we’re a great burger joint and we don’t want to move from there,” says Woolley. “But giving them another reason to come in has nothing but upside for us.”
Bar Bites should be craveable, memorable and delicious. “Don’t muddy your bar menu with generic additions,” says The Culinary Edge’s Goldstein. “And keep it simple. Offer an edited, concise selection with a point of view. A curated menu is always better than a kitchen-sink menu.”
Randy Zweiban, chef/owner of Province, approaches his Bar Bites menu with careful consideration. “Bar Bites should represent the cuisine of your restaurant, but be a little different than your regular menu,” he says. “As a chef, you should have fun with what you’re putting on your bar menu.” At its Chicago and Phoenix locations, Province features a separate Bar Bites menu with most items running at $6 ($4 from 4 to 7 p.m.). Recent dishes include a beef slider with aïoli, housemade pickle, Wisconsin cheddar and poached egg, and a barbecued lamb taco with pickled cabbage. “Entice people with well-crafted cocktails, craft beers, good wines by the glass. It’s the whole package that will make them come back often.”
Urbana is in D.C., which hosts a lively happy hour scene. “Happy hour is a must for us,” says Critchley. From 4 to 7 p.m., he serves $1 oysters, $8 wood-fired pizzas and $4 Peroni beer. One of his most enticing bar bites is the American Lamb Short Rib — sumac rub, molasses glaze, served over whipped carrot lardo. “The lamb flavor is wonderful and earthy. Sumac has raspberry notes and is also earthy. It’s a really nice match,” he says.
At Restaurant R’evolution in New Orleans, Crabmeat Beignets and Andouille Black Salt Potato Chips punctuate an extensive bar menu. “I love the one-bite nugget; the flavor explosion,” says Tramonto. “Bar bites should do that — just knock them back with flavor.” Around the corner, SoBou (the latest venture from the Brennan family) serves “Snacky Things” ranging in price from $1 to $8 and including such snack-friendly nibblers as Creole Beer Nuts (sweet and spicy roasted pecans) and Cracked Olives marinated in cayenne and charred chiles. In addition, its “Small Bites” category ups the nosh element to items like a Sticky Pork Belly and a 1/4-lb. SoBou Burger. Both menu categories are featured on the restaurant’s lunch and dinner menus, giving diners plenty of options in terms of appetite and cost.
“The majority of people today are really busy; they’re on the move,” says Gerard Craft, chef/owner of St. Louis’ Niche, Pastaria and Taste by Niche. “We don’t sit down to eat big meals anymore. We snack. We socialize and graze. Bar bites present a huge opportunity with this new restaurant dynamic.”
Bar Bites are also how the millennial generation likes to eat.
“They snack at twice the rate of the balance of the population, and that usually takes place later on in the day, from 4 p.m. on,” she said. “So, if I’m a restaurant that’s open late night, I’d be promoting more snack-related foods. A lot of them are in school and don’t have a lot of money, so price promotions are important and frequency diner cards appeal to them.” If you want more of the millennial generation to dine at your restaurant, then adding Bar Bites is a smart move if done creatively.
I have been playing around with duck bacon lately in my test kitchen and whipped up a batch of Duck Bacon & Sweet Potato Beignets with a Foie Gras Dipping Sauce…pure heaven. Let me know what creative items you have for Bar Bites.