Recently I was in the beautiful city of Gdańsk, where I had been asked by Better Bar Show to do a presentation on what I actually do for a living. The specifics were left up to me, so I spent a while pondering what I was going to talk about exactly… drinks technique? A room full of passionate bartenders who had travelled from all across Poland for two days of bar seminars probably had that covered. Global drinking trends? Sure, that could be interesting, but I’d recently heard about this thing called The Internet that some people use to keep on top of what is happening in the world. How I approach cocktail creation? Well, as thrilling as I am sure that seminar would’ve been, each to one’s own, right? Besides, I’m not sure there is ever just one way to do things.
I’m a firm believer that when referring to inspiration as a starting point for an idea, the most original sources are often the least likely, and our finest creatives will often take that inspiration from sources far beyond their typical field. Put differently: I find that the most exciting drinks being created today are less often inspired by other drinks, and quite often inspired by ideas which have little to do with drinks at all.
Therefore teaching inspiration and creativity to growing bartenders is impractical and difficult to quantify. Certainly if it doesn’t come from an affinity and from the heart, lack of soul tends to show in the end product. This is why I spend so much time and energy talking about the ideas and stories behind drinks to a new team: to level with them. Once they truly understand where I am coming from and have been bitten by a passion to communicate these ideas to their guests, they have my back and half the battle is won. All that other stuff will fall into place as long as the drive is still there: as long as they are still driving each other.
I digress: back to the presentation. If I were to do a talk on inspiration – without a defined brief or outcome for a specific venue – what would stop it from becoming an enthusiastic monologue about how great I thought I was (not that it doesn’t anyway)? What would actually give these bartenders, owners and operators true direction to ‘build a better bar’? There might be a couple of tricks, techniques and ideas they could take away from it, but is that really their inspiration, or mine?
For example, they might see me use a beautiful glass in the presentation, and have an idea that they will use it for their new bar. But what if that glass was so exciting because it was custom-made, or hard to source, or very expensive? Would we recommend that they spend time and money sourcing/making that glass, without a full understanding of their timeframe and budget? What if they had managed to acquire the beautiful glass to serve the drink in, but had run out of time and money to put something equally impressive in it? Then we are just left with a great glass, out of time, out of context.
As the cocktail world rapidly expands and becomes increasingly interconnected by media (social and otherwise), we are seeing places develop their own exemplary bar scenes and communities; places we had never dreamt nor heard of, from small rural towns to ancient cities, remote islands to touristy beach resorts. The places that are doing it well are invariably those that understand that an idea, serve or style regarded as ‘cool’ by the bar community in an award-winning/heavily PR-ed bar in London or New York (for example), isn’t by any stretch of the imagination right for them.
As I ended up covering in my presentation in Gdansk, what follows is a summary of some good places to start for inspiration if struggling, and what are probably important considerations before you go adding a stack of mirrors and a smoke machine to your opening equipment order.
Space: an obvious one, but all space has a history; space and time are interconnected, innit? Getting inspiration from a space (whether an old building or a building site) can help connect to the local market and a particular demographic. If drawing inspiration from a space with a particularly rich history, adding a touch of disruption by doing something unexpected will have a magnified impact.
Brief: if you are not the owner of a venue, you no doubt have someone who is. They might not have any idea of what they want, nor may they care. But often they do have some sort of vision; that’s the fun bit after all! Listen to what their ideas are and draw inspiration from the bits you don’t agree with. In other words: if your vision doesn’t quite match up to theirs, that tension and compromise is often where the most interesting progress and original ideas are formed. Take their idea, mould it, add layers.
Look/feel/branding/collateral: all of these things need to work in tandem, or risk diluting and compromising the ‘big idea’. If the idea isn’t created holistically, something as simple as having the wrong font will make the brand feel just … wrong. If planning to roll out the brand further down the line, it is worth considering already at this stage how that can be adapted for different markets whilst retaining the same tone of voice.
Financial assumptions: everything needs to make money. If you haven’t worked this out yet, you will fail. Simple as that really.
Research the market: know your target audience from the inside out. What they like to eat, what they watch on TV. The more you can relate and empathise, the easier the rest will become. You will understand their palates, stories, emotional connections and how much they are willing to fork out for that cocktail.
Logistics: lay out, bar kit, suppliers, procurement, route to market. Yeah, all that stuff which can make or break a business. Your financials might be in check but if you can’t get that artisanal soda pop delivered to your door you can’t sell it. You might have invested time and money in the world’s sexiest cocktail trolley, but you forgot about the steps huh? That Clinebell is en-route from the States now, ensuring you will have the most crystal ice in the county, but where are you going to put it? Do you know how much that bloody thing weighs?
Staffing, skill set, management: who is sailing your ship when you are not there? When life happens and you have to pull out, you need good people that you can trust. That’s where the value of investing in great staff and ensuring they are fully trained comes into play. How much training exactly? As much as humanly possible is the answer. Keep a check on it and you should have a system whereby the team help each other grow, and before you know it that scruffy guy you hired for pot-wash will be slickly managing the whole joint.
Listen: to everybody, all the time. Everyone has a story to tell.
I am available to present ‘From Idea to Operation: The Gorgeous approach to Creating Drinks and Concepts on a Global Scale’ in small towns and children’s parties around the world for a nominal fee.
By Julian de Féral
Cover image credit: Marika Morawiec