Cocktail carts improve guest ambience, increase beverage sales.
This article first appeared in the 15 January 2006 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).
R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. To find out more about R&I, visit its website www.foodservice411.com.
By Erin J. Shea, Associate Editor
"It was the coolest thing I ever saw. I knew that when I opened my own place I wanted to have something like the carts I saw on stage with Sinatra," says Clark, chef-owner of Ibiza Food & Wine Bar in Houston. "When we designed the restaurant, we didn't even include a bar, only cocktail carts."
Common in catering and noncommercial settings, mobile service is an option that brings sales opportunities closer to customers. Now operators in other segments are rolling out the profit potential in creative, business-building ways.
The 5-year-old, Mediterranean-inspired Ibiza has six handcrafted bar carts that employees steer through the restaurant, serving drinks tableside-a feature Clark describes as a successful sales and marketing tactic.
"We sell as much alcohol as any restaurant with a traditional bar," he says. "Plus we save money by not paying someone to tend bar when it's empty."
Ibiza's carts serve more than just martinis and 12-year-old tawny ports. They introduce live action and a bit of theatrics to the dining room, adding a personal touch and point of distinction to the restaurant experience.
Crush restaurant in Seattle owes a big debt of gratitude to a coffee cart. After working as a restaurant consultant, Jason Wilson hatched a plan that would help him and his wife earn enough money to open their dream business.
"We found a free cart with wooden faÁ§ade and three compartments and shelving," Wilson explains. "We finished it with a metal top, maroon veneer and fashioned an art-deco sun on top."
They called it Morning Glory and in 2001 planted the cart in the lobby of a Seattle apartment building.
"For a year and a half I'd wheel this 4-by-7-foot cart into the lobby and sell pastries and coffee to save up for a business of our own," he says.
Fast-forward four years and the Wilsons have launched a catering business and opened Crush in a restored home in Seattle. The 41-seat modern-American restaurant gives an appreciative nod to its roots by using the original coffee cart in its private-dining service.
"We do full cocktail service out of the cart," Wilson says. "We can even take it off site to events because it has refrigeration and running water.
"People are amazed when they see the cart because it provides such a unique element to our private operation. They can't believe that this is how we got our start."
Brazilian steakhouses can seem virtually indistinguishable from one another. Churrascaria Plataforma looks to break away from the pack in a novel way.
"People love a good show," says Andreia Oliveira, administrative manager for the New York City-based operation. "And they love to see drinks made at their table."
At both the Tribeca and midtown locations, caipirinhas-a traditional Brazilian drink made with cachaÁ§a, lime and sugar-are poured tableside from a roving cart and custom made with more than 50 different types of fruit.
"We bring the cart out on weekends," Oliveira says. "It adds to the guest experience when they see this drink made in front of them."
While full cocktail service is available at the bar, Oliveira explains that they reserve the carts strictly for caipirinhas, adding that the strategy creates an air of exclusivity and excitement around the signature drink.
"All of our cocktails sell well," she says. "But the carts best showcase a traditional drink and we don't want to take away from that."
According to the FE&S 2006 Operator Industry Forecast, operations are projected to make bigger For as many benefits as operators have found using mobile cocktail carts, they aren't without some downsides, especially when it comes to maintenance.
Most under-the-counter storage of a traditional bar is gone, which includes room for glasses, mixers and liquor itself.
At Ibiza, Charles Clark provides storage space in the back of his restaurant for bar supplies. On the carts, each shelf is stocked with enough ice, alcohol, mixers and glasses for a 30-minute stint.
"We have a bus person assigned to each cart who checks supplies and restocks whatever the bartender needs," he says. "The carts mean we have a limited selection of alcohol but we made a choice to stock only premium beverages so we wouldn't run into problems."
While Churrascaria Plataforma serves only its signature caipirinhas from mobile carts, the option of 50 fruit flavors means working in tandem with the main bar to keep the carts rolling.
"We store the most-popular fruit flavors on the cart and enlist the back bar when someone requests a more exotic fruit flavor for their drink," says Andreia Oliveira.