Few things disturb me more in the hospitality business than inconsistency. Consistency, I know, is hard to achieve, given all the possible impediments inherent in providing food, drink, shelter and other forms of sustenance to a rapidly changing and demanding public, but still, it’s key to staying in business.
Even with restaurants increasingly relying on a changeable harvest of foodstuffs, establishing signature dishes, methods and philosophies is intrinsic to success these days – nobody goes to Alinea in Chicago for a medium rare rib eye and creamed spinach, I wager. And while you should expect the bivalves at NYC’s Grand Central Oyster Bar to be in peak condition, you wouldn’t be surprised if the barmen there needed directions in how to make a Last Word. We count on bars and restaurants to do what they are good at, and we should avoid asking for something not among their advertised abilities, or at least judging them harshly for poorly delivering outside their sphere of expertise. It’s an unstated hospitality rule for customers, at least those who know how to read a restaurant, menu and environment.
So the burden is on the bar and restaurant operator to decide what their business does well, and to do it at all possible moments. But this burden should be shared with the supplier of products – and usually is. When the egg size shrinks, when the coffee is over roasted, when the beer arrives skunky, any operator knows what to do – send it back.
Simple, right? Not always, especially behind today’s craft cocktail bar, which is why a number of conversations I had or overheard in New Orleans last month during “Tales of the Cocktail” bugged me. It seems that more and more, bar folk are immune to the idea that ingredients they feature on their menu and use routinely need to achieve a high level of consistency, in the name of “artisanal variety” or something. I’m speaking mostly about small production spirits, bitters and other bottled ingredients, among which I’ve noticed a disturbing inconsistency in taste that would, I think, prevent their usage in featured cocktails. Some of these change so much that a responsible bartender would need to check every new bottle in case the recipe, which these days is labored over for some time before passing onto the menu, would have to be tweaked.
But still I heard plenty of chatter that indicates some bartenders are more loyal to their beliefs in small producers than they are to the tastes of their customers. There are a handful of spirits whose changes I have charted the last few years – not changes meant to improve, I don’t think, but as a result of a growing business and a need to fill orders. If I see them listed as a cocktail ingredient at a bar, I steer clear, because I doubt the staff is checking every bottle. And they shouldn’t need to.
In the wine business, it’s a given that most customers can’t recognize the flaws in a bottle, except that the wine simply doesn’t taste very good, or the way it should. Ditto cocktails – most customers will simply not order one again. Now, I can get an indifferently made and improperly calculated drink at the next pool party I’m dragged to, but I’m not overly annoyed when that happens, because I can start over at no cost. But if you get my $12 and your shrub recipe has changed since the last time I visited, I’ve been tricked, because I count on you as a publican to do everything you can to maintain your supply chain. I don’t care if Billy Bob’s Butternut Bitters is much better in the latest version – I care that my drink doesn’t taste like last time, and I’m not happy.
It’s harder, as craft cocktail recipes get more complicated, to make sure your staff sticks to consistency as a guiding light. Those who dismiss my argument usually quote a version of Emerson’s famous line – “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” But he was discussing the need to distinguish oneself from the crowd, not offering a way to forgive suppliers for not establishing and maintaining their quality. I doubt he was suggesting that a craft person should pay little attention to her ingredients, or should dismiss a need for delivering a quality beverage consistently as beneath him. Making the perfect drink over and over again is the challenge, not creating a new cocktail. If your vendor isn’t helping you to do that, he’s letting you down, and you’re passing the failure along to your customer. Not the best business model, you think?