Keep Guests in the House Longer by Extending Your Bar Food Menu
Outside Cleveland’s Flying Monkey Pub, the popular Dim and Den Sum food truck is parked, serving up eats to Flying Monkey guests before they go back inside and order another brew to wash down the Asian street fare. Flying Monkey doesn’t have a kitchen, so when looking to keep guests happy — and keep them in the bar longer — management decided to form a relationship with the food truck chef Chris Hodgson. In fact, Flying Monkey allows guests to grab the food and bring it back indoors, keeping them from walking down the street to another haunt.
Partnering with food trucks is one über-trendy way to keep guests in your kitchen-less bar, buying more drinks as the night progresses. In some cases, bars even use food trucks to make a profit off the food. “Both stationary and mobile arrangements are certainly a growing trend that I see continuing and intensifying,” says Robin Schempp, president and research chef with Waterbury, Vt.-based Right Stuff Enterprises. “Some bars have provisions or even partnerships for takeout and food delivery, supplying not only menus and ‘direct-line bat phones’ but appropriate condiments, wears and setups for easy noshing. A cut of the action or preferential pricing is not uncommon in these instances.”
But if you want to keep it in-house, and you’ve got a kitchen — even a very limited one — why not keep it open late at night to make some extra cash on the food and the drinks guests will continue purchasing once their appetite is satisfied? Plus, if you’re the lone bar in the area with late-night eats, you can attract a new crowd that others can’t, which means more bar sales and more loyal customers.
“There are some patrons who will be introduced to your bar or restaurant only at late night, and it’s a good idea to use this opportunity to get them to come back during regular hours,” says Arlene Spiegel, founder and president of New York City-based foodservice consulting firm Arlene Spiegel & Associates. “Since most patrons visit bars with friends, the food, atmosphere and drinks are a great time to create memories about your brand.”
To Close or Not to Close?
When crafting your late-night menu, you first need to decide whether you should keep your kitchen fully running, shut down portions of it or shut it down completely and offer convenient snacks like cheese trays or chips instead. Take a deep look at your clientele, and also at your current menu: How much are people ordering? What are the hot sellers? What does your competition offer?
If you realize most people are ordering the same four items, try downgrading from your full menu to serve those four, plus a couple extra ones; this saves prep time in the kitchen, saves money on wasted food and eliminates unnecessary employee hours. Though, Schempp says, this doesn’t necessarily mean reverting to your happy hour menu. “While happy hour or hors d’oeuvres can often be dainty, cold or compiled, late-nighters often want something more substantial without being as big as or feeling like a meal,” she explains, noting that late-night menus should feature items that might normally be served for lunch (a pressed Cubano) or a side (sweet potato fries). “However, like happy hour, late-nighters often look for something fried — chicken wings — and forkless — Porchetta sandwiches. Regardless, this is certainly craveable food for what we used to call the munchies.”
When analyzing your menu, if you sell the exact same thing as your competition, then you have to find a way to differentiate yourself. It’s easy to get caught in the chicken strips and French fries routine, but that’s just it: It’s easy, and everyone can (and does) do it. At Sapporo Scottsdale, the Arizona bar stands out greatly from its competition — and reaps the financial rewards — gaining regular bar-going customers as well as people just getting off work or seeking a late dinner. “There are plenty of clubs in the area, but they don’t offer quality food in their bars late-night,” says General Manager Joe Popo.
Some bars’ entire kitchens stay open until the bar closes, while others opt to close early, simply offering snacks the bar staff can handle preparing. “I see lots of cheese platters, charcuterie platters, Mediterranean platters and chip ’n’ dip platters that can be plated, held and served at the bar when the chef goes home,” Spiegel says.
Sapporo offers the full sushi and lounge menu throughout the night, which attracts more guests. Sushi rolls are the most popular as the night progresses, Popo says, as well as Kobe sliders and satay trios. Other trends Popo sees at Sapporo include higher-quality bar food overall, finger foods and food for sharing.
Additionally, sliders are quickly moving up in popularity on nearly every bar menu, including Sapporo’s. In New York City, Aspen Social Club’s late-night big-hit eats include bison sliders ($13 for a pair), polenta fries with Gorgonzola sauce ($7) and chicken quesadillas served with guacamole and Lima crema ($10), while others are looking for late-night small dessert options, says General Manager Manolo.
Change is Good
If you choose to keep your kitchen fully operating at night, try to at least switch up your menu, whether that means offering fewer items or just adding some new twists. Spiegel suggests offering breakfast dishes for those coming into your bar in the post-midnight hours.
Additionally, one of the newest trends in late-night menus is the “reverse happy hour” concept, where bars offer special happy hour deals later in the evening, which helps draw a late-night crowd. Sapporo offers this from 10 p.m. to close Thursday through Saturday. In Los Angeles, Napa Valley Grille also introduced the reverse happy hour in an attempt to reach a new crowd; it’s available from 9 p.m. to midnight Monday through Saturday and 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday.
“The happy hour menu allowed us to increase the range of spending options for our guests and put them in control of their experience at Napa Valley Grille. It’s a low-risk way for a new guest to try us out, and we are absolutely sure they will be excited about their experience, become fans and want to tell their friends about us,” says General Manager Tracy Thayer, who notes that some items change seasonally, and that the happy hour menu varies from the standard menu. Some popular items include the Natural Beef Slider — on-trend, of course — (house-made bun, smoked cheddar cheese fondue, bourbon bacon; $3) and Creamy Mac & Cheese with apple smoked bacon gremolata; $4. “A popular combination is to pair one of our $4 wines with the $4 artisan cheese selection,” Thayer explains.
Whether it’s hand-rolled sushi or simply bowls of popcorn or chips kept behind the bar, offering after-midnight bar snacks can be invaluable for your business. Late-night noshes help keep guests drinking on a fuller stomach, which means more money and less trouble for your staff, while also building customer loyalty and attracting new guests, making your spot the place to be from open to close. NCB
Fourth Meal Menus
After breakfast, lunch and dinner, guests might be ready for a fourth meal by the time they’ve been at the bar for a couple of hours. How can you keep them happy? Robin Schempp, president and research chef at Waterbury, Vt., consulting firm Right Stuff Enterprises, suggests some hot items to spice up your menu.
- Grilled cheese
- Southern comfort food like po-boys, fried chicken, hushpuppies and red beans and rice
- Breakfast items: Chilaquiles, bacon and egg biscuits, fried eggs and potatoes
- Pickled proteins like eggs and pork products
- Ethnic: tamale, falafel, global kabobs, spring rolls, spicy noodle dishes or Korean BBQ
- Sausage, bacon and smokehouse treats
- Cocktail treats such as chocolate stout floats or fruit sundaes with a splash of special liqueur
- Fair food like specially seasoned popcorns, foods on sticks and funky-flavored cotton candy