Cocktail Cart Conductor: Make More Money Tableside

Put on a show making a single drink tableside and you'll sell even more. Images: Gunshow

There’s a show on every night at Gunshow in Atlanta, Ga., as cocktail director and “cocktail cart conductor” Mercedes O’Brien wheels around her drinks cart and prepares cocktails tableside.

In fact, half of the cocktails on the menu at this restaurant are prepared directly in front of guests.

“We have the opportunity to explain every cocktail just like the chefs describe each dish. In the traditional bar setting, guests often don’t want to take a leap to ask questions. But talking about flavor profiles of the drinks creates a big bouncing-off of ideas and conversations,” O’ Brien says.

The cocktails she prepares at the tables tend to be both the most popular ones and those that have some flair, to provide entertainment as well as a drink. “They’re the more interactive ones and we want people to see things they don’t expect,” she explains. “We try to keep a few tricks up our sleeve.”

Another consideration for the tableside drinks is that their ingredients and preparation don’t take up too much space. Those that require that, or special equipment, are kept behind the bar.

Offering cocktails with so much entertainment also encourages more cocktail sales, and beer or wine drinkers are often converted once they’ve seen a cocktail being made. This is great “since cocktails will always yield a better margin,” O’ Brien says. Here, that margin is typically 5 to 8 percent.

O’Brien serves:

The Toasted Old Fashioned cocktail at Gunshow in Atlanta

The Toasted Old Fashioned ($11), which is the only permanent cocktail on the list and was inspired by her love of the Old Fashioned and owner Kevin Gillespie’s love of cinnamon.

Cinnamon sticks are tossed in bourbon, coated in sugar, and left overnight. At the tableside, O’Brien wets them with demerara rum and sets a stick on fire. This then sits on the side of the glass once the flames have died down and the stick is caramelized. Using that and some orange peel, she makes a cross on the top of the glass to guide the guest’s lips towards the part of the rim that’s not really hot. “They don’t even think about the cross; they just see that open space and drink from it,” O’ Brien says.

The other cocktails on the list are:

Corsican Coastline Punch cocktail at Gunshow in Atlanta

Corsican Coastline Punch ($7 or $35 for a carafe). Containing aquavit, quinqina rouge, watermelon juice, dill, lemon juice, sparkling rosé and candied rind, this drink thanks its presentation to the wine in it. O’Brien shakes up all the other ingredients, then tops them off once they’re in the coupe glass with the rosé. “We let the rosé go down a really long, tightly spun bar spoon so it immerses. The bubbles and the punch mix together and you get this beautiful show of the rosé going down the bar spoon to the bottom of the drink.”

FILA Sour cocktail at Gunshow in Atlanta

FILA Sour ($13), which contains all local ingredients, including Atlanta bourbon, fresh peach juice, house kaffir kola, lemon, and a muscadine red float made from muscadine red wine. This provides a layered drink that’s a peach color at the bottom and muscadine red on the top. “It’s all about density and science, and we talk to people about this as we make it,” O’Brien points out. “We get them for that brief moment, but alcohol always puts people at ease.”

Cure for Karoshi ($12) is all about the snack, which is housemade fruit leather that’s cut into a small circle using a ring mold and adhered to the inside of the top of the glass so it peeks out above the cocktail. It contains Scotch, plum sake, umeboshi, Suze, citric acid solution, and dandelion and burdock soda, all shaken together.

Give Away the Stone ($14) is black, which always surprises guests, O’Brien says. “We create a simple contrast with a black cocktail and a white dehydrated corn husk garnish across the top of it.” It contains añejo tequila, tawny port, huitlacoche, fermented serrano chili, bitters, and chili tincture.

Huitlaoche is a black fungus that grows between corn. “A lot of people don’t know what it is but it’s delicious and has been used for centuries,” O’Brien explains. “It’s deep and rich. We source it straight from a Latin market and we ferment it and change the composition of it, bringing out the rustic flavor of the corn and making it easier to make into a cordial-like solution to dissolve into the cocktail.”

O’Brien only spends about a minute on each cocktail, but because Gunshow has communal seating, in a manner she’s entertaining the entire restaurant. She can talk to and greet other diners at the same time. “You’re entertaining a crowd like you would at a party,” she explains. “It’s another touchpoint with the guest.”

Because of this, she tries to position her cart so everyone can see it, but she visits each table at least once. Sometimes guests don’t order cocktails, but then might change their minds later, she points out.

Making cocktails in this way definitely adds labor, she says, “but it’s give and take. Behind the bar I’d be making a wide range, so my pickup might be slower. But I’m on a cart, in a small compact restaurant, with no POS system.”

Recipe for Toasted Old Fashioned by Mercedes O'Brien at Gunshow in Atlanta

Toasted Old Fashioned

  • 2 oz. Bourbon
  • 0.25 oz. Burnt sugar syrup (see note)
  • 2 dashes Rrange bitters
  • 2 dashes Aromatic bitters (Angostura or Fees Brothers)

Add bitters, syrup, and bourbon to a rocks glass. Add ice and stir until slight sheen is seen outside of glass. Drizzle sugared cinnamon stick with 151 demerara rum and light on fire. Express orange peel over flame and let cook until sugars bubble. Blow out flame and nudge cinnamon stick into glass using the orange peel. Wipe orange oils on the rim of the glass and place perpendicularly over the cinnamon stick, creating an X to guide guests towards cool side.

For the burnt sugar syrup:

  • 2:1 rich simple syrup (8 cups sugar, 4 cups water)

Put sugar in a pot over medium-high heat on induction burner. Let cook down to dark liquid consistency. Take off heat and let cool for 10 mins. Slowly add water (BE CAREFUL!) until well incorporated. Let cool.

For the sugared cinnamon sticks:

Add cinnamon sticks to bowl and lightly coat with bourbon. Layer a cookie sheet with sugar and place the damp cinnamon sticks on top, gently burying them. Cover with another layer of sugar and let sit overnight in a cool, dry place.