5 Insights from Laura Newman On World-Class Cocktails in Smaller Markets

Image: Laura Newman

Last November, Laura Newman had reason to worry. Would her New York City-style approach to running a cocktail bar work in the smaller market of Birmingham, Ala.?

Four months later, the recent United States Bartenders Guild World Class competition winner and veteran of bars like the Polynesian-themed Mother of Pearl—and now Queen’s Park—can finally breathe. “It’s been awesome. Every day has been busier than the day before, with people being like, ‘Oh, you're a real bar,’” she says about Queen’s Park, open since November in downtown Birmingham. “A lot of people thought we were just a temporary location.”

One reason for the confusion: to coincide with opening Queen’s Park, Newman and her business partner Larry “Mudd” Townley (a Birmingham native) tested the waters in the same space with Miracle, a global cocktail-bar pop-up with a holiday theme. Run by Cocktail Kingdom, it charges operators a flat rate instead of a percentage of profits, which Newman appreciated. “It kind of levels the playing field, I think, for everyone,” she says.

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Miracle ran from the day after Thanksgiving to New Year’s Eve. Because Cocktail Kingdom orchestrates the entire concept—with a set menu of holiday-themed cocktails and guidance in selecting glassware and décor—this freed Newman and Townley up to spend time with patrons to determine what they want and expect in a bar. “It really surpassed all of my expectations of how the bar would do and how successful Miracle would be in a really small market,” says Newman.

Read this: 3 Talented Women Share Their Bar Business Insights

Newman knew Queen’s Park—modeled after the famed Trinidadian hotel Queen’s Park, built in 1895 in Port of Spain—would thrive after discovering the most popular cocktail (Ramos) is also the priciest on the list ($16).

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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"My business partner and I were like, ‘Oh, god, no one’s going to order it,' like it’s a luxury price, whatever,” says Newman. “It’s actually one of our best cocktails. It even says on the menu that it can take up to eight minutes (to make). A good Ramos is, in my opinion, worth that.”

But that fits right into Newman’s mantra: to bring world-class service and inventive cocktails to Birmingham. To set pricing, she looked at what other local bars charge for drinks to confirm she wouldn’t be priced out. “If a nearby cocktail bar starts their drinks at nine (dollars), for example, our happy hour menu is six, seven and nine dollars,” says Newman. “Then, in the evenings, seven and nine is where we start.”

Read this: What You Need to Look for Before You Buy a Bar

One challenge she wasn’t prepared for is Alabama’s liquor tax. At $22.64 a liter, it’s the fourth-highest liquor tax in the country. This meant the Alaska—which, when priced out due to the cost of Chartreuse—would be around $21 on the cocktail menu. “It forces you to focus on homemade stuff, because even with paying for labor costs, those things are generally cheaper,” says Newman.

Because she wanted to reward employees who work extra hard to prep those ingredients, she and Townley created a “utility shift” with a higher hourly pay. “An employee will clock in under a different number for prep parts of their shift,” explains Newman, “and then they’ll clock back in as a regular employee to join the tip pool.”

Opening a new-to-her market meant finding seasoned mixologists she’d never worked with before. “The majority of our staff have been former managers, which is great,” says Newman. “That’s what I want to hire: people that have been general managers and maybe just need to take a break.”

Read this: This New Marketing Strategy Will Pack Your Bar with Little Effort or Money

“There’s a lot of stuff I could be doing, but it means more to me, ethically, to have happy employees,” says Newman. “If you think about the cost of training a new person and a cost of turnover, in the long term, it’s totally worth it.”

In fact, due to Miracle’s financial success, Newman plans to take the staff to New York City where she’ll introduce them to her old haunts and “to see that exacting precision that you need to survive at a cocktail bar in New York,” she says. Death & Company, a cocktail bar in the East Village, is on the list. “That’s where I’d go after work, just two doors down from Mother of Pearl, and I really want them to be able to see this place that really defined cocktails.”

Want to learn more from Laura Newman, the USBG's 2018 Bartender of the Year? She'll be sharing how she’s generating revenue from pop-up bars to Tiki-themed specials along with the training and programming that goes into it during her 2019 Nightclub & Bar Show session "Creating Bar Programs That Drive Business." Register now and don't miss out on this life- and business-changing session!

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