The Menu Conundrum

15 Jul. 2020
New, old, short or greatest hits: What will you reopen with?

In the post-lockdown landscape, bar menus present various challenges. Many have spoken about the format question — sharing stuff is a big no-no so do you go for recyclable menus, qr codes or suggestions from the waiters? But the most pressing issue is not really the format — it’s the drinks selection. With less staff, less clients, what do you do? Business as usual, with the pre-pandemic menu? A greatest hits selection? A new cocktail list? While keeping it simple seems to be the motto, every strategy seems to have a place. We have asked a few European bars to tell us about their take on the issue.

In the ‘let’s keep doing what we’ve been doing’ camp, you’ll find El Niño Perdido, the groundbreaking bar from Havana Club Bar Entrepreneur Awards judge Juan Valls. For Juan, it was clear that he’d stick with his celebrated Faces menu at reopening. « It’s been highly successful and our tenth anniversary is coming up, which is when we want to launch something new », he said. Additionally, a new menu means extra training for the team and Juan felt that all training time should be focused on the pandemic-imposed new reality: « We’re going above and beyond what the government requests of us and we’ve also started doing table service and taking bookings. We wanted our staff to focus 100% on new regulations and workflow so we could guarantee a seamless experience ».

Another argument for sticking to your guns is economical: it allows you to get rid of stock. But bar owners are also looking at streamlining the process. Vasilis Kyritsis and his partners at The Clumsies decided to work with a shortened menu. « We have less staff and there are less tourists, so we need to keep down our costs and our preps need to be more simple. But we safe keep our identity so our clients are still happy », he explains. At Bar am Wasser, Dirk Hany decided to push back the launch of a new menu to the fall and took the even more radical step of working only with classics. 

Economically speaking, cocktail bars often depend on out-of-towners. With a lot less travelling, most bar entrepreneurs are realizing they will come to depend on their regulars. At CopperBay, a bar with strong community links, they took this on board when they decided to reopen with a menu mixing Copper Bay classics and new signature drinks, although they had a whole new menu ready — it will now launch in November. « Our drinks list is 50% CopperBay summer classics, 50% new cocktails », says Aurélie Panhelleux. « We wanted them to have bold flavors and be fun. We think people are looking for a good time and to relax. Our summer menu is both creative and reassuring ». 

After three months stuck at home, clients are also looking for familiar drinks. « We realized our clients were really eager to have *that* drink they had been thinking about when bars were closed », says Diego Cabrera, from Salmon Guru. Still, he doesn’t want to rely on the ‘old’ menu for too long: « I saw it with the last crisis: in times of downturn, if you want to grow you need to offer something different, something that sets you apart. Our new menu is ready and we will launch it in September. It’s going to be radically different and will draw attention », he says. « If there are no setbacks because of the pandemic, that is ».

So most bars are waiting and — if everything goes well — autumn should be a very intense season for menu-watchers. While waiting makes sense for so many reasons, what of the — admittedly very few — bars who reopened with a brand spanking new menu? Mati Iriarte, the owner of Chapeau1987, thinks he took the right decisions. « With every bar reopening the same week, we thought we needed to show people why they should come to us and not to other places », he says. The menu was put together during lockdown and focuses on local produces, with collaboration with local craftsmen and women. It’s a ‘circular economy’ menu, with Mati arguing the importance of localness in the current climate. The Instagram-only menu received a lot of press coverage and, more importantly, proved a local hit. « Chapeau1987 had a classic profile and signature cocktails didn’t sell much. This has changed completely. We have created a deeper bond with providers and hospitality people and we’re reaping the dividends », he adds. Interestingly, Mati owns another bar, Ginbo, on the same street. They reopened with the old menu and… « comparatively, Ginbo made less money than Chapeau1987 ». Risks do pay.

Although most bars do take a conservative approach, there’s clearly no one-size fits all model. Local context, bars’ own dynamic and circumstances logically drive entrepreneurs’ decisions. In these extraordinary times, their ability to adapt their offer to new circumstances will be tested.

François Monti