Does Your Restaurant Need a Beverage Director, or Just a Beverage Consultant?

Beverage trends can be overwhelming. Espresso martinis, orange wines and non-alcoholic ... gin? Even for a professional it's easy to feel out-of-touch. Beverage trends are just that: trends. And they can come out of seemingly nowhere (see: the rise of the Negroni Sbagliato in 2022). Keeping up with the latest en vogue cocktails, hype-beast wines, or NA beverages is a full-time job.

Delegating the responsibilities in the front of the house should be viewed the same way chefs delegate in the back of house. If you’re a chef opening a restaurant, you hire a foh manager; likewise, if your background is foh, you’ll hire a chef. Your beverage program is important enough these days to give it similar respect. And, honestly, if you’re not personally invested in beverage trends, there’s no reason to force yourself.

So is it wiser to hire a full-time beverage director? Or do you hire a consultant — someone whose world revolves around beverages, but whose expertise you can simply rent? Set aside the budget for a moment; in either case, the right person will pay for themselves. The right path will depend on the size of your bar or restaurant, how many employees you have, and your goals.

Let’s say you’re looking for innovation, frequent changes, and perhaps even a presence on beverage social media — a face behind the shaker. An onsite beverage manager is probably your answer. If you’re looking for a lighter touch, less public persona, and just the occasional menu punch-up, a consultant is probably right for you. Here’s how to think about what a beverage consultants do, and how to get the most out of the one you hire.

Optimize your beverage program from Day 1

If you’re trying to decide whether to hire a consultant to open, the answer is yes. A consultant will help you build not only an attractive menu but efficient systems, which are vital. Liz Einhorn, a consultant who founded the hospitality consulting firm Experience Threee, refers to this phase as being proactive rather than reactive. Restaurant openings under any circumstances are chaotic. They just are. Strategically it’s worth having someone help you set up a program — to figure out what you’re serving and how, to help train the staff, and to work out your profit and loss. Creating a full program from scratch is hard work, and if you make a mistake, it’ll haunt you. A consultant can install a program that has been through trial runs already.

Have a consultant suss out any losses you're seeing

If you’ve been open for a while and are struggling with loss, a consultant can find the leaks. Whether those leaks are literal or human, an outsider’s perspective can be invaluable. Aim to do this before your losses become a real problem, the sooner the better. If you wait until something is truly broken, the cleanup is more difficult. If you’ve never set up a PnL or an inventory management program, a consultant can save you real grief.

Stay current while keeping your costs down

Consultants are also the answer if you want to set it and leave it. Hire an expert to drop in a few times a year, to check the systems, to spruce up your cocktail menu, to revamp your by-the-glass list, and to let you run the rest of the show. A quarterly update will definitely be cheaper than a full-time employee, and will keep your program fresh without stressing you out. Consultants, after all, maintain relationships with distributors and importers so you don’t have to. Inflation really shook the Etch A Sketch for many of us in the beverage industry: That go-to $12 by the glass pour is $15 wholesale now, and our margins are wonky. Bless the professional who can come in and say, “Oh, I love that pinot too, but here’s a different one, similar profile, at that old price point.”

Let a consultant elevate a merely decent beverage program

Even if you are coasting happily, a consultant can help make your program great. If expanding your by-the-bottle list just keeps getting pushed to the bottom of your to-do list, hire help! A small investment can lead to a big return. While you’re at it, imagine what larger projects you could stand to improve. Consider, for instance, a staff training on wine, cocktails, and how to upsell.

Don't overpay. Instead, find the right fit

Speaking of return on investment, be wary of a $15,000 PowerPoint. If a quote is wildly out of your price range, ask around. There’s an internet full of people who can help, so find someone you can connect with. If all you want is a seasonal cocktail list, be upfront! Your quote will reflect your needs. Experience Threee offers a wide range of price offerings, as should whomever you hire. Let the Olive Gardens of the world keep the PowerPointers in business.

Don't micro-manage

Once you find the right person, let them do their thing. Trying to take control of their process defeats the purpose. If you’ve only done the whole thing by yourself, it can be tough to resist the impulse to meddle. But you took that step to hire someone — go all in. If this means they spend more time with the servers and bartenders than they do with the general manager, don’t get antsy; that’s likely due to the direct contact with the guests. You can spend every waking moment scanning Instagram and reading Punch, but that won’t tell you whether your guests are asking for Pét-nat or if they just want a glass of prosecco. That’s info you get in the room where it happens.

[Photo by Adam Jaime on Unsplash]