Jim Meehan, co-founder of the pioneering New York City speakeasy PDT, is the author of The PDT Cocktail Book and Meehan's Bartender Manual. He's also the bar director at Takibi, a new restaurant in Portland, Oregon. He gave some advice to Marco Zappia, a former bar director in Minneapolis, who has an idea for a cocktail commissary business. --As told to Hannah Wallace
Zappia: It's no secret that restaurants and bars often make most of their profit through alcohol sales, and that the best margins in booze come from cocktails. But in the craft cocktail movement, everyone does their own prep in-house, and preparing the necessary ingredients--juices, syrups, infusions--takes a lot of labor, which eats into those margins. Plus, the equipment needed to make some of the more complicated concoctions--rotovaps, centrifuges, immersion circulators--can cost thousands of dollars.
Outsourcing to a small prep operation servicing one or two dozen local bars would help cut labor and equipment costs and provide economies of scale: Buying a weekly pallet of sugar is more cost effective, but very few restaurants or craft cocktail bars can order in bulk, because weekly budgets are tight and storage space is limited.
Bars also need things like fresh citrus juice daily, so we'd offer regular pickup or delivery service. Of course, we would use no artificial flavorings, extracts, or preservatives, and everything would be organic and fair trade. We could make bespoke syrups, bitters, infusions--even apothecary-style glassware--using equipment that most restaurants and bars can't afford.
I'd also want to start an R&D lab; bartenders in town could pay a nominal membership fee to experiment with the equipment and formulate new drinks.
Meehan: You're right that monitoring prep labor costs is vital--and as you point out, craft cocktails are inherently labor-intensive. Outsourcing prep is a novel option for a cocktail bar--but in doing so, you delegate the ability to manage and oversee a key component of your business model. In this business, the minutiae matter. So I'd recommend staffing your commissary operation with experienced talent, including chefs and line cooks who can handle the organizational challenges of sourcing, buying, and moving through high volumes of produce without incurring critical losses through spoilage. That said, it was already difficult to hire and retain employees in this highly competitive industry prior to Covid-19. Now, with the industry struggling to stay afloat, many talented former colleagues of mine are either taking classes to pivot to another career or thinking about it. Talent may be scarce.
A similar version of your concept already exists: the Commissary. But combining the bar prep service with an R&D lab, as far as I know, has not been done before. Perhaps there's an opportunity to teach bartenders how to use this tech while they're in-house doing R&D? Having an instructional arm of the business that includes becoming a licensed retailer of the machinery might also be an opportunity. Though I don't think your idea is a gold mine, there's certainly money to be made if the business is run efficiently.