Innovation report: bar and beverage technology

From drinking to dining, we outline how a considered approach to bar and beverage technology can elevate a foodservice operation

In the bustling world of bars, success is about much more than just serving drinks. It stems from creating an unforgettable experience for customers, whether that means focusing on a bar’s visual appeal, staying ahead of the latest trends in drinks and bar food, or tailoring the environment to a specific demographic. The potential options are endless, so a clear vision is a must.

“As a designer, the most difficult thing is when the client only has money, but no ideas,” says Roberto Assi FCSI, CEO of Prima Consulting in Serbia. “My first question is whether they have someone to run the F&B operations, then I ask what customers they want to attract. You must meet the needs of the customer, so I never do a bar project without a good study of the kind of consumers they are targeting.”

“The visual impact of the bar makes it clear what kind of service the consumer will get,” adds foodservice and laundry consultant Michael Flatow FCSI of Flatow & Drews Consulting in Germany. “It is particularly important to be aware of what competitors offer and to cater for new trends in an original way. More than ever a unique experience is what customers want.”

Constantly chasing new trends can be costly and risky, so that innovation must stem from a firm foundation of fundamental elements that underpin success and allow some degree of futureproofing. So what are the ‘must-haves’ for a successful bar?

A platform for success

For MAS consultant Karen Malody FCSI, owner of Culinary Options in Portland, Oregon, some of the elements for a viable bar operation are very clear.

“The bar is a unique space, but far too few have an identifiable spirit, personality, design, and brand,” she says. “We work hard to create restaurant concepts and identities. Though it should be harmonious to the theme or decor of the restaurant or hotel, it deserves its own signature and vibe.”

Understanding liquor is a given. Just as a chef must grasp the essentials of food preparation and flavors, so must a great bar create drinks based on understanding of layering flavors and ingredients. That said, simplicity is key.

“Far too many drinks offered today simply don’t make flavor sense,” explains Malody. “No great cocktail requires 10 or 11 ingredients. This not only slows down service, but it muddies a true flavor profile.”

Similarly, a well thought out menu and clear menu copy help customers understand the nature of each drink. Menus should educate and inform, helping guests to make the right choice. Curated liquor selections also lean towards simplicity.

“A bar does not need hundreds of bottles,” Malody continues. “I believe this often occurs because the bar doesn’t have a clear concept. As with a well-run restaurant, all drinks should have recipes and costing. All liquor elements for a drink should be measured. This assures consistency. Restaurants can have bloated menus, and this can occur in the bar. Something-for-everyone should not be the driver. Focusing on the bar’s core purpose and theme is more important than offering a wildly vast selection.”

Beyond the products on offer, efficient layouts that create the right amount of space between the backline and frontline are important.

“Often, the space of operation is sacrificed to improve space for guests, so the operation is not efficient and functionality is jeopardized,” says Richard Haddad FCSI, a consultant with Hospitality Consulting and Investment Group based in Abu Dhabi. “In many bars this is a problem.”

In short, thoughtful design must begin with the choice of equipment that will support the bar’s offering. 

“The bar must be beautiful, but only after the equipment has been laid down should we then look at how to make it appealing to guests,” says Haddad. “The design for layout and equipment is at the center. How many times are you seated at the bar and five people are leaning over you to order or pay? You need a clear service area for other guests. Defining zones is very important so you don’t create a crossover between guests and servers.”

On ice

If equipment is the starting point for any design, then choosing the right ice machine is essential. Ice cubes serve an important function in any bar, and running out of ice is a cardinal sin.

While trends in shape come and go, the key is to comprehend the purpose the ice serves in the drink. Currently, large cubes are on trend, but they may be too big and, in fact, spoil certain drinks. They can, for example, kill the ageing elements in bourbons, while  smaller cubes are more versatile. Ice machines should certainly be versatile to cater for different trends, but more important is their durability, reliability and ease of use.

“Clearly the ice made by the ice maker must be of high quality, crystal clear and long-lasting,” says Michele Granziera, general manager at Scotsman Industries Asia Pacific. “Sanitation is also important, and we have introduced a system that operates automatically 24/7 to keep the ice-making equipment clean and safe. It destroys over 99% of known viruses and bacteria and reduces the formation of mould, mildew, yeast, and slime.”

At the same time, the machines should be energy-efficient, and Granziera notes that reducing electricity and water consumption is the main focus in any new range of products that Scotsman designs. 

“Another new trend is using large blocks of ice with the bartender doing the carving,” notes Haddad. “It is an art, part of the theatrical presentation, and instagrammable drinks can bring exposure and free marketing. But investing in a good ice machine will always pay back, so don’t go cheap.”

“Make sure the unit meets ice demand for busy days and special events,” says Stephanie Wall of commercial refrigeration company True Manufacturing. “Running out of ice can be a huge problem. Different drinks require different ice forms, so understanding the menu is important. Also, make sure the machine meets Energy Star ratings to save on electricity costs and reduce environmental impact.”

On display and in store

Display refrigeration is another key component of any bar, and it can be part of the visual appeal if it is kept highly organized and clean. There is currently a trend for stainless steel units, which are good for kitchens or beach bars, where special specs are needed for outdoor environments and changeable weather.

“For interiors, there are now colorful finishes, retro looks or black finishes that can make the front of house area beautiful,” notes Haddad. “There are also see-through units that show nice bottles of wine, for example, rather than hiding them under the counter.”

“Sometimes, a special display is required,” says Assi. “I did a casino project that required a very expensive display with remote cooling and humidity control, which is important for cakes. You can really destroy a pâtissier’s work if you don’t understand what is needed.”

If a bar is selling sandwiches, a flip system can be very useful. The internal part of the sandwich is displayed on a stainless steel plate, so the bread is not being refrigerated. Fresh bread – kept warm in a separate drawer – is later combined with the filling to improve the customer’s experience.

Whatever equipment is chosen for the bar’s aesthetic and workflow, the key factor is that bar staff must have a good knowledge of the equipment to ensure it is used correctly to maintain the quality of the food or beverages being stored.

The way beverages are stored and delivered is obviously a key determinant of efficiency in bar operations. Convenience is key, hence the trend for many bars to create pre-mixed drinks that are easier to bottle and deliver, but from an operator’s perspective the advantage of new smart storage systems is the ability to monitor drinks using temperature sensors, and alarms that trigger if doors are left open or inventory is low.

“The highest level of leakage, theft, and lack of control exists in bar operations,” notes Haddad. “Inventory might be done physically every shift, recording the level of alcohol in a bottle, for example, so the ideal is to move into digitalization. You can see it live, seamlessly, so you are not out of stock and there is no abuse or mishandling. The industry must advance that kind of inventory control across.”

“Now, those systems need refinement, and the equipment needs integration with the POS system for cash management and inventory,” he adds. “Also, remote connectivity means operators can support any down system remotely, which is a great transformation from traditional support processes.”

Counter-cooking and coffee

When it comes to food, some may see no merit in cooking in the bar space, with cold snacks and light bites the most a bar should offer as anything more could distract bartenders from their core job of interacting with customers. Others, may see counter-cooking equipment as a fundamental part of the food offering, however.

In fact, following the Covid pandemic, counter-cooking became a welcomed practice, as it allows customers to see how their food is prepared. It does, however, require a good ventilation system and stringent safety precautions.

“It is not a core element in a bar, but sometimes speed cookers are useful, as they operate ten times faster than an oven,” says Haddad. “They are space and time-efficient, and they are often found in coffee shops or bars by beaches that do not have a separate kitchen.”

There is a similarly polarized attitude towards coffee machines. Coffee is a highly specialist area these days, so some think it is better left to cafés. “Coffee machines are the nemesis of all bartenders,” believes Malody. “If needed to create specialty drinks, then fine, but for the bartender to be burdened with making all espresso-based drinks for dining customers, I am not a fan.”

Even if coffee is a fundamental part of a bar’s customer proposition, there are many choices to make. Do you choose a manual, semi-automatic, or fully automatic? An automatic machine might produce perfect coffee every time, but customers may like to see a barista make the coffee.

“It is all about the atmosphere,” says Haddad. “The machine can be a big focus on the counter and an important part of the aesthetic. The design is part of the price tag, though with an under-counter machine it doesn’t have to be the center of attention.”

For Giulia Spanio, global business development manager of undercounter commercial coffee equipment manufacturer Modbar, navigating the complex, competitive and ever-changing world of coffee machines requires expert advice.

“Today, operators must look at maintaining their effectiveness and profitability and there is a number of innovations that can help, from automating routine tasks and integrating back of the house systems to self-service technologies and labor-saving equipment” she explains. “The Internet of things (IoT) can help to produce consistent quality drinks, make the cleaning process easier, analyze operations and show when maintenance and service are needed.”

Automation and integration address the problem of a shrinking labor pool at a time when sales of coffee are skyrocketing. To replicate and scale the production of quality coffee, operators can adopt bean-to-cup machines, or equipment for standardizing each process – automatic tampers and cleaners, milk frothing solutions, or robotic arms that mimic a barista.

One step ahead

Trends can come and go, then return. One that is currently in resurgence is counter dining, with many customers drawn to the sense of intimacy and the interaction with the bartender.

“If people do not sit at the bar then why would you have it?” wonders Haddad. “It is part of the experience. It is about finding zones, so the chairs for people eating and drinking are not by a point of service. That keeps the dining experience separate and special.”

Keeping pace with such trends and staying ahead in such a dynamic world means embracing change by incorporating flexibility and innovation. Mobile or interchangeable elements may enable quick adaptation to new trends. After all, providing a unique experience is no longer a luxury but a necessity.

“All anyone can do today, given that futureproofing is almost a fool’s errand given the massive shifts in society and how often they can occur, is design the bar sensibly and without unnecessary bells and whistles,” says Malody. “Keep it simple. Keep the back bar tight and focused. Trends typically don’t require massive alterations to spaces.”

Furthermore, the human element cannot be overlooked. For Haddad, the key is to get the right team in place. “A barman needs character and artistry,” he says. “The bar is a show, a theatre, so the right team is core to success. Menu engineering should be done regularly and a culture of creativity is important, with bartenders making their own drinks rather than just regular cocktails. So, consider soft skills and a culture of creativity.”

Understanding customers and what they want is the first step, as it determines the brand offering, which helps to define the equipment. From there comes the aesthetic and the interior design. The clear message from consultants is that – at all stages – simplicity is the solution.  

Jim Banks