12390124294?profile=RESIZE_710xIn February, we priced Old Fashioned well cocktails and found they differed. The classic recipe is 2 ounces of whiskey, sugar, bitters and a drop of orange flavor over ice. At the Wine Room (above), it was $16. Kapow’s was $12. Sweetwater’s well, made with Michter’s bourbon and a 2.5-ounce pour, was $15. And at the Blue Anchor British Pub in Delray Beach, a well Old Fashioned was $7. Photo provided by Michael Albanese

By Jan Norris

It’s not just food costs in restaurants that have tongues wagging. Cocktail prices are prompting some imbibers to do double takes when viewing their bar tabs.
Some cocktail menus have drinks up to $24 on their lists, when not long ago, an $18 glass was considered pricey.

Drink prices have gone up, says Vaughan Dugan, owner of Kapow in Boca Raton and West Palm Beach. Bars and restaurants can absorb only so much inflation before the customer check is affected.

“Bar ingredients are up, just like food costs. Limes have gone up 100%. We’re always following the price of citrus,” Dugan said. But while food prices are easier to swallow in some cases, he said, “we don’t love putting $24 cocktails on the menu. We don’t want customers hurting in their wallets before they sit down to eat.”

Most of Kapow’s cocktails are $18 or under.

“Cocktails used to be cheap,” said Bob Higginbotham, a former manager for several bars in the area and now a bar consultant living in Mexico. Bar sales were easy profit makers for both bars and restaurants. “But the game is changed,” he said.

“Remember all that’s new. Take, for instance, publicity. Restaurants 15, 20 years ago didn’t have publicists, unless they were a big name. Now they have to have PR people, social media people to manage all the Instagram, TikTok and other online accounts, and photographers to take pictures of menus as they change. Who needed menu photos long ago?

There was nowhere to post them.”

Ambiance is important because of social media as well. Special lighting to make customers and drinks look good, bold decor and photo-friendly drink presentation all come at a cost.

Higginbotham also points to restaurant leases. “Rents in South Florida are insane,” he said.

Sean Iglehart, owner of Sweetwater’s in Boynton Beach, said several fees required for business operations also have escalated. He’s working around “skyrocketing insurance” fees that all who serve alcohol must pay. The cost has soared in the past two years, he said, and “we’re paying $3,000 a month.”

Staffing also has affected drink costs. It’s difficult to retain good workers, when and if you can find them, Iglehart said.

“Before the pandemic, I had a staff retention of 90-plus percent. But after that, a lot of the people got out of the business altogether and decided they didn’t want to work these hours.”

The pendulum is swinging back to the employer, he said, but wages are still up, and that is reflected in the glass.

Higginbotham said, “A while back, the bartender would come in to work a half-hour early to cut up limes and set out cherries and garnishes. They now have full-time positions for bar prep.

“All these hidden costs go into the bill.”

Dugan agreed. “We don’t use bar backs. Some of the work that the mixologists do is as complex as the chef’s. They’re using commercial equipment.”

That includes sous-vide, infusion tools for spirits and more. “They’re playing in the culinary sandbox now,” he said. “You see a dish on the menu like my Peking duck. I don’t spell out all the work that goes into making it. At the bar, the customer doesn’t see the complexity that goes into their drink as it’s not spelled out.”

In a restaurant or a bar, owners set out a cost percentage in which they aim to make a profit. Dugan gives this example: “Take the raw cost of a negroni, which I approximate at Sipsmith gin, $1.34; Campari, $1.33; Dolin sweet vermouth, $.73; clear cut ice, $.75; grapefruit peel garnish, $.20. That’s $4.35.

“If I sold it at $16, I’m at a 27.19% food cost. If I wanted to get that down to the industry standard of 20%, I’d have to price that negroni at $21.75.

“I could use a less expensive gin, Campari and vermouth, but these make a great negroni, and that’s the experience we want our guests to have. So we sell a bunch of single-liquor drinks like vodka and soda that help us hit that overall ideal cost percentage.”

Customer perception of value in the glass counts, too.

Sometimes it’s a misunderstanding, Dugan said, especially when the bill appears with an up-charge. He pointed to complaints from customers for a “rocks” charge. “The customer doesn’t realize they’re getting twice the alcohol in the glass,” Dugan said.

Then there’s a $2 charge for a special ice cube that appeared on a check at a Boca Raton steakhouse, bringing a plethora of comments from shocked readers in an online forum.

“We talk about ice cubes,” Dugan said. “If you’re going to put a fancy cube in a drink, it’s usually for a quality drink. It’s our place to educate the consumer and let them know we’re using quality ingredients to justify it. I just build it into the drink cost. Nobody likes to be surprised when they get their check.”

He uses a $1 up-charge for the cubes if the customer requests them in a special Japanese whiskey, for instance.

“But that’s almost our cost. The special clear ice cube costs us almost $1 each. You can get them cheaper if you go with cloudy ice, but who wants that in their glass?”

He said most places buy ice to cut down on freezer space and on pouring molds and getting them just right, which would not be worth the time. “And to get perfectly clear ice is an art form.”

Speaking of glasses, Dugan uses specially designed tiki glasses for a signature “What’s New Pussycat” drink.

“We have about 40% of them stolen. We just chalk it up to our marketing budget. Go into an apartment in Boca or West Palm Beach and you may find one or two of the mugs with our logo. So it’s residual advertising.” He laughed, but said it’s “quite a bit of glassware” for which he has to budget.

“Not everything goes into a pint glass, either. So we have to have a variety of glasses.”

Blake Malatesta, executive chef at the Wine Room in Delray Beach, agreed that bar costs today have to be figured as food costs.

“Yes, it’s spirits and garnishes, but some of the other things are hidden. The back end of everything in the restaurant. Labor that goes into producing it and then serving, glassware, chemicals to wash the glasses, and so on. So when everything goes up, it makes the check prices go up,” Malatesta said.

He points out that alcohol profits are still greater than food’s. “There are larger margins on booze. A bottle of vodka costs you $20, and you’re getting 15 shots out of it. Think that a martini costs you $15.”

The fancy ice cubes, which customers ask for, do cost the bar up to $1.50 after tax and delivery are added in. “Ice is a big thing now. There are companies in the area where you can buy squares, prisms, spheres, or even get flowers put in it. Charging for it is interesting, but I’d build it into the cost of the drink. For me, even with menu items, I build it into the cost,” Malatesta said.

But the price should also be justified by the quality of the drink, he said. “You’re not going to put a fancy ice cube in a well drink.”

In a comparison with food, he said: “When you’re paying $25 for a burger, it should be an exceptional, quality burger. If you spend $20 on a cocktail, you should get quality ingredients.”

Cocktail programs have changed, Malatesta said, but seem to be trending toward classics again. “I find when it comes to food and beverage, it’s cyclical.

“Cocktails got a little crazy. When molecular gastronomy came about, especially. Nitrogen, smoke. Bars hired bar preppers. They actually have hawkers — bar chefs — who create the infused spirits and tinctures, bitters, all the house-made garnishes and simple syrups.”

Now, Malatesta said, most customers just want a well-built drink. People are focusing on properly created cocktails.

“I enjoy a cocktail more than most. I often go to Avalon. I get a negroni, and have it made with Monkey 47, a special gin from Germany, made with botanicals from the Black Forest. It’s $18. But it’s one of the best drinks I’ve ever had.”

Dugan said customer preferences help drive the market. At the West Palm Beach Kapow, “Tequila is still king of the castle.” In Boca Raton’s Kapow, the drinkers are a bit older, and the go-to quaff is a classic gin and tonic.

“We’re known for those there. We have gins from all over the world: Japan, Holland and the phenomenal German gin, Monkey 47.”

The bottom line is that people go out and order drinks to have a good experience, Dugan said.

“After all, that’s the business we’re in, hospitality. Making our guests happy.”

He prices drinks to get repeat customers. “We want them to come in and have a good time.”

In brief: Enter from the alley behind the Wine Room in Delray Beach to discover Radcliffe’s, a new speakeasy serving upscale food and drinks, and putting on a jazz club at the same time. The daily password to get in is written outside the back door and posted to Radcliffe’s social media pages. It is currently open only Wednesday through Saturday for dinner; 411 E. Atlantic Ave., Delray Beach. ... In Boca Raton, a Chicago import, Mia Rosebud, at 150 E. Palmetto Park Road, makes its debut. It’s part of the Rosebud group of restaurants, famous as Italian steakhouses and favored by the likes of Sinatra and his gang. ...
Road closure alert: The annual Savor the Avenue, a 5-block-long dinner party in the middle of Atlantic Avenue, is March 25. Tickets for the coveted seats are available through the participating restaurants. For details, go to https://downtowndelraybeach.com/savortheave.

Jan Norris is a food writer who can be reached at nativefla@gmail.com

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