6 Ways to Upsell at the Bar

Bartenders share tactics for promoting premium spirits in cocktails, selling rare pours, and more

a bartender handing over a cocktail
Photo credit: iStock.

Not only have you probably not read the best book on upselling in the bar and restaurant business, but you’ve probably never even heard of it. It’s Service That Sells, published in 1991 and written by the Colorado restaurateurs Phil “Zoom” Roberts and Jim Sullivan. The book is very Tony Robbins–esque, oriented toward multiunit chain restaurants, and it’s hard to read it now without remembering the tone-perfect parody of the TGI Fridays chain in the 1999 movie Office Space. But deep within the book’s plethora of checklists, Twelve Steps of Service, and folksy advice, there is a single sentence that defines hospitality: To sell is to serve, and to serve is to sell. With this in mind, SevenFifty Daily spoke with several top bartenders to get their tips on how to successfully—and graciously—upsell spirits and cocktails at the bar.

1. Know Whenand When Not—to Upsell

Steve Livigni, the director of operations for and a managing partner of the Washington Group, the hospitality company behind Scopa Italian Roots, Black Market Liquor Bar, and several other ventures based in Los Angeles, emphasizes the importance of taking a guest’s perspective into consideration. “It’s easy to forget when you work at a bar with more than 300 spirits that not everyone has seen and tried everything you have,” he says. “I like to ask people what they typically drink and then start branching off from there.”

Such a strategy creates a good opportunity to feel out the boundaries for upselling and to determine how adventurous the guest may be, as well as what the person is willing to spend. “If someone sits down and barks out, ‘Maker’s Manhattan,’” says Livigni, “it’s usually pretty safe to say they aren’t looking for a recommendation, at least not on that drink. Someone looking over the back bar is probably more open to a conversation.” When upselling, he says, it’s crucial to offer, suggest, or make recommendations—but not to wheedle or browbeat.

2. Prioritize Staff Education

Servers and bartenders need solid education programs in categories and products to upsell successfully. Carina Soto Velasquez, one of the founders of Quixotic Projects, a collective that operates Candelaria, Le Mary Celeste, Glass, Hero, and Les Grands Verres in Paris, says staff education is key. “Educated staff are very important not only for upselling,” she says, “but also to keep guests motivated.” Guests may migrate from the table to the bar, so it’s important to ensure that product knowledge is consistent from servers to bartenders, and that it’s not limited to a single brand or product.

Ryan Maybee, the co-owner of The Rieger restaurant and Manifesto bar and cofounder of J. Rieger & Co., a distillery and spirits brand—all in Kansas City, Missouri—describes his philosophy on staff training. “It’s really about getting to a level of comfort or confidence regarding a particular category,” he says, “so instead of just being able to rattle off facts in a robotic way, I want [staff] to have a comprehensive understanding.” Maybee’s staff does participate in spirit and cocktail tastings and trainings every week, he says, and often daily. He believes that the more knowledgeable his staff is about the production process of individual spirits and the ingredients in cocktails, the more effective they’ll be at employing techniques, such as storytelling, to upsell a more interesting whiskey or a higher-end cocktail to interested guests. “Knowing that tequila X is made with a tahona, tequila Y is aged in wine barrels, and tequila Z uses estate-grown agaves lets bartenders suggest options to interested guests,” says Maybee, “and gives those guests a story to take home about the drink they eventually choose. Storytelling is everything.”

3. Cash In on Cocktails

While rare and unusual spirits attract connoisseurs, cocktails tend to be the easiest upsell for most guests—mainly because they’re very popular. If there’s a familiar cocktail on the menu—a Negroni, for example—that guests feel comfortable ordering, it’s easier to suggest that a guest enhance it with something unfamiliar, such as a new, premium gin, for a small upcharge. This can be especially effective with guests who are regulars and with whom the staff has established a rapport.

Cocktails also offer a multisensory experience that surpasses that of a beer or a glass of wine, suggests Maybee. “Because there are so many stimulating factors that can grab the guests’ attention, cocktails rock,” he says. With “the aroma, the glassware, the garnish, the preparation method [or] technique, and ultimately, the layers of flavor, you can wow [guests] in so many different ways.” In addition to upselling from a well spirit to a premium spirit in cocktails, bartenders have the option of upselling from a standard offering like a gin and tonic to a craft cocktail. Bartenders have also reported that when a cocktail is upsold with a different, more exclusive spirit, guests will often order a shot of that spirit by itself afterward.

Soto Velasquez agrees that a focus on cocktails is a strategic way to upsell at the bar. “Cocktails are the most visually [appealing] drinks in the room,” she says. “People like to look around and identify themselves with the crowd.” When they see others drinking delicious-looking cocktails it makes them feel reassured, and it makes them more inclined to order cocktails themselves. But she cautions that cocktails are also work. “They take time, knowledge, and proper tools,” she points out, adding that a cocktail program demands a greater level of personal investment—in terms of hiring and training a mixologist—and financial investment. “Ingredients can be expensive,” she says, “and your stock needs to move.”

4. Gain Trust

Because guests at a bar are typically receptive to suggestions for upsells once a rapport has been established, it’s vital to act with integrity when offering options and recommendations. Livigni suggests being mindful about upselling and remembering that “‘amazing’ can be had in any price range.” And, he continues, “‘rare’ does not always mean good, ‘old’ does not always mean good, ‘high priced’ does not always mean good. ’Good’ doesn’t even necessarily mean right for that particular customer at that particular time.”

Additionally, Maybee points out that even the most stalwart, loyal brand supporters are sometimes open to trying something new. But “they don’t want to feel like they’re being tricked into it.” To gain their trust, he says, “be relatable, be genuine in your recommendations.” In fact, he suggests, the occasional use of downselling—recommending a very good quality brand that’s inexpensive—is a great way to build trust with a guest, especially a regular.

5. Break Out a Break-even Bottle

A concept pioneered by Houston bar icon Bobby Heugel, the break-even bottle is a bottle, usually a very expensive one, that’s sold by the shot at the bar’s cost price, without markup. While it may seem surprising that break-even bottles would be mentioned in an article about upselling, establishments like Heugel’s Anvil Bar & Refuge and Holeman & Finch in Atlanta have found success in boosting bar revenue by using them. By encouraging guests to explore very expensive, exclusive bottlings (usually limited to an ounce per customer), such bars often see guests coming out on quiet nights when they’d usually stay home, and drinking cocktails as well as the break-even bottle shot.

6. Employ Nodding and Bookending

Once you’ve established trust and rapport with a guest, one tactic you can use to gently nudge the person toward a particular option is to gently nod your head as you say the option you think is right for them in a list of possibilities. You might also try repeating the favored option both at the beginning and end of the list, which is known as bookending, and nodding as you say it. For example, you might say, “So, would you like Brand X (nod) in your Manhattan, or Brand Y, or Z, or X (nod)?” It may sound ridiculous, but try it. In Service That Sells, Sullivan claims to have invented the technique—or at least to have been the first to name it; he calls it the Sullivan Nod.

Upselling techniques, even when employed sensitively, can be astonishingly effective at the bar, so be sure to use your newfound powers only for good. And remember, the whole point is not to sell—but to serve. Soto Velasquez makes a point of placing guest happiness above all else: “We always want our staff to propose something that will complete a guest’s experience at the venue—but never make [the guest] feel forced.”


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Philip Duff owns the on-trade consultancy Liquid Solutions. He founded Holland’s first speakeasy bar—Door 74 in Amsterdam—and owns the award-winning Old Duff Genever brand. Duff has published articles in Drinks International, CLASS magazine, Imbibe UK, Mixology (Germany), Australian Bartender, and Reuters. He also serves as the educational director for Tales of the Cocktail and is a judge for the IWSR, the World’s 50 Best Bars, and the Spirited Awards. He lives in New York City with his wife, stepdaughter, and a crested gecko.

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