How To

Cocktail Consulting in Smaller Markets

Paul Tanguay’s advice for working off the beaten bar path

Man taking notes at a bar
Photo credit: Rawpixel Ltd.

I’ve worked as a beverage consultant for over a decade, creating programs in big cities such as New York, Chicago, and Las Vegas. But these days, it tends to be my work in smaller markets, like Schererville, Indiana, or Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, that I find especially gratifying.

My latest small-city client was in Sherbrooke, Quebec, in Canada. I was surprised by how different my client’s needs were, as well as his operational ideas. He had opinions on which spirits should be served (some I found not all that desirable) and what he wanted to charge—even though he was leaving money on the table, with profit margins well below the norm. His staffing decisions meant that I had to adapt an ambitious beverage program to something simpler.

Furthermore, I had not worked in Quebec for more than two decades and was shocked at the still limited selection of spirits I had to work with after all those years. Many of the spirits and mixers I’d chosen for the program would have to be special-ordered—at a far higher bottle cost than anticipated.   

Navigating such markets has taught me plenty about working within distinct regional expectations and how varied liquor laws—and product availability—are around the country, and beyond. These are some lessons I’ve picked up while consulting in smaller locales:

1. How to Find and Land Clients

Finding new clients in small markets might be the biggest challenge of all. Over the years, I’ve come to know regional and national food purveyors and spirits brand salespeople who work for major companies such as US Foods, Sysco, and Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits. These contacts are a strategic resource because they know about restaurant and bar openings before they happen, and they have a sense of which ones might be looking for outside beverage consultation. I’ve found a real snowball effect within these markets—I’ll do one project, and then the phone will ring with the opportunity to do two or three others.

Once I’m introduced to a prospective client, it’s important to extract as much information about the needs and capabilities of a given project, and to communicate  expectations—on both sides—before I sign a contract.  I’ve developed a menu of all of the services that I can provide, so potential clients can choose based on their needs. I also have a list of questions that I ask, including, What style of cocktails are you looking for, and how many cocktails will you want? Do you want me to build a beer and wine list too? How many days of staff training will be involved? Will I be setting up inventory systems and creating an educational manual?

The goal is total transparency; the more questions asked and answered, the higher the odds of having a successful partnership.

2. Understanding the Local Landscape

Whenever I take on a new client in a new city, I make sure to have a few drinks around town. I’ll pop into a local restaurant and sit at the bar. I’ll check out a dive bar as well as a more sophisticated establishment where serious cocktails might be served. I’ll walk into any place that might give me insight into a) the competition, b) pricing standards, c) portion sizes, and d) the potential clientele.

I’ve had plenty of revelations along the way. Recently, I consulted on a Mexican restaurant concept in the far suburbs of Chicago. Throughout my career, I’ve always served 12-ounce margaritas, but that was not the case here. My client informed me that “people here want those oversized glasses,” which meant the pour needed to be closer to 34 ounces. (That’s 16 ounces of tequila if anyone is counting.) Having an understanding of the expectations of the drinkers, not only those of the restaurant, is key.

The same is true when crafting wine, beer, and spirits lists. As beverage professionals, we all enjoy discovering and experiencing different alcohols. However, in a smaller town, people might not be ready to drink funky or esoteric things. A glass of Grüner Veltliner or a super-hoppy double IPA might sound spot-on to me, but those choices may not be right for people who are not acquainted with such offerings.     

3. Accessing Information and Products

In large markets, there’s seemingly unlimited access to spirits, produce, rare liqueurs, or other obscure ingredients. Be sure to research the product offerings in a smaller market—especially if you’re planning to use niche ingredients like specialty bitters, atypical fruits or vegetables, or small-production spirits that may be considered standard fare in larger markets.

At a consulting job in one market, for example, it was impossible to source fresh cilantro. No retailers carried it. That said, there is a benefit to developing relationships with local purveyors. They may turn you on to local products that you might not have considered.

The same is true when it comes to availability of spirits, wine, and beer. Obviously, there are limitations to distribution, which means in certain places it might be way easier to get Fireball than it is to get Carpano Antica. Again, friendly relationships with local distributors can be useful for gaining intel.

Going even further, it’s crucial to understand state, county, and city laws regarding alcohol and service requirements before building a beverage program in any market. My advice: Study before you show up.

4. Making the Program Stick

One of the major challenges (and, sometimes, frustrations) of consulting in smaller towns is staffing. Usually, consultants aren’t involved in hiring, but I find it useful to help the bar or restaurant find strong talent in a head bartender or beverage manager. Doing so helps ensure that the program I created will be executed as intended, even after my contract runs out. On occasion, I’ve tried to persuade industry people whom I know from bigger cities to move to these smaller markets to oversee my programs. And some of my best small-market hires have been made by spotting the local “young gun” bartender in another bar who exudes passion for the job, is excited to learn more, and shows commitment to quality and hospitable service.  

Training and education—in everything from ingredients to recipes to cocktail-making techniques—are exceedingly important to a successful beverage program. Plan to spend a minimum of three training days with new staff members in order to thoroughly answer any questions they may have. Don’t be surprised how many “experienced” servers don’t know how to uncork a bottle of sparkling wine.

5. Setting Compensation Expectations

Consulting in secondary markets might not fetch the same rates as it does in big cities. While that’s not a hard-and-fast rule, in general I’ve found that budgets don’t always allow for small-town operators to spend big-city money on beverage consultants. Depending on the market and concept, you can expect to make 10 to 20 percent less than a similar consulting gig in a large market. However, only accept what you believe is fair for your time, talent, and experience. Don’t get out of bed if it’s under your minimum pay rate.    

That said, these smaller-market projects can prove to be useful in a variety of ways. Building a program for a different clientele can open your eyes to simpler approaches. Working with a staff of varying skill sets will force you to modify and improve your educational programs. In the long run, flexibility like this will help you improve your game for those bigger-city clients.

Paul Tanguay, whose career spans more than 35 years, is an accredited sommelier and a BAR Ready alumnus and is considered one of the preeminent sake authorities in the U.S. He sits on the board of directors as vice president and treasurer of the Sake Education Council. In 2007, Paul Tanguay formed a beverage consulting company called the Tippling Bros. with Tad Carducci; together they authored “The Tippling Bros.: A Lime and a Shaker.” While much of his life is spent sitting on judging panels, lecturing on all things alcoholic, and generally living the sporting life, Paul Tanguay tries to spend as much time in his Chicago kitchen, cooking with his family.