Training

Joaquín Simó’s 5 Tips for Acing a Cocktail Menu Overhaul

Meticulous organization is just the first step, says the owner of New York City’s Pouring Ribbons

collage of cocktail with a skull and Jouaquin Simo at the bar
Joaquín Simó training his staff. Photo by William Aaron.

Because its menu changes twice a year and features over two dozen new—and often complex—cocktails, it’s crucial that the Pouring Ribbons staff is equipped with all the information they need for a smooth menu transition. Fortunately, owner Joaquín Simó might be one of the most efficient, organizationally minded bar owners in the industry—a talent made plain from the way he designs his ergonomic backbar and the methods he uses to arrange the speed rail. “Communication is key,” he says, “but I think the biggest thing is just to give [staff] a fighting chance to do their job at the level that you want them to do it. Don’t make them figure all of this stuff out for you. You’re putting them behind the eight ball at that point.”

Here’s how Simó ensures that his staff aces their biannual menu overhauls:

1. Communicate and define every facet of the theme.

Once an idea for a menu theme has crystallized, Simó shares with the staff all the supplementary information he’s gathered related to the concept. “Whether it’s a documentary or books about the topic, fiction, songs, playlists … so people can relate to it in their own way and try to find their inspiration that way.” That information lives in a shared Google Doc and Pinterest board, which the staff can add to and view as the menu begins to take shape.

2. Look for opportunities to streamline.

Once the drinks are finalized, the next step is to analyze each recipe to find out where steps can be eliminated by batching ingredients, “to ensure consistency,” Simó says, “and therefore make sure the quality of the drink is being dummy-proofed during busy service.” Pouring Ribbons prep staff are also invited to wield veto power when a recipe is overly complicated. Says Simó, “It’s on them to call bullshit and say, ‘Do you have any idea how much work you’re creating for this one drink? Can’t we simplify this or streamline it?’ You can have a lot of great ideas, but the juice has to be worth the squeeze.”

3. Strategize your mise en place.

Once the new menu is set, every detail of the bar setup is scrutinized, down to the selection of bottles in the double speed rail and the shared well between stations, as well as the order in which those bottles are arranged. Organizing ingredients ensures that bartenders can make multiple drinks more efficiently. Says Simó “All of those little things get broken down well before we launch the menus.”

4. Demo, demo, demo.

A week from a new menu’s debut, Simó calls a staff meeting. In this deep dive, each bartender is responsible for making the drink he or she contributed and talking through every applicable detail, from its place within the context of the menu to the exact type of garnish it requires. “You have to stand up in front of everyone,” says Simó, “and talk about your drink, talk about its relation to the menu, and make two or three of them so we can have everyone try it and discuss it.”

5. Prepare a training manual.

Pouring Ribbons’ training manual (the current edition numbers 38 pages) is revised twice a year by Simó himself and distributed to the staff through a shared Google Doc before the launch. It is encyclopedic in detail. In the newest edition, for instance, the description of a drink named after artist Jean-Michel Basquiat includes not only the recipe, glassware, and garnishing instructions but also the phonetic pronunciation of the artist’s name, the categorization for where the drink falls in the overall build order (that is, “Execute last minute”), talking points on the drink’s inspiration, biographical background on Basquiat himself, and a detailed explanation of each of the spirits used, in case a guest wants to know more about pimento dram or Boukman Rhum. There’s roughly a page and a half of information for each drink. “You can’t expect everyone to be able to memorize all of that, and you don’t want to say, ‘Well, I hope they just took notes,’” Simó says. “Instead, you start removing the excuses.”

Gray Chapman is an Atlanta-based journalist who writes about spirits, beauty, and culture; she was formerly the managing editor of Tales of the Cocktail. Follow her on Twitter.

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