Cocktail Hour Chat with Dean Hurst, owner of R&D Hospitality
Dean is a Tampa-based beverage consultant who specializes in building bar programs, managing spirits portfolios, and developing new liquor products. He consults clients around the US including Guy Fieri, Andrew Zimmern, and Bern’s Steakhouse Group.
How did you become a bar consultant and beverage expert?
That’s a two-part question for me. I took an interest in cocktails on my first trip to NYC in 2001. I was immediately hooked on the quality and creativity of the bars I visited. This was the early part of the cocktail boom: NYC was at the center, and Tampa was still slamming vodka sodas. As my interest grew with multiple trips a year back to NYC, so did my desire to bring it all home. My drinks menus got better. I learned a lot about presentation on the menu, in the drink, and in the delivery. By 2010, the spirits available to a buyer were starting to grow, as did beer and wine. I saw a need for a specialist and, after a lot of selling to the owner, I created the title of Director of Spirits at Bern’s Steakhouse Group. Bern’s already had a long line of sommeliers, and beer was less than 1% of sales. Spirits and cocktails were my opportunity to make a mark at my job and in the market, locally and nationally. It defines my hospitality career.
How did the beverage offerings and beverage culture grow and change, and how did sales and profits grow when you were Director of Spirits at Bern’s?
In 2001, vodka was king of the back bar. We had a few guests at SideBern’s that appreciated the changes we were making to the spirit and drink selections. Most stuck to the vodka sodas. It was a great time to watch and learn as the cocktail world was evolving in the bigger markets. We chose the trends to follow that would work for our bar as we lured the guests along for the ride. Guest appreciation and media praise rewarded our efforts. Competition finally arrived in 2010 marking the beginning of Tampa’s cocktail culture. SideBern’s did see growth in liquor sales during this time. To understand how this affected profits, I focused a good amount of my time each month on reviewing cost-of-goods numbers. I learned how to make subtle changes to the menus to increase profits even when sales were stagnant. The premium category was starting to gain traction at this point. This presented a new problem: how to maintain the profit margin with an increase of high COG items. This is when I learned to understand the phrase “you deposit dollars, not percentage points.” We worked to keep pricing competitive understanding that selling a neat pour of high-end spirits is less costly to the bar than all the labor hours necessary to keep the cocktails at a high standard. I separated the inventory and ran two COG reports: one for premium spirits and one for everything else. This is not practical for all bars. Here, the sales were significant in both groups to warrant the work.
By 2014, I had three different concepts to oversee and all on the same street: Bern’s Steak House, SideBern’s (soon to become Haven) and Epicurean Hotel. The lessons learned paid off again. We worked ahead of each new opening with slight increases to keep pricing the same from concept to concept. COGs fell in line along with the growth in total sales. I don’t think you can ever know for sure what guests will want once you open the doors. I do believe that you can work with your management team to help them know how to shift as new challenges arise. Understanding the numbers is critical first step.
What kind of clients do you work with now that you are consulting full-time?
Clients vary from ground up buildouts to retro fitting an older bar to make it more efficient. Mostly local clients with a need for efficiency behind the bar, education, finetuning spirits and cocktail selections, managing programs, etc. Other projects allowed me to create beverage manager positions by building all the necessary systems and training new staff to run that program. I have worked with Andrew Zimmern and Guy Fieri on new concepts. I ran the drinks program for the tiki event The Hukilau which brings bar teams from all over the country to Fort Lauderdale, creating a great experience for attendees while avoiding chaos in the kitchen. My experience is really all over the place.
What is the main service you provide for your clients?
I like to think that my strongest characteristic is showing people how to run a complete program. Some put too much time and effort on spirits and cocktails, losing sight of the mechanics behind the bar and necessary time needed in the office. It’s building a better boat, not necessarily a bigger one. Beverage alcohol is the major profit center for most concepts. I see, more times than not, a lack of training for the people managing the bar. People is the first answer. Mechanics is the next. I do wish more time were spent trying to understand what the bar needs to be to match the concept. I would like to be at the table during those design talks to make bars more efficient for the bartenders. This will improve their working conditions, speed up drinks made at the service bar and allow for more interaction with bar guests. I strive to create something unique for my clients whenever possible.
What sort of impact have you seen from it?
Menu design is crucial to improving beverage alcohol sales. I have seen great results after finding the right way to present to guests. I created a gin matrix for C.W.’s Gin Joint to help the guest understand all the gins behind the bar. Well-designed spirits menus can greatly improve sales. The whisky list at Haven, part of Bern’s Steak House, still has the same format I created seven years ago.
Translating the numbers to learn when and how to adjust is as much an art as it is a science. Figuring out that relationship and finding the path toward growth is something I enjoy. There is always something new to learn concept to concept, market to market.
The most rewarding aspects of consulting have been the people I have had the great pleasure to work with. This is more about passing on knowledge and passion than simply teaching someone how to make drinks. It is wonderful to see those people move on to run their own programs.
What is the most exciting development you are seeing in cocktails right now?
The most exciting trend to me is a return to classic cocktails and smaller spirits selections. The classics have been around for 100+ years. Learning the origin of the recipe and the history of its ingredients is fascinating to me. It opens more doors to being creative within that drink’s structure then simply trying to invent something new. Honestly, outside of using fancy tools to clarify, homogenize, carbonate, etc., it’s all been done by now. Smaller selections behind a bar shows me a greater attention to the details of what the program needs. With current staffing struggles, I would lean toward a tightly run program that is easier to teach new staff who may be inexperienced.
What is one of the best cocktail experiences you’ve ever had?
This is hard. I will pick the first time I visited The Columbia Room in DC. The front room is tables only, no bar service. The bartender takes your order tableside and then makes the drink to your standards. I had never experienced something like that. I loved how thoughtful it was and appreciated how impractical it would be in a different environment. To make it more unique, the back room features a tasting flight: three flights with two drinks per flight all paired with food to compliment the drink. Every detail was unique to that drink. It was a concept that had it all dialed in, for the guest and the staff.
To learn more about Dean Hurst, check out R&D Hospitality
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