Tales of the Cocktail: Everything You Need to Know About Cocktail Catering
Anyone who’s attended a wedding or a conference knows the crucial importance of a decent bar setup at an event — but for years, this realm of event planning somehow kept getting the shaft. Yet, as the cocktail movement has evolved over the last decade, private events are finally starting to get the hint that drinks require a little more thought, care and curation than “red or white?”.
At the forefront of this sea change is the small but growing industry of cocktail catering, created to heed the call of event planners who want to put the same amount of detail and foresight into the bar as they do into things like decor and DJ. It only makes sense: drinks are, more often than not, the lifeblood of a good event. Why would someone shell out all that cash for Pinterest-perfect table settings while leaving thirsty guests hung out to dry?
Why did you decide to start your company?
Kelly: With Microsoft recruiting I planned a couple hundred events per year and often found myself exasperated by the lack of options for a good happy hour event caterer. I noticed a surprising lack of farm to bar options in the Seattle area and too many “6 foot table, black linen” bars, and I decided to start a business that addressed both.
Esposito: In the process of producing events, I realized that bar service was usually one of the last things that was considered in the total budget. This struck me as really strange because from an event flow perspective the bar at cocktail hour is usually the very first thing event guests encounter. Think about it, while most guests at corporate events likely have no interaction with the production team or the caterer, you can pretty much guarantee that every guest will have an interaction with a bartender and the quality of that interaction plays a huge role in setting the tone for the event experience to come. From a sociological perspective bartenders and mixologists at events aren’t just back of house staff; they serve a much more important role as direct proxies for the parties hosting the event and the brands who are sponsoring the event. The best event planners know the value of an elevated bar service and are increasingly selective about who they entrust with the privilege of representing their vision and interacting with their guests.
What was that transition like?
Kelly: I worked to start my business while still working a fulltime job and I highly recommend that. It gave me both the motivation and the security in the first year to continue on. I was used to long hours, so pulling double duty with the two jobs didn’t bother me, but entering a new industry and starting a business from scratch definitely involved a learning curve. I needed to immerse myself more deeply in craft cocktail knowledge and tradition, source locally farmed cocktail ingredients, supplement growing what I couldn’t source, start an LLC, navigate the Health Department, Department of Labor and our state’s liquor control board, market myself to applicable industries, hire a staff, do my own book keeping, etc. I tend to be pretty scrappy, so this challenged and inspired me and kept me going until we launched, and solving these problems on a daily basis is what continues to engage me.
How has the industry changed since you launched?
Esposito: When we started Snake Oil Cocktail Company, we wanted to provide a different kind of bar option to clients and create a bar service that would help consult with other bars to elevate the craft of cocktails. I remember after we did the bar at the Sundance Film Festival in 2010 I started handing out new business cards; people would get a kick out of the fact that we called ourselves “cocktail consultants” … and now it seems you can’t go to even a dive bar without running into a newly minted mixologist. When we founded our company pretty much all cocktails at local bars came from cans, it was such a shame because Southern California at the time had more local farms than anywhere in the US. Watching craft cocktail culture explode into suburbia and Middle America in less than a decade with bartending going from a thankless job to a full-blown profession and passionate mixologists billed as modern celebrities has been a remarkable journey.
Do you think that, in general, guests’ expectations for the quality and creativity of cocktails at events has risen in recent years?
Esposito: Absolutely! When we started Snake Oil Cocktail Company in 2010, clients rarely asked us to do a “tasting” prior to their event and they did not have the language to talk about cocktails. They loved fresh culinary cocktails because that style and our attention to detail was so foreign to them. Now, however, pretty much every wedding and corporate event wants to “see” and “taste” the signature cocktails in advance, it is not uncommon to talk to clients about their preferences on how to make a Manhattan, and for them to come into the initial client meeting with a Pinterest board of what style of cocktail they would like executed. With the rise of Instagram culture and the easy ordering availability of fresh produce ingredients that were not otherwise available locally, the creativity level is always getting pushed.
How do you market your business?
Kelly: I rely on a combination of networking, social media, and a good website. I try to meet as many people who I might possibly learn from and may be able to help me as possible, and this effort constantly leads me to new opportunities. It’s also helped me to establish a good reputation among vendors, which leads to referrals. I also started building up my website, Instagram and Facebook accounts far before the camper bar (our initial service offered) was ever ready to be booked. Building my website and growing an online following took daily effort and was learned 100% from free Youtube videos and blogs from other entrepreneurs, because I had no money to spare. I’d say the majority of events our first year came from two sources: Instagram, and one public event that we did for a non-profit company at a pretty steep discount that lead to exposure to 3,000+ people.
How did you decide what kind of (and how many) services you wanted to offer in the beginning?
Kelly: Nailing down what I wanted to offer my clients really came down to me determining what kind of business I wanted to be and whether that business could be profitable. I knew I wanted to share Washington state’s awesome distilleries, wineries, breweries, and cideries with my clients because we have so much to offer here in Seattle and I am passionate about helping people discover their new favorites. I knew I wanted a seasonal, craft, farm to bar menu and for all of our mobile bars to have draft options. There are a lot of other cocktail caterers, and to be different and still take home a paycheck, Happy Camper Cocktail Co. needs to operate differently. I tried to fill holes I saw in the existing market with things I admired elsewhere, and my own ideas.
When you’re hiring bartenders for catering, what qualities do you look for? How is event catering different from regular bartending?
Kelly: It’s definitely a different gig. The bartending we do at events tends to have a fixed menu, especially because for us, the client provides the alcohol according to our recommendations. That means you’re never going to be serving from a full bar, so I don’t need to waste time quizzing my bartenders on obscure recipes. The flow is also different, so while speed is important, we don’t tend to see more than 400 guests per night. However, the same guests are coming to you, over and over, all night, on some of the happiest occasions of their lives: weddings, birthdays, galas, retirement parties. What I look for in my staff is someone who is comfortable with ambiguity because no two catering jobs are ever the same, someone obsessed with creating a consistent, happy client experience, and creativity. A question I might ask would be, “if you have these 3 liquors, and these 7 mixers, and a fixed menu, but a guest asks for something different, what would you make them?” I also like to ask “what annoys you about customers?” In the service industry, it’s easy to become jaded behind a bar, night after “$3 well Friday” night. Our clients are celebrating and they want someone happy to serve them, so I look for someone who can bring that fun vibe.
Esposito: Event cocktail catering is definitely not for everyone. When you are bartending at a traditional brick and mortar bar, everything is set up for you. It is easy to take for granted the perks of having a kitchen, a dishwasher, running water, a barback to assist you and to do the hard work of stocking your bar, and servers to take orders and pickup glassware. Prep work needs to get done pre shift but most of the time you can do it at a leisurely pace, then once your shift starts the harder you work the more money you make in tips. Event bar service is a completely different beast.
First and foremost it is critical to understand that you are only one piece of someone else’s event vision. You have to know your role and be able to take direction from event planners, the end client, event sponsors, the venue manager, and everyone on the catering team. Oftentimes this is too much to ask for standard bartenders who are used to just showing up, pouring drinks, and making tips. There is simply no place for egos in event beverage catering. The number one problem I see is that many mixologists used to running their own ship simply fail to understand what this means.
Not only do you have to provide great customer service to all guests but you also have to be willing to play the role of the bar back, the set up crew, and the clean up crew. Remember, everything you bring onsite needs to be unloaded set up and then broken down and reloaded out at the end of the event. At Snake Oil Cocktail, we hire staff based on personality and their ability to think on their feet. Anyone can be taught how to pour a great drink but very few can be taught how to be polite and how to play well as a team.
What were some of the unexpected challenges you’ve encountered along the way? And perhaps any happy surprises?
Kelly: Rules and regulations are rampant with mobile bartending, especially from a mobile rig like our camper bar. You have to do your own research into these issues first and be able to speak knowledgeably to the folks you encounter in their offices, because they don’t necessarily know how to categorize or regulate you. As far as happy surprises: the response from the people has been incredible validating. People want more than a soda and spirit drink at their big events, they love our “garden to glass” cocktails and they love our delivery. My new catch phrase is “special days deserve special drinks,” and it’s working. Plus, when our camper bar pulls up people just start smiling. They know happy hour just arrived. It makes every event worth every hour of preparation.
Esposito: When we started the business it was really hard to work with hotels and full service banquet centers because they did not want to allow outside vendors into their space. But over the past seven years, craft cocktails went from “what is that?” to “Why does your venue not have the ability to make us a signature cocktail.” It has been an incredible shift to see huge corporate players like Hilton and Hyatt Hotel chains allowing outside mixologists to come into their space to elevate the event experience. I never thought I would see that happen!
Any advice for a working bartender who is contemplating a similar move into the catering/events field?
Kelly: Do a lot of soul searching about why you want to do it, and do your research first. It isn’t easy moving from employee to self employed and it requires a huge mind shift. Events-only work also means working seasonally on weekends, so your schedule and family life should accommodate that. If you know you’ve got the chutzpah and want to make the move, figure out the type of bar business you want to offer, really study whether the demand is out there, and work backwards from the salary you need to make when you start to determine your pricing. Too many new entrepreneurs start at what they think they can charge, and then they can’t actually make any money. Budgeting is not the most glamorous part of business ownership but it beats early burn out . And really listen to the market, your customers: we all want to make the best and most exciting drink we can, and our clients want something special too, but they might not want to drink Fernet all night long at an event. Finally: measure your pours. Clients at a bar may order just one drink from you and then move on to another bar, but at an event it’s just you, so they expect the same drink on every trip to the bar.
Esposito: Event beverage catering can be a lot of fun and very lucrative but keep in mind that it is a serious business and that it is important to limit risk involved with responsible mobile alcohol service. For traditional bars you typically only have to get licensed once and you’re done but for mobile catering service each county and state has different rules that you need to understand. You should expect that you will be dealing with a lot of permitting questions. It is a great idea to talk with a qualified liquor license consultant and a good insurance broker in your State to freshen up on what services you can and cannot provide before you embark on the journey and don’t be afraid to ask questions of event planners to make sure they have secured the proper event permits and government sign-offs before you provide any service.
Anything else to add?
Esposito: Don’t be afraid to be creative and document your creativity. Event planners are always looking for you to propose ideas to make their events unforgettable but remember that you should always think hard about the demographic you are serving. One of the unique differences between a standard bar and event beverage catering is that in the standard bar scenario, the people in the bar share a lot of affinities. But with events, it’s a totally different ballgame: the audience demographic factor is much more mercurial and guests of different generations don’t have the same kinds of tastes. Sometimes drinks with mescal and bitters might be the exact right choice for the crowd and other times it’s all about vodka and vermouth. Before creating the cocktails you want to create, you have to do your homework and ask the right questions about the crowd and listen to what they want and then employ your skill as a mixologist to create something delicious.
Kelly: All of it will be harder than you think, but it will feel pretty damn good once you do it.