Take a walk around DIFC on a Thursday evening and you may forget that we’re living through a global pandemic. In restaurants, all the tables are full. Live music is being performed and there’s an air of revelry and enjoyment.
The only signs that things aren’t as they should be are the staff wearing masks and the fact that tables are a bit further apart than they used to be.
But while the restaurant scene returns to some form of normality, bars remain hamstrung.
While social distancing in restaurants means pushing tables slightly further apart, in bars it means no socialising, no dancing, and not even being allowed to sit around the bar area or order directly from bartenders.
In short, the essence of what has made bars popular has been stripped out.
“The impact has been detrimental to the bar world, with many business closures across the globe, from big- to small-sized companies closing their doors for the last time,” says Adam Carr, managing director of Aura Consultancy. “The full affect has not been seen as of now I believe, with those businesses recently re-opening yet to determine whether or not they can sustain themselves in the new and current market. Most businesses did not account for a global pandemic and loss of revenue for over four months in their cash flows and were just not ready for such a hit on the bottom line.”
John Gillespie, managing director of Tonique Consultancy, says the impact in Dubai alone has been huge, with his sources at African & Eastern and MMI telling him that more than half of licensed premises in the Emirate are yet to reopen their doors, or may never, and the ones that have only able to operate at 50 percent capacity.
Adapting to these new rules and regulations will be a challenge for bars, and Carr says “attracting new custom is going to be a pivotal aspect of sustaining any hospitality business”.
To do that, many experts are suggesting it’s the right time to tap into the growing trend for low- and no-alcohol cocktails, an area that the Bacardi 2020 Cocktail Trends Report highlighted as an ever-increasing market. According to the report, 83% of bartenders says low-alcohol drinks are “hot” right now.
Eugene Conradie, F&B director of Taj Holding Group, said it’s an area that has been overlooked in the past, particularly in hotels. “A restaurant without creative vegetarian menu options is unthinkable today. Unfortunately, across the bar counter in most hotels, non-alcoholic cocktails remain stuck in the culinary dark ages. Juice blends, shelf life syrups and carelessly sweet, unbalanced ‘mocktails’ embarrassingly still feature on the majority of hotel menus. Usually on the last page, befitting an afterthought.
“Surveys show a decline in alcohol consumption across all demographics. The healthy living trend continues to gather momentum and the impact of alcohol is making headlines. From sober curious to total abstinence, guests are looking for creative, tasty alternatives to cocktails.”
While it’s usually Dubai that is the F&B trendsetter across the Middle East, this is one area in which it may need to defer to Saudi Arabia’s expertise. According to Giffard’s Nassim Bouchafa, the Kingdom “is one of the biggest markets in the world for dry mixology”.
He says: “We have been initiating the ‘cocktail zero’ trend in Jeddah and Riyadh more than two years ago.
“In Dubai there is a drink scene covering all needs of the various communities. Saudis have real appetite for flavours and beverages, it is part of the culture. Today, coffee shops, lounges and restaurants are allowing men and women to gather and share drinks with the recent societal changes seen in the kingdom. Evenings out, therefore, still tend to revolve around food and non-alcoholic drinks: the more Instagrammable, the better it is.”
Having launched a dry mixology course with ICCA Dubai in 2019 to teach bartenders the fundamentals of the bar, the usage of spice and herbs, showmanship, and the theatricality of the bartender, Giovanni Depergola, co-founder of Alembic – Liquid Education Experience, says venues should introduce zero-proof cocktail menus alongside the classic alcohol-inclusive ones.
He says: “This will give their guests an immediately different perspective, since nowadays consumers are looking for varieties of options and are no longer satisfied by fruit juices, sugary sodas, or plan sparkling water. They are looking for much more complex flavours that will suit their tastes and preferences.
“It’s a great opportunity for many venues, especially hotel lobbies that in general don’t serve alcohol and most of the time look like airport lounges or dated coffee shops. Dry bars can take advantage of the great profit margin by adding to their selection a well-made, non-alcoholic drink.”
But how do you create a great zero-proof cocktail menu, is it the same as creating a traditional one?
“There’s a lot to consider,” says Russell Sanchez, brand amabassador – Midddle East, Britvic. “Whether you’re starting from scratch or revamping your current offerings, it is not so different from creating your cocktail menu.
“First, think about your patrons. Having a separate drink menu is more practical and does a better job of showcasing your options.
“Include drink descriptions: Why is it that food items get vivid and embellished descriptions like ‘slow-roasted,’ ‘succulent’, and ‘crispy’, but drink listings sometimes don’t even include their ingredients? To help customers make a decision and to upsell certain drinks, include a short but effective description for each item.
“Use creative cocktail names, Cocktail names shouldn’t be an afterthought.
“Strategically place profitable drinks: customers tend to look at the top right-hand corner of the menu first. After this spot, peoples’ eyes go to the first and last few items on the menu. To push your most profitable drink items, be sure to strategically place them in these areas to attract the eyes of your customers. The more attention you draw to them, the more likely they are to sell.”
Santanu Chanda, bar supervisor at Buddha Bar Dubai, adds that in this day and age it is vital your drink looks like something customers will want to show off.
He says: “Ensure that whatever is created behind the bar is very well presented and fully Instagrammable. Social media is the leading marketing tool for a great cocktail menu as the images projected will directly reflect your menu presentation.”
As highlighted by Conradie and Depergola, too many non-alcoholic menus of the past have been pale imitations of traditional cocktail with no inventiveness, that’s why Doors Freestyle Grill, a dry restaurant in Dubai with a wide range of zero-proof drinks encourages creativity from its bartenders when coming up with new menu items.
Sari Mounzer, marketing manager at Doors Freestyle Grill, says: “Choosing the right kind of fruits accordingly to the season plays a key role in creating a great mocktail menu. Fresh ingredients, the right combination of flavours, the perfect type of ice, and aesthetic presentation are also important to curate a great mocktail menu. But the mixologists also have to be very passionate about mixology to come up to delicious new blends or reinventing classics.”
According to Rudolph Raven, beverage manager at Waldorf Astoria, that passion for mixology should allow any bartender to create great zero-proof drinks, rather than being specifically trained to do so. Something of benefit to bars looking to tighten their budgets post-Covid-19.
“I am not sure if it is an issue of training,” he says. “If you are a good bartender you should understand flavours and if you understand flavours you should be able to put good mocktails together. The basics is to replace the alcohol with a non-alcoholic substitute, Rum for fresh apple juice in mojito and swap whisky for a good quality black tea like lapsang. I don’t think it is rocket science after you get a bit of inspiration.”
However, with customers looking for more experiential nights out, and also in need of a reason to venture out to spend their money in uncertain economic times, Beam Suntory portfolio brand ambassador (Gulf) Nana Sechere believes an investment in training will pay dividends in the long run.
He says: “I am very big on continuous training. I think if the service staff continues to push themselves and keep mastering their craft, the guest will always benefit and it will be cyclical. Happy guests, means they keep coming back, and that generates good times for the guests and good revenue for the restaurants. Everyone post-Covid is searching for value, and the best way for the restaurant to show value is by the work of highly trained staff creating the right atmosphere.”
Despite the growing trend for no- and low-alcohol drinks in the Middle East, there are some industry issues which are holding back its growth here, says Gillespie, who has been pushing the trend for the past two years.
“The major issue is that most non-alcoholic spirits like Seedlip, Ceders, Everleaf, all popular brands in the UK, fall above the 0.3% ABV UAE standard [for drinks to be classed as non-alcoholic) as the UK is 0.5%, meaning they would be reclassified as low-alcohol spirits. Maybe we can lobby the authorities to change the UAE standard to 0.5% to support the growing trend, but now the market is too small for the brands to change their recipes and most F&B venues will not spend AED250 for a non-alcoholic spirit.”
At popular Dubai beach club Zero Gravity, general manager Peter Skudutis says he “hasn’t seen a noticeable switch to non-alcoholic cocktails” and demand for the venues non-alcoholic beers and wines has remained low.
However, Skudutis has noticed customers going for more lite beers, beverages with low sugar content, and less sugary mixers. “Our guests are definitely more interested in what goes into their drinks and in turn into their bodies,” he says.
Although he has seen an increase in people thinking about their health, Sechere says he “doesn’t think it’s as glaring a difference as we may believe”. Instead, Sechere thinks that as Dubai’s F&B scene slowly returns to normal, people will quickly switch back to their old habits and return to their favourite restaurants.
So how do you attract new customers? Sechere says “it will all come down to experiences”.
“People are watching their wallets, and if they spend, they want to make sure it’s worth it. So if restaurants focus more on giving people the best night they can, through service, food, and even throwing some unique events, I think that’s what people are looking for.”
According to Gillespie, “staying in is the new going out of the future” as he predicts consumers will not flock back to bars.
“This whole process has pushed most venues to create a full takeout and delivery menu, as well as non -alcoholic cocktails to–go, which has taken us out of our comfort zone to create new, alternative experiences for our guests.”
Whatever the future holds, it appears that non-alcoholic drinks may have a bigger presence than ever before.