Global Bar Report 2023: North America
The bar sector in North America is starting to make a comeback after the Covid-19 pandemic, but staffing turnover remains an issue.
The past year feels like something of a return to normal,” says T Cole Newton, president of the United States Bartenders’ Guild. “We’ve had a sense of stability and continuity in a way that felt very luxurious compared with the three previous years. We were just moving from crisis to crisis for so long that to have a year where there hasn’t been a major upheaval feels noteworthy.”
The issues facing bars in North America in 2023 are ones that have been reverberating through the industry for some time.
Fortunately, the staffing crisis spurred by the Covid-19 pandemic has improved. In September, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that employment in the country’s bars and restaurants had returned to pre-pandemic levels for the first time in three-and-a-half years. “That feels like a milestone we’re celebrating,” says Newton, the owner of New Orleans bars Twelve Mile Limit and The Domino.
But hiring struggles persist for some venues, particularly in terms of staff turnover. “Some people think [a bar job] is what they want, and then a few months later they’re like, ‘Oh no, I don’t like going to bed late’,” explains Kate Boushel, director of beverage and education for Groupe Barroco, based in Montreal, Canada. “We used to have far less turnaround, even though a lot of employers’ practices have very much been improved over the past three years.”
For many in the on-trade in North America, the most prominent issue is inflation, which reached its peak in the US and Canada in June 2022, and continues to sink its teeth into profit margins and consumer budgets.
“You keep having to increase prices, which does not always go well with the general public,” says Julie Reiner, owner of New York bars Milady’s, Clover Club, and Leyenda. “You have to explain insurance and cost of goods and payroll and so many factors that end up having to go into the cost of food and beverage – otherwise we’d all be closed.”
According to the Consumer Trend Report from online alcohol retailer Drizly, nearly one in four people said they would opt to drink at home more often this year than in bars and restaurants.
Jacob Martin, bar manager of Bar Banane in Toronto, and winner of Diageo World Class 2023, has noticed this in his community. “Inflation makes people eat out less frequently,” he says. “Busy nights remain busy, but ‘off’ nights, such as Tuesdays and Wednesdays, have taken a massive hit in our city’s entertainment districts.”
Still, he notes that rising costs have not had a dramatic effect on customer spend once they are in a venue.
Both Martin and Reiner say the Espresso Martini remains a favourite. Reiner has also seen social media’s impact on popular drinks rise in the past year. She explains how her bars saw a surge in guests ordering the Hugo Spritz, an elderflower cocktail, after the serve went viral on TikTok: “We actually had to put a Hugo Spritz button in the computer because enough people were ordering it.”
Looking ahead, Boushel is confident that sustainable bar practices will continue to take hold. “Once craft cocktail bars start pushing things like how to use ingredients eight ways, and show how easy it can be, then larger-scale bars start to figure out those practices as well.”
Martin agrees, predicting that sustainability “from the standpoint of cost efficiency” will become a major focus. He has seen venues, including his own, swapping rare or esoteric ingredients for ones that are easier to acquire, perhaps because they are produced locally. “We frequently feature produce such as lettuces, peppers, and tomatoes, not just because they can yield delicious results but because they are affordable and interesting,” he says.
Meanwhile, Newton believes that one of the biggest opportunities for the industry lies in the adoption of alternative ownership models. He points to Donna, a newly reopened New York bar with a worker-owned profit-sharing structure, as an example. “The multiple crises of the past few years meant we could take some time, step back and evaluate the industry through the lens of fair labour practices and fair pay.
“That is going to continue to snowball as more and more places take the leap and hopefully find success with it. I think others will be inspired to follow along.”
Bars to watch in 2024
Martiny’s – New York City, US
Japanese bartender Takuma Watanabe launched this swanky yet cosy bar in a historic carriage house in Gramercy in early 2022 – his first solo venture after an eight-year tenure at NYC institution Angel’s Share. Martiny’s marries exposed brick, leather sofas, Japanese-style hospitality, and refined classic cocktails. As its name suggests, the venue has a special focus on the Martini, serving it with a bump of caviar for serious opulence.
The bar has already garnered acclaim with this meticulous approach, winning Best New US Cocktail Bar at Tales of the Cocktail’s 2023 Spirited Awards, and landing in the top 100 of the World’s 50 Best Bars, among other accolades.
Bar Pompette – Toronto, Canada
This breezy drinking den, the younger sibling to Toronto’s popular bistro Pompette, opened in the summer of 2021, and has quickly become a powerhouse of the Canadian bar sector. With its dark wood and whitewashed brick, the space has all the romance of a Parisian café –its owners, Hugo Togni, Jonathan Bauer, Martine Bauer, and Maxime Hoerth, are veterans of France’s hospitality industry, after all.
Drinks here have a minimalist aesthetic that belies their complex flavour. Many of the cocktails boast French spirits, with pastis, Cognac, Chartreuse, and Calvados on heavy rotation; others use local and seasonal ingredients to give a sense of place.
Rayo – Mexico City, Mexico
‘Rayo’ is Spanish for ‘lightning’ – and this bar has lived up to its name, storming onto Mexico City’s cocktail scene in early 2022 and promptly securing the Best New Opening award at North America 50 Best Bars ceremony.
Tucked away in a historic building in Mexico City’s Roma Norte district, Rayo has a sleek, modern vibe bolstered by the warm hospitality of its founders, Tito Pin-Perez and Álvaro García.
The menu celebrates Mexican culture and heritage, with drinks exploring the country’s folklore and cuisine. Naturally, Mexican spirits play a crucial role, as do theatrical edible garnishes such as beef-skin chicharrón, and cilantro root.