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21st Century Beverage Rules

Fóumami in Boston satisfies the non-drinker with homemade hot and iced teas infused with specialty ingredients such as fresh ginger, Chinese red dates, fresh kumquats or cinnamon bark. Photo courtesy of foumami. Ten dos and don’ts for 2013 drink menus

By Jack Robertiello

What do your customers really want? It’s an ancient question, one restaurateurs have always struggled with, since how well the question is answered can define success or failure.

When it comes to restaurant beverages — an area to which many operators give only a limited amount of attention — rapidly changing consumer, supplier and industry trends make it difficult to keep current. The endless flow of new products seems to stream faster and faster, and keeping up is almost a full-time job, causing many restaurants without a dedicated beverage manager to lose track. But paying no attention to these trends is simply not an option.

Take a pure 21st century concept, like “skinny” cocktails, for example; a few years ago, not many bars consciously served any lower-calorie drinks made with alcohol — not after a fad for low-carbohydrate beverages fell flat about ten years ago. Yet in 2012, restaurant chains as significant as Fleming’s, as well as many major spirit suppliers, have embraced the low-calorie cocktail experience.

However, for most restaurants, keeping current doesn’t mean an overhaul with every dip and rise on the fad roller coaster. While chain restaurants may need to respond to slight movements in the trend line in order to keep fresh and competitive, the large percentage of bars and restaurants can simply watch and wait until — like with craft beer or quality wines by the glass — consumer acceptance arrives on a broader scale. In other words, for most restaurants, “skinny” can wait. Which leads us to Lesson One in the 21st century rules for beverage service:

While being on the culinary and beverage cutting edge is sometimes important, don’t force a new approach if it doesn’t fit your concept, service capabilities and clientele. Sometimes it’s better to follow rather than lead.

If you run a barbecue restaurant, you’re not expected to make omelets. Customers understand that, so you shouldn’t feel compelled to fill every thirst, either. Think of your beverages — beer, wine, spirits, cocktails, non-alcohol, coffee, etc. — with the same awareness of fit as you do your small plates, main courses and desserts. Adjust for local and national trends cautiously, paying more attention to what’s going on in your world. For instance, the surge in mezcal interest among tequila drinkers suggest restaurants with a Mexican or Southwest connection should increase the brands they carry and include some mezcal cocktails on the menu. Flavored whiskey and confection-flavored vodkas may be the hottest things on the market right now, but what your customers already favor should inform every decision about adding items.

So-called “romance copy,” in which great care is taken to describe and hype your food and drink, works best when it makes an item intriguing and delicious-sounding. But relying more on the copy than the actual item can work against your ultimate aim, which should be to exceed customer satisfaction. With cocktails, it’s important to communicate what a drink will taste like or what its role is, but be careful with the romance copy — recommend the drinks you really believe in and promote them for their qualities (fresh ingredients, quality spirits, awards won, etc.), but don’t make promises (“This is the best Margarita you will ever have!”) that you can’t possibly keep. Better to note what is unique about your drinks, or that you take great care in creating house-only recipes, than to brag too much.

Eastern Standard in Boston takes care to stock its beer menu well beyond the best-selling basics, including Belgians, artisanal Americans and local brews. Photo courtesy of eastern standard/adam krauth. 4. DO MATCH YOUR FOOD AND BEVERAGES
Wine and beer especially, but nearly every beverage on your menu tastes better with some dishes than with others. Certainly a large share of your customers will usually order the same default liquid when they dine, but it’s smart to assume some will want the opportunity to experiment or ask questions about your drinks. Answer some of those questions by offering food-pairing suggestions right on the menu. If you have just introduced a new range of wines from an unfamiliar region or made from a unique varietal, give them a boost by noting on the daily menu which dishes they enhance. That does a number of jobs: takes the burden off the server to make recommendations; introduces the drinks in context so that the customer gets an idea why you stock them; and promotes the wines in a way that is not price- or hype-driven. This method also works well with craft beers — the customer who orders a hoppy and bitter IPA should get the heads-up that it matches well with charred meat or salty and fried dishes, rather than, say, a subtly seasoned grilled fish. Even long drinks that are light in alcohol, like spiked lemonades or iced teas, will work better with some of your dishes. You should know which drinks complement and share that information.

Wine sellers in many chain and upscale restaurants have for years employed the progressive wine list, in which body, intensity of flavor, sweetness and other qualities are considered and wines are gathered into sections with titles such as “Light and Refreshing” or “Powerful and Intense.” Sellers group the wines so that a customer knows what to eliminate or where to concentrate, making the potential sale more focused. Why not do the same with beers, cocktails and other beverages? Many bars today include “Strong and Stirred” as a category to indicate that the drinks are potent potables. Grouping your drinks by a combination of characteristics — potency, sweetness, bitterness, body, size and serving style — will likely make unfamiliar choices sensible to curious customers. With beers, you can do this by potency, hue, body, maltiness and hoppiness — and there’s no reason you can’t list a brew in a few places, such as under the rubrics “strong,” “dark” and “malty.”

By all means, accept advice and help from business friends but don’t turn your operation over to them. Alcohol producers and distributors offer many training and educational programs, and are legitimately willing to help a restaurateur build a coherent beverage menu. But don’t let them control your wine or beer list or sell you on ideas that don’t benefit your customers. It’s common enough, especially in independent casual restaurants, for owners to let beverage suppliers make decisions for them about what to carry, even allowing suppliers to select all the wines and provide the menu descriptions. The result is usually obvious, and it rarely reflects well on the restaurant. Some salespeople will recommend only the best sellers or those products they are incentivized to push, regardless of how they fit with your concept and clientele, and turning the menu over to one supplier means you won’t get the preferred deals or special offers from their competitors. If there is no one in your operation who knows a little about wine and beer and can help you make more suitable selections for your menu, then do some judicious searching to find bargains and items that will help you stand out. Even if your customers don’t pay much attention to brand names, place of origin or even grape, you should be aware of available discounts. If nothing else, make friends with a local wine retailer and get advice on wines that suit your establishment.

Many Americans don’t drink alcohol. Even many drinkers at times do not or cannot indulge, for different reasons. Yet the restaurant industry can barely stir itself to muster up any quality non-alcohol offerings — it’s a continuing shame and a squandered opportunity. I recently purchased a new low-calorie, superfruit- and antioxidant-laden beverage at a supermarket for a couple bucks that, served in a pint glass with some sparkling water and a fresh fruit garnish, could easily bring an operator $5 to $7 per serving — especially in a sports bar or casual-dining setting. But generally, non-drinkers are lucky to see an Arnold Palmer or other mildly inventive beverage made available. Yes, fountain sales add reliable pennies to the bottom line, but if pennies are all you want, your competition will be the one earning the dollars the next time a designated driver makes the decision about where to dine. Show teetotalers that their business is welcome.

A smart selection of both classic and inspired cocktails at Cook & Brown Public House in Providence allow customers to order “the usual” or try something new. Photo courtesy of cook & brown public house. 8. FOCUS YOUR OFFERINGS
In today’s data-driven business world, every operator knows what sells when. Many even take note of their neighborhood’s demographics, and the customer make up: age, sex, family situation, education, income, what dishes they prefer and more. But it’s rare to see a drink menu that reflects a similar customer understanding. Take the beer list: In most restaurants, it’s an assembly of the best-selling beers, most of which are sold in every supermarket and convenience store. Might as well post a note stating: “Nothing special here.” If, like most restaurants in the casual segment, you serve many customers under age 30, that menu misses out on their experimental and exploratory drinking behavior. Studies and data show that Millennials are less likely than their predecessors to be brand loyal. Even the neighborhood pizzeria can benefit from introducing a wider craft beer selection, especially if male consumers under 30 make up a large part of the clientele. In the case of wheat beers, younger females, too, are looking for choices, and both groups like experimenting with wines by the glass. Don’t stock so many that you lose track, but be willing to experiment with beverages that might better suit your customers’ demographic mix.

Contemporary diners like to switch their beverages — say, a glass of Albariño with the oyster appetizer and then a Malbec with the seared duck. Where was that Malbec from? It’s hard to remember, because the server whisked away the beverage menu after the customer ordered. Are the menus made of gold, in need of securing the instant an order has been placed? No, but every time I keep the beverage menu at the table, a server inevitably tries to take it away. I don’t have a guaranteed solution for this, but there must be some way to allow guests to change their beverage order during dinner without asking again and again for the menu. Yes, table space is precious, but how about more prominent signage in the establishment?

You’re being offered a sweet discount on last year’s talked-about new product, spicy popcorn-flavored vodka, at a price well below what you previously paid. But you’ll need to take an extra case. You figure, “How hard can it be to make my money back?” Here’s a good rule of thumb for this situation: If you are presented with any deal that only allows you to profit if you figure out a way to sell the stuff, politely decline. Most chain restaurant beverage executives have one reply when a salesperson walks in with something new, no matter how respected and interesting: “How am I going to sell it?” That should always be your thinking, no matter how tempting the deal. There are any number of restaurant operators with case stacks of spicy popcorn vodka who could tell you that.


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About The Author

Jack Robertiello

Jack Robertiello writes about spirits, cocktails, wine, beer and food from Brooklyn, N.Y.