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A drink like this Cherry Pop — equal parts cola and “juice” from Ole Smoky Moonshine cherries — proves the simplicity of cocktail differentiation. Photo courtesy of ole smoky moonshine.
Four areas of improvement for optimizing beverage business

By Jack Robertiello

If you’re older than, say, 35, you remember a time when chain-restaurant beverage programs were trendsetters for the American restaurant and bar scene. But today, whenever the conversation turns to the topic of the newest, the coolest, the most intriguing beverage innovation, chain restaurants are barely mentioned. Battered by the real estate collapse and Great Recession, chains have battened down the hatches, tightened both their margins and their margins for error, and limited the introduction of new programs. Meanwhile, independent bars and restaurants of all shades and stripes are today’s test grounds for the new and the notable.

That’s the reputation, anyway, though there are numerous signs of spring among chain beverage programs as the economy betters. Still, gone are the days when pioneering wine-by-the-glass programs like Olive Garden’s were lionized, when tap beer programs and the resurgence of the Martini brought in outsized profits and acclaim at numerous chains.

Many independent restaurants, too, don’t regularly examine their beverage programs for areas of improvement, counting instead on the steady profits that even the most retrograde system can deliver. There are, however, plenty of options to freshen up a program without requiring costly time, labor and dollars; here are four to consider:

Not everyone can pull off what bartender Stuart White does at Miller Union in Atlanta, with a new class of housemade sodas: Using fresh, Georgia-grown fruits, vegetables and herbs, White serves handcrafted concoctions fresh-to-order, in original syrup flavors that include lemon-cucumber with mint, blueberry ginger, and rhubarb. Other restaurants, notably Tavernita in Chicago, have made housemade, dry sodas part of their concept.

Upgrading nonalcohol offerings can be as simple as selecting a few items from the plethora of cutting-edge, adult, nonalcohol products introduced every year, ready to drink and attractive to menu.

But that solution might not fit at the higher end, where customers expect unique offerings. The surfeit of syrups and purées available for foodservice can easily be turned into sodas and other adult beverages without the usual concern of consistency across units. These flavoring agents in a vast variety —  tropical, berry, herbal, low-calorie, organic,  etc. — provide tools any operator can use to perk up a stale and staid profit center.

Pan-Asian chain P.F. Chang’s China Bistro embraced the challenge in 2012 by rolling out a handful of new drinks, including two housemade nonalcohol cocktails: Strawberry Cucumber Limeade and Coconut Cooler. Part of the chain’s commitment to increasing the amount of fresh and housemade ingredients at the bar, both drinks are made daily at each unit, joining other in-house cocktail ingredients: colada mix, simple syrup and ginger beer. P.F. Chang’s success with its ginger beer a few years ago lead to the two current drinks, giving abstainers something other than fountain soda to consider.

Whether housemade or commercial, these ingredients also provide an easy way to upgrade your lemonade, iced tea and hot coffee and tea service. There’s also a chance that a mixed drink program could benefit from the tweaks these products supply — an upgrade achievable without the cost of sourcing new spirits. Any established bartender would love the opportunity to experiment with quality syrups, purées and flavor-forward spirits like rum and tequila. Add stylish fresh fruit garnishes, and an operation can provide customers something slightly new but within their comfort zone.

Explore adult-friendly nonalcohol options with housemade sodas. Miller Union’s Stuart White serves them fresh-to-order, in refreshing flavors like lemon-cucumber with mint, blueberry ginger and pink rhubarb. Photo courtesy of miller union.
Yes, pint-sized glasses of beer look authentic, and serving large drinks gives staff time to stay on top of service. But sometimes, 16 ounces of beer is about eight ounces too many for the customer, situation or time of day.

It’s also the wrong size for a guest who is beer savvy and might want something slightly sweet and malty like a Negra Modelo with his appetizer, and a hoppier brew like an IPA with his entrée. Increasingly, restaurants make the effort to carry a broader range of popular beer brands and styles, but they don’t pay as much attention to food and brew matchings. Smaller size servings can automatically open the door to that multiple-brew sale — one that, if priced correctly, can build check averages and profits.

Serving size options work just as well with wine. Increasingly, restaurants with large by-the-glass programs are offering numerous variations: three- or four-ounce pours to go along with the standard six or eight. Many also offer quartinos and small carafes. Some chains already have taken this to heart with wine portioning. The flexibility of the wine program at P.F. Chang’s is well known: A few years ago the concept added half glasses and half carafes to join existing glass, bottle and flight options. The 16-ounce half carafe is especially popular — two ounces more than two full glasses, it’s an easy move up, with pricing reflecting value.

Don’t overlook the possibilities of shifting serving size with cocktails and nonalcohol as well. There is a rarely seen but well established tradition of serving what is called a caddy or sidecar with a strong stirred drink meant to be drunk cold, like a Martini. The caddy, as currently served at New York City’s Saxon + Parole, holds a little less than half the full drink and rests in a small bowl of crushed ice presented alongside the cocktail. This allows the customer to imbibe at his or her leisure without the drink warming.

If your operation serves many Margaritas, lots of sangria or anything else made by the batch, smaller serving sizes are easy. Concerns about cuts in profitability can be managed with price adjustments; half a portion need not be half the price. Yes, it’s possible check averages will shrink, but it’s just as likely that some guests might want a sample before they order a larger size beverage.

Restaurants find it hard to change their methods of doing business, successful or not. However, making a change to service style can create buzz in a restaurant, provide a silent form of suggestive selling, and simply add a moment of magic.

Take what Ruth’s Chris Steak House unveiled recently when upgrading its beverage menu. Along with new signature cocktails, the chain rolled out some tableside juleps. One is the classic Mint Julep, the other a modern recipe made with flavored vodkas, but both are served tableside in a traditional silver julep cup.

The steakhouse chain also introduced a Strawberry Basil Gimlet, Cucumber Collins, Moscow Mule and more, following up on last year’s rollout of vintage-inspired cocktails. “We are pleased that our guests consider us a craft cocktail destination,” says Helen Mackey, director of beverage strategy. The chain touts the use of premium spirits, housemade ingredients and freshly squeezed juices.

California-based Yard House — made famous by offering an enormous list of brews — has found yet another way to keep that concept fresh. The chain’s new Chalkboard Beer Series features a selection of limited releases and an equal number of large-format bottle offerings. The draft beers — some of the more unique and complex brews available from local, domestic and imported brewers — are selected monthly, while the bottles are limited, seasonal or hard-to-find rarities. Selections vary from location to location and are very limited. That will catch a malt fan’s eye and keep him returning.

Guests at Ruth’s Chris Steak House love the magical moment when this classic mint julep is prepared tableside, silver cup and all. Photo courtesy of ruth’s chris steak house.
Many restaurateurs are reluctant to get too involved in cocktails, knowing that the investment in time, training and equipment might not pay off. But customers increasingly expect quality cocktails to be part of the food and beverage mix, and they’re experiencing upgrades in most places they visit.

There are myriad ways to update a beverage program, but the easiest is to start by examining what you already sell. If your customers prefer the simple long drinks of spirits with mixers — Rum & Cola, Vodka Soda, Gin & Tonic, etc. — then consider adding creative twists.

For Rum & Cola, try a drink using two types of rum, or with a dash of bitters or interesting liqueur. Or consider building a short menu based on riffs on one well-known classic cocktail (without returning to the turn-of-the-century craze of offering 50 sweet Martinis). Operators have long been expanding their Margarita menus: adding expensive orange liqueur rather than inexpensive rail brands; using 100 percent blue agave tequila or aged varieties rather than blanco; or including the pricey añejo brands. This allows them to offer essentially the same recipe at a few different price points. They’ve also incorporated fruit flavors, not only in blender programs but also with hand-shaken drinks using fresh fruit or fruit juices.

Flavor can also be incorporated by introducing limited-time seasonal fruit flavors, or by adding syrups or purées to the classic mix. Mezcal is now gaining traction, so a variant made with half or all mezcal instead of tequila — or just a mezcal float — makes sense. Sweet-flavored salts might be played out, but smoked salt is another on-trend twist, as is the lower-calorie variation that employs agave syrup instead of liqueur.

Similarly, take the Manhattan. It’s a three-ingredient drink, really: rye whisky, sweet vermouth and bitters. Personal preference varies, but the classic is made with two parts rye to one vermouth. Replace half the sweet vermouth with dry and you have a Perfect Manhattan. At home, I introduce a fig-enhanced French aperitif wine to the mix, but any of the dozens of fortified or aromatized wines can be added in place of or in addition to the vermouth (in proper proportions) to make a fine drink. There are dozens of variants with fanciful names using these and other ingredients in cocktail annals, some without bitters, some in different proportions. But the point is, you can make a Manhattan variant easily with these wines, with Italian Amaros, or some sweet and popular cocktail modifiers like Benedictine, Tuaca or limoncello.

Selling house specialties like these may require a helping hand, which is what makes the efforts of the three-unit, Maine-based Buck’s Naked BBQ steakhouse interesting. Their specialty drinks (for example, Margarita Gone Wild made with fresh juices, and Yabba Dabba 5PM, a mix of iced tea, lemonade and vodka) are listed with suggested food pairings directly adjacent to the barbecue menu page.

It reminds us that few things sell themselves, and that relying on consistent customer behavior without noting their changing tastes and preferences is a lazy way to do business. And especially in such hyper-competitive times, doing more of the same will soon yield less.


About The Author

Jack Robertiello

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