Why do restaurants that change their food menus regularly resist the slightest alteration in their beverage offerings? It’s a question that drives many beverage professionals crazy, especially those charged with interpreting the constant innovation going on in the beverage world and aligning menus with evolving consumer desires. But whether driven by fear, irresistible supplier deals or just plain inertia, American restaurants in general can’t be credited with an excess of beverage experimentation, despite the activities of some operations at the fringe.
Yet certain trends are applicable to all types of operations and can be adapted by chains and independent restaurants alike. Basic, sometimes commoditized, programs can be transformed into a set of offerings that can attract the changing tastes of Millennials—predicted to be the most important target consumer group for years to come.
Give Beer a Chance
No longer is there any excuse for serving the same beers year after year without making changes based on seasonality, consumer trends or the opportunity to feature new flavors. At a time when the American beer drinker is presented with the greatest array of choices imaginable, carrying only the top five or 10 best-selling beers doesn’t set an operation apart; it invites unwelcome comparisons to what’s available at convenience stores.
“The average consumer now knows something about beer, so you just can’t fake it anymore,” says beer writer and consultant Stephen Beaumont. “You don’t have to learn everything, but just getting a basic book and reading to get an idea of what beer styles are about is very important. You don’t want your customers to know more than you do.”
Creating a selection of different styles—Pilsner, IPA, porter, stout, pale ale—doesn’t mean a restaurant needs obscure beers. There’s no need to be all things to all people, but variety is essential. Retailers have learned that the beer aficionado knows through social media to the day when a new seasonal brew is released, so incorporating these popular limited time offerings is a smart place to start. However, various styles mean just one seasonal isn’t enough. In summer, for instance, a lighter bodied wheat beer plus a radler or shandy is about the minimum required. Radler, a style of beer popular in Europe now emerging in the United States, calls for the addition of lemon juice or other citrus juice or soda to a lager beer, although many brewers are now bottling their own. Those with draft beer should consider rotating a new brew each month, focusing on refreshing and crisp in summer, robust and spicy in fall, earthy and dark in winter, and floral and aromatic in spring.
Beaumont notes that profit should motivate the average operator. Craft typically promises a higher ring and margin, and is more likely to attract new customers, especially Millennials who are demanding something special when drinking out.
Once an operation gets used to taking on limited time offerings, adding ciders—which are increasingly popular, especially with female consumers—will help you discover if that category is a fit with your guests.
Including beer and food pairings on your menu, especially when featuring specials, is perhaps the easiest way to market the beers you serve. Like with wine, many restaurant operators don’t have the expertise to make these beer decisions, but chances are someone on staff will be willing to take on the task to let loose their own beer geekery.
Make Interesting Drinks
Not every operation is suited to a 20-drink craft cocktail menu. But being aware of customer preferences and industry trends will allow an operation to be more secure about incorporating the new or unusual.
Three years ago, no one would have predicted the surge in interest in moonshine. But Outback Steakhouse last year started planning for such a possibility, and this summer launched a limited-time moonshine promotion, bringing on a hot category for a test drive and integrating moonshine-related changes in the food menu. The Moonshine BBQ Menu includes three cocktails: Huckleberry Hooch, with blackberry-flavored moonshine, muddled berries, orange, pineapple and cranberry juice; Watermelon Hunch Punch, with blackberry moonshine, watermelon and lemonade; and Just Peachee, made with peach moonshine.
“A lot of consumers don’t know what moonshine is, and might think of it as something that’s harsh to drink,” says Patty Victorino, vice president of product marketing for Outback Steakhouse. “But the flavored varieties we used were very easy to mix with fruit juices and easy for our guests. It’s about bold but approachable flavors—if you go too far from what they know that might keep them from trying a moonshine cocktail.” Outback already serves some of its drinks in Mason jars, so the humble presentation fits the chain perfectly, as do the drinks—new, yet familiar and easy to understand.
Making a drink menu seasonal doesn’t require a wholesale overhaul, although some of the best cocktail-focused bars do that a few times per year. For the average bar, introducing a few new drinks for a limited time is one of the best ways to keep things fresh for your customers and to introduce them to new trends.
Other modes are simpler: bringing in fresh seasonal produce, including locally sourced pickled items, to spice up existing cocktails. In Chicago, MK’s spring cocktail menu included the Ramp Olsen, a martini-style gin and vermouth drink with a pickled ramp garnish. Its Early Harvest, made with gin, apricot liqueur, and carrot, lemon and ginger juices, was garnished with a baby spring carrot.
Brunch offers enormous experimental opportunity, especially with light and sparkling cocktails that can be enhanced with a rotating list of fresh fruit and vegetables. Low alcohol in general offers much opportunity, including high ring and repeat sales, as well as culinary promise. In New York City, the just-opened Bacchanal, with a bar program headed up by Naren Young, has opted for a cocktail menu of roughly 50 percent aperitif drinks, meant to open the evening. The lower alcohol cocktail makes great business sense: Customers can order more without worrying about possible overconsumption; they may be more inclined to eat while sipping appetizing drinks; and a wealth of lower alcohol ingredients get more play. Young has put a White Negroni on tap, and uses a variety of common and rare vermouths and Sherrys, maraschino liqueur, verjus and other ingredients usually kept as background notes rather than primary flavors.
Lower alcohol cocktails generally don’t require new ingredients, or not too many. Using fortified wines or amaro doesn’t mean you need to do classic cocktail research for authentic old-style drinks, especially if your customer base thinks Jerry Thomas plays for the Miami Heat. Lemonade, ginger beer, dry sodas, watermelon or coconut juice—add a few ounces of an amaro or maraschino or crème liqueur to one of those and a summer refresher is born. A number of restaurants, including Fish Bar in Chicago, have introduced a whole series of ginger beer-based mules, swapping in different spirits to order.
Update Your List
Gather 10 wine lists from the average mainstream restaurant and you’ll more likely than not find a plethora of California Cabernets, Chardonnays and Merlots, with perhaps a Sauvignon Blanc, a Malbec, and a Pinot Grigio thrown in. It’s a recipe for boredom, says Doug Frost, who consults with operations about improving their wine lists.
“I don’t say this to castigate California wines at all, but it’s mind-bogglingly boring to me to see a list that utterly predictable and 90 percent from that one region,” says Frost.
Frost points out what seems to be a reflexive reaction among those charged with creating wine lists in many restaurants: Make sure the best sellers are well represented, and don’t color outside the lines.
Diversifying your wine list is only the first step. Before tackling any wine service upgrade, an operator needs to plan out small and deliberate steps to make sure that the new wines fit well with the operation’s dishes, that the entire staff understand their purpose, origin and flavor profiles, and, crucially, that customer attention be brought to the wines and feedback sought out.
“People always cut corners there, and it’s really important that you take it one step at a time,” says Frost, pointing out that following through to make sure the staff understands the changes is crucial. He describes a former client where management enthusiastically embraced a new list per Frost’s recommendations, but declined a one-day training session in favor of distributing fact sheets, a method unlikely to do the job.
Another way to keep wine service lively is to offer wines in multiple serving sizes—different ounce pours, or small and large carafes. “If you can have a taste, it adds a sense of play that is very effective. People love options even if they ultimately just order a glass,” he says.
Frost also recommends seasonality as a way to tweak a list, the perfect example being rosé wines, which are back in vogue and now considered an essential part of spring and summer wine service. If an establishment can manage to bring in those light and refreshing pink wines when the weather is warm, there’s no reason the rest of the list can’t be altered as the seasons change to bring in fuller bodied whites and more robust reds as the weather cools.
Take Zero Proof Seriously
Walk into any convenience store and the array of selections will give you pause, especially if you recently visited a chain restaurant where the non-alcohol selection was limited to a few flavors of mass-market soda, iced tea, lemonade, maybe an Arnold Palmer, and coffee.
Besides leaving money on the table, the cardboard cut-out non-alcohol drink menu signals to customers that you care more about convenience than their widening taste profile. That attitude may not lose them as customers, but if they just order water, don’t blame them.
The best way to think about non-alcoholic items is as a support system for cocktail innovation; ginger beer, for example, has many applications in cocktails. Before taking on any new beverage, consider using it with beer, wine, spirits or another non-alcohol ingredient to create signature drinks.
Coconut water is seeing a surge in interest among health-conscious consumers. Known for its refreshing qualities, it can be served plain, with sparkling water, with syrups or lemonade or in long cocktails. Syrups will work in both iced and hot teas and coffees, and can enhance a drink. Try a margarita with a dash of pomegranate syrup, which can also be added to lemonade or ginger beer.
MK’s recent spring menu included adult-focused, non-alcoholic cocktails: Bitter Lemonade made with Fever-Tree Bitter Lemon, lemon juice and rosemary; and the Apricot Kick, made with honey-habanero syrup, ginger beer, apricot preserves and lemon juice. They are perfect examples of how a little thought and not much effort can turn a routine beverage into something special, flavorful and profitable, all at once.