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Trendspotting at the Bar

Sweet Blackberry Texas Tea (foreground), made with muddled blackberries, sweet tea vodka and raspberry liqueur, is Black Angus Steakhouse’s signature take on the Long Island Iced Tea. Photo courtesy of black angus steakhouse. Chain drink menus showcase fresh and fruity cocktails, “skinny” sips, craft beers and South American wines
By Jack Robertiello

While the trends at play in cutting-edge bars and restaurants often signal what’s next on the menus of multi-unit operations, change is slow. After all, what most restaurant-goers want is mainly something refreshing, recognizable and satisfying. But when a tipping point finally is reached and a hot, new fad becomes a trend, many operators make the shift.

With trends in cocktails, lately that means more fresh ingredients; with beers, more craft selections; and with wines, the emergence of South American varieties, especially Malbec.

Most contemporary bartenders insist on making drinks exclusively with fresh ingredients — squeezed, pureed or otherwise produced in-house. It’s taken awhile, but more programs with many units see the wisdom in going fresh.

“At Kimpton, we allow the restaurants to be very individualistic,” says the chain’s master mixologist, Jacques Bezuidenhout, “but we’re very much into fresh cocktails in our program, for instance, squeezing our own lemons and limes for fresh sour.”

With 50 restaurants operating in its hotels, Kimpton operations vary, but at bars like Sable Kitchen + Bar in cocktail-centric Chicago, a menu of dozens of cocktails created with house-made bitters and cordials requires that all the lime, lemon and orange juice be fresh. Bezuidenhout notes that fresh is so common in some operations that customers are pushing for more organic ingredients, but he says price and supply considerations are a major hurdle, at least today.

Operational efficiency is also an issue as the number of fresh ingredients grows at multi-unit operations, a problem that Ryan Valentine, director of beverage and operating partner of the 30-plus Cameron Mitchell Restaurants units, has tackled by making a partnership with the culinary side.

“We found that our bars are so busy that we can’t afford a disconnect with the customers,” Valentine says. Servers become reluctant to promote drinks that may take longer to make, since customers are increasingly rushed for time. “People don’t want to wait for 10 minutes for a cocktail.”

So he’s pulled back a little from the more-complicated, “speakeasy”-style drinks while maintaining a list of “complex, balanced and delicious cocktails” by turning prep of juices, purees and such ingredients as agave nectar spiced with star anise, cinnamon, vanilla and ginger over to the folks more accustomed to simmering sauces. As a result, drinks at Ocean Prime and other Cameron Mitchell operations retain high levels of flavor but are built more quickly and easily without sacrificing product consistency, a culinary byword.

Valentine, like Bezuidenhout, notes that drinks need to fit a concept’s culinary approach and be thematically consistent; for instance, the beverage programs at Mitchell’s Italian concepts include drinks made with house-made limoncello, Prosecco and such potable Italian bitters as Campari and Aperol.

Berries & Bubbles at Ocean Prime uses marinated blackberries and house-made sour in citrus vodka. At the 450-unit Red Robin Gourmet Burgers, a much more casual dining concept with a tradition of “fun” drinks, fresh has become an important component as well, according to Director of Beverages Jill Helmerick.

“We’re seeing a trend among our guests toward real fruit and drinks that are better for you. We feel it’s a step in the right direction, and our guests have told us they were looking for this.”

The chain established a menu section of “real fruit cocktails,” increased the use of fresh fruit garnishes, including pineapple and orange wedges, and uses fresh mint for mojitos and the newer play off the rum-based drink, the Strawberry Lemon Vojito, made with fresh strawberries and mint.

“Fresh is very, very important, and we’re looking at how we give cues that we are fresh focused,” she says.

Of course, one of the chain’s most successful non-alcohol drinks, the Freckled Lemonade, has long featured fresh chunks of strawberries, and the menu recently added a version made with vodka.

It’s not just fresh fruit and herbs that have surged in drink popularity; at every one of the seven Ocean Prime units, the Cucumber Gimlet is the first or second most popular drink, says Valentine. “If you told me 10 years ago that a drink on the menu with gin would be one of our best selling, I would have said it’s not possible,” says Valentine.

Helmerick has seen the Tiki drink resurgence resonate with her customers, so Red Robin has reemphasized its focus on tropical, as in the recently popular Tropical Mai Tai, made with dark and light rum, orange juice, orange curaçao, grenadine, and sweet and sour, served in a quirky Tiki mug.

She notes that fresh fruit cocktails are aligned in consumers’ minds with the search for healthier options, which can include the desire for more organic ingredients and even the “skinny” drink trend. It’s a course that the 17-unit Ram Restaurant & Brewery embraced last year in a limited-time offering that has taken off and helped spark the concept in other chains.

What spurred the chain on was a report from a regional exec about a new ritual appearing at some of the Ram Restaurant units: young women ordering tequila shots and glasses of water with limes muddled in them. The guests would then pour in low-calorie drink powders to create their own “skinny” Margaritas.

“This encouraged us to develop our own, since there wasn’t really anything in the marketplace that fit,” says Ram’s Director of Marketing and Beverage Promotions Mark Schermerhorn. Working with suppliers, the chain came up with a set of LTO drinks totaling fewer than 100 calories, including the Skinny Bacardi Mango Mojito, Skinny Cuervo Gold Margarita and Skinny Finlandia Cosmo Cooler. Low-calorie cranberry juice or Crystal Light mixes keep the calories down.

The drinks may have been launched as LTOs, but now they take pride of place on the menu and in store promotions, says Schermerhorn. It helped that Ram had long promoted a smaller-portion, “skinny” beer in a 13-ounce glass on the menu, so the concept was already part of the Ram culture; the same glasses are used for the skinny cocktails.

Red Robin has a similar alcohol-free, low-calorie menu section, with drinks under 10 calories, primarily iced teas made with peach or raspberry sugar-free syrups, and the chain is considering a program with alcoholic beverages.

For other operations, the modern chain classics — margaritas, martinis and mojitos — are still big, but they need occasional tweaking, according to Black Angus Steakhouse President/CEO Merry Taylor. “Our guests really resonate with new twists on the classics, something that interjects some fun into the cocktail.” Which explains such innovations as the Purple Gold Three-peat-arita; the L.A. Lakers-themed drink, offered during the NBA playoffs in the Los Angeles area, is made with a float of raspberry Chambord for color and flavor.

To mark the conversion of its lounge areas into a sports bar format called the BullsEye, Black Angus introduced other new cocktails but adhered to the beer-heavy sports concept with Mexican-style beer cocktails, one made with pineapple, jalapeño slices and lime juice, another a zesty Bloody Mary-style beer drink with seasoned tomato juice.

“We’ve had to go through an educational process for the cheladas, to let customers know what they are, but so far they have been successful,” she says.

Fresh fruit rules in Red Robin’s Strawberry Lemon Vojito and Tropical Mai Tai, new to the chain’s cocktail menu this spring. Photo courtesy of red robin. THE CRAFT BEER CRAZE
Few bars routinely offer beer cocktails, but there is a significant move among all levels of operations toward craft beers, the only consistently growing segment of the beer business.

“I firmly believe that there’s a culture of beer people, and if you don’t have a good beer selection, they won’t choose your place,” says Cameron Mitchell’s Valentine.

At the 12 pub-style Rusty Bucket units, the 35 or so craft beers are listed by style — porter, pale ale, IPA, stouts — to make it easier to navigate for the craft consumer, easily as knowledgeable about beer as most wine aficionados are about their favorite drink. “The person who loves IPAS wants to be able to shop IPAs,” says Valentine.

The surge in craft awareness helped inform the opening last year of Lot No. 3 by the Seattle-based Heavy Restaurant Group, says Director of Liquids Christene Prentice. Along with its Lot No. 3 concept, Heavy Restaurant Group consists of four Purple Café and Wine Bars and two Barrio Mexican Kitchen & Bars, all in Washington state.

With more than 50 beers, all but one of which are American craft brews, Prentice has stocked a variety of styles and flavor profiles to satisfy the geekiest of beer lovers.

“People are much more curious about the varieties of beers, and the staff is being asked so many questions from people who think that, for instance, if a beer is dark then it must be heavy. But they definitely want to try these different flavors,” says Prentice.

At the group’s Purple Cafés, craft beer success depends on location; the unit in Seattle showed more interest than the suburban shops. “Downtown, our customers already know what a double and a triple are,” says Prentice, “and they are asking for really cool beers.”

Finding the beers is easy enough, especially in the Pacific Northwest, though for other operations, sourcing is an issue.

“Our guests are definitely looking for more unique, regional and craft beers, but as a company we struggle to mandate any craft beer, due to limited availability,” says Helmerick, though the company supports local units’ efforts to stock crafts.

With wine, while trends are slow, Malbec has finally emerged as a customer favorite. In the Denver Ocean Prime, Malbec is the No. 1-selling pour. Other popular varietals there (two of the top five are Pinot Noirs and the only white is a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc) establish that this unit is unusual, says Valentine, but others also report a growing interest in the varietal.

“It’s been happening for awhile now, but Malbec is really strong for us. People will ask what we have in Malbec, and as a result I’ve put a Malbec flight on the menu, and it outsells Cabernet,” says Prentice.

Even Chilean Carmenere, perhaps due to the lower price, has proven popular lately, she says.

And Sangria, the much-maligned wine punch, has made a comeback at Cameron Mitchell and Black Angus restaurants, where they are big sellers. Black Angus sells its red sangria — made with pomegranate juice, citrus merlot and Patrón Citronge orange liqueur — year-round and is planning to introduce a white variety.

Even the return of stirred cocktail classics has trickled down to the general customer, says Bezuidenhout, and the Kimpton units have had good luck with Manhattan variants on many menus. Most surprising is the resurgence of the Negroni: “In some major markets it’s become big, something I never would have expected from consumers, but they are getting into it.”

In the contemporary world of instant media attention, focus on the new, the hot, the obscure and the unique ultimately drives fads to become legitimate trends that make their way onto mass-market menus. A look at  chain menus shows operators are keeping up with beverage trends by offering more fresh ingredients, artisan beers and good old-fashioned cocktail classics.


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About The Author

Jack Robertiello

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