Posted on | March 1, 2011
Written by | Alia Akkam
The chain restaurant: it beckons to us from unfamiliar streets. Numerous restaurants thrive on surprise and intrigue, but the one that’s part of a branded chain attracts customers—perhaps not for cutting-edge preparations, but for welcoming familiarity and reliable quality. For this reason, a table tent bearing the image of a slushy cocktail reminiscent of spring break or encouraging the sale of generic house wine pours, has been a familiar sight. Not anymore.
Some chains have had the foresight to swap mixes for fresh ingredients long before it became commonplace, or offer a well-rounded wine list. Yet barraged by a flood of exciting mixology and wine trends, the average chain customer is shifting priorities. They want to sample the flavors and styles they’re hearing so much buzz over, and neither a frozen daiquiri pumped out of a machine nor the same old bottle of Chardonnay will suffice. The best part? Chains are responding with ambitious beverage offerings. An empowered chain consumer, one who converts to a new drink in a comfortable setting they trust, means the next time they’re at your restaurant they’ll be primed to experiment and trade up.
A DRINK BEFORE DINNER
“When you find a chain that is a good match for your brand it can be a fantastic opportunity to showcase inspiring cocktails that allow many consumers to try something new, connecting with the brand in a way they wouldn’t at home,” notes Joel Selesnick, Pernod Ricard USA’s national account manager, Northeast. Selesnick says PRUSA has had particularly good luck in the chain realm with its Absolut and Malibu brands, which, for example, are featured in the apple daiquiri at Legal Seafoods developed by Tad Carducci of Tippling Brothers. At Ocean Prime, a Cameron Mitchell restaurant, the “Oxygen,” another Carducci creation with Absolut Berry Açai, Plymouth gin, muddled white grapes, fresh basil and lemon is a success, presenting a modern alternative to the gin & tonic.
It’s a particularly good time in our industry to engage the chain demographic, Selesnick believes, because the role of the bar in these environments has been altered. “I think what has happened is that many chains now embrace the bar, and instead of looking at it as a place for guests to wait as their table becomes available, it is an important part of the overall experience. This change has allowed guests to feel more comfortable and at ease in trying new drink concepts or, more importantly, modern expressions of classic cocktail concepts.”
Tylor Field, VP of wine and spirits at Morton’s The Steakhouse, sees the clientele at his restaurants making exciting beverage choices with ease. “There’s a younger generation populating the bar,” he points out, “and they’re becoming more educated,” whether it’s not settling for anything less than a quality margarita or trying a caipirinha. To help meet this demand, each year Morton’s dreams up a new signature cocktail program, like the recent “Heavenly” series featuring custom foams.
At Hard Rock Café, worldwide beverage director, Cindy Busi, says the key to helping customers make more adventurous choices is providing “them with a drink selection they could not easily make at home. The average guest won’t necessarily go to the store and purchase basil, mint, raspberries and coconut to make just one drink.” However, when these guests are in the restaurant, “they expect a wide selection and want a memorable experience.”
A memorable experience has never been hard to find at T.G.I. Friday’s, known for its entertaining bartenders who have mastered tricks à la Tom Cruise in Cocktail. Yet George Barton, VP beverage and bar innovation concept team, Carlson Restaurants/T.G.I. Friday’s, hardly relies on flare skills to drive interest. “Our Ultimate cocktails, premium size with premium liquors, are definitely what guests look for on our menu—drinks like our Ultimate Long Island Iced Tea and Ultimate Margarita,” he notes. “In the last few years, tableside Shakers have become an important part of our menu. Our guests enjoy the tableside service of cocktails like the ‘Tropical Berry Mojito Shaker’ and ‘Patrón Cosmo ‘Rita Shaker.’ This T.G.I. Friday’s ‘theater’ so to speak is what makes us famous with our drink heritage in casual dining.” Fun new cocktails like “The Pink Punk Cosmo,” made with Smirnoff and a fluff of cotton candy and the “Diddy Up” with Cîroc and Red Bull have, according to Barton, exceeded sales expectations.
“EXCUSE ME, IS THAT LEMON JUICE FRESHLY SQUEEZED?”
Charles Steadman, a Palm Beach, FL-based bartender and consultant who developed forthcoming drinks for the Buffalo Wild Wings Grill & Bar chain, recently found himself in Chili’s. Taking a peek at the drink menu, he noticed a push for the “Fresh Margarita” with fresh lime juice. “In the past, cocktails have devolved from fresh, homemade components to bottled and canned juices. Nowadays, they are evolving again with more bartenders bringing back that fresh component to a cocktail,” he says.
The trend has crystallized. Fresh fruit is the cornerstone of Hard Rock Café’s cocktail program, and Busi says there is wide appeal for the tropical-inspired concoctions because they are made from scratch. “Visiting a Hard Rock is a little like taking a vacation and getting that permission slip to try something new,” she muses.
Last year, Barton notes that after T.G.I. Friday’s guests sought out fresh ingredients, the chain responded by updating its margarita mix. Like the sprig of basil in the “Triple Berri Passion” fresh herbs began to make an appearance to boot.
Morton’s had the prescience to get on board with fresh juices five years ago, and Field reiterates the importance of preparing a cocktail à la minute: “The rules have changed for the better. The standard was a chemical-tasting mix and soda gun, and now we’ve brought the kitchen to the bar.”
Mary Melton, P.F. Chang’s director of beverage, echoes Field, recalling how the conversion to fresh-squeezed juice was the first sign cocktail menus were changing in the right direction. Each of her bars squeezes fresh juice and uses the likes of pure cane sugar simple syrup. “Gone are the days of the mixer,” she assures.
Beyond the obvious, that both customers and bartenders have become savvier, Steadman says freshness has become a primary focus for additional reasons: “Liquor companies want to be on top of this wave and deliver a drink with their product(s) that has impact. And, recent economic events have shown that restaurants can focus on a beverage program while maintaining the brand integrity to generate higher revenues and have a better bottom line.”
KEEP THE SKINNY PANTS ON
Bethenny Frankel’s Skinnygirl Margarita made waves last year for the calorie-conscious set that likes to entertain at home. But chain bars are certainly capitalizing upon the interest. This month, The Cheesecake Factory will launch a menu of 150 calories-or-less “Skinny-style Cocktails” based on the chain’s five most popular libations. After conducting several tests last year, T.G.I. Friday’s decided to unveil a Skinny Margarita and Skinny Blackberry Margarita. This new approach to making cocktails is also popping up in the bars of hotel chains. Francesco Lafranconi, Southern Wine & Spirits of America’s national director of mixology, who has lent his expertise to Morton’s, recently created a range of cocktails for Westin Hotels and Resorts. Based on the SuperFoodsRX series of books, the drinks featured ingredients like blueberries, ginger, green tea and honey.
At Applebee’s guests embrace the low-cal trend by ordering a “Skinny Bee Margarita” made with Hornitos Reposado premium Tequila, or a “Skinny Mojito” with Cruzan Light Rum. “We have seen a spike in awareness in our brands that are carried and promoted at Applebee’s,” shares Kevin Ruff, VP, national accounts, on-premise at Beam Global Spirits & Wine. “A great example is the ‘Skinny Bee.’ This promotion has helped to expose Hornitos to thousands of new consumers.”
Busi says there’s now a focus on “better-for-me” options at Hard Rock Cafés, too: “Any drink we serve that is made with sweet & sour can now be lightened up for a lower-cal version. Additionally, we are using coconut water as an alternative to soda or juice.”
DRINK LIKE A LOCAL
Bud, Miller and Coors will always pull their weight at the chain bar, but ignoring the popularity of craft brews would be a mistake. Busi sees them on the rise and this year is launching a locals menu where Hard Rock Cafés will have the opportunity to focus on brews made close to home. “We are seeing that like great wine, guests are now starting to experiment with all types of beer, and are more open to a wide variety of flavor profiles,” she says.
At Smashburger, beer sales are just another way for the chain to leverage its devotion to “creating more burger occasions in the marketplace,” says founder Tom Ryan. Instead of forcing guests to stand in line again if they crave a second frosted mug of beer, the pragmatic beer bucket, holding two to four beers that stay ice cold at the table, comes to the rescue. Along with the big national brands and a few imports, Smashburger also offers craft beers customized to each local market. “There’s not a market we go to where it’s difficult to find some great tasting local beers, which is important to Smashburger because our brand positioning is to become every city’s favorite place for a burger,” explains Ryan.
BEYOND RED AND WHITE
Morton’s moves a lot of wine. Its core program features 225 selections; the manager at each unit has the opportunity to tweak it based on local market preferences. “In Miami, you’ll see a lot more Spanish and Argentine wines,” Field points out. “In the Northwest, more Oregon Pinot Noir.”
Melton is gearing up to introduce a new wine list at P.F. Chang’s locations in April. While she likes to feature favorites including Kendall Jackson and Beringer, she also incorporates up-and-coming varietals such as Albarino and Grenache. “Sales numbers show that customers see these as fun additions,” she points out.
The chain customer demographic is a coveted one. “Chains have the power to introduce customers to new experiences. They have a larger audience, bigger advertising and a stronger presence in the market,” notes Steadman.
“Brands are built on-premise, and national account restaurants, are very important ‘display windows’,” adds Southern’s Lafranconi.
Beam’s Ruff agrees: “Today’s chain consumers are desirable because they are socially active, travel and entertain frequently. They will ask for our brands on many occasions and share their drink experiences with friends and family.”
Bold changes aside, the chain can never forget its value-driven audience. T.G.I. Friday’s reinforces this with its $3 beer, $4 wine, $5 drink and $6 premium initiative, highlighting monthly selections. “This program has allowed us to offer great products at a real value price and gauges our guests’ interests to help determine what we will offer next,” shares Barton.
In addition to the standard wine list, P.F. Chang’s became the first national chain to create a wine bag-in-box when it rolled out Vineyard 518 Sauvignon Blanc and a Syrah blend last May. Unlike a typical private label, P.F. Chang’s has control over the winemaking process. And by saving money on bottling costs with its eco-friendly packaging, Melton says they are able to pass down the value to guests.
Morton’s draws in bar crowds with its more casual 12-21 lounge experience. “To make a bar relevant you have to make it a little different conceptually,” Field notes.
Creativity, variety and value among chains will continue to encourage customers to confidently endorse and promote new drinking experiences once they’re through with dinner. But the real success of a chain beverage program circles back to the main reason they hold such appeal nationwide: consistency.