Posted on | July 22, 2014
Written by | Jim Clarke
Lunchtime can be lonely for bartenders. Aside from a handful of solo diners, they spend more time polishing glasses and cutting fruit for their evening colleagues than earning tips from the clientele. For the restaurant, it’s a regrettable labor expense; for beverage managers, it’s a reminder that every lunch shift pulls down their numbers for the month.
“The three martini lunch is out of fashion for sure,” says Brad Nugent, wine director at Porterhouse New York in Manhattan. Nonetheless, Nugent has found other ways to build up his beverage sales midday. Porterhouse’s lunch prix-fixe menu has been attracting a mix of businesspeople and tourists, and the latter have proved eager to spend what they save on their food on wine—bottles in particular. Nugent was surprised. “With the $25 menu I was having servers verbal a special $8 glass of wine. I didn’t bring something on specially; I served the usual Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet for basically 50% off. That did okay. But bottle sales naturally picked up. In five years it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen.” His lunchtime tourist guests are often foreign, and eager to explore American wines in particular—even asking about offbeat varieties like Trousseau Gris.
Knowing your clientele is key. Ben Roberts, former wine director at Masraff’s in Houston, was well aware of who their most likely targets for alcohol sales were: “Ladies who lunch for sure, upper-management business folk, and foreign visitors. Middle-level managers and generic businesspeople rarely drink during lunch.” While Nugent’s success with bottle sales is a reminder not to underestimate a guest’s willingness to spend, Roberts’ experience at Masraff’s may be more typical. “At lunch the server shouldn’t try to push bottle service but rather focus on by-the-glass pairings with a specific dish,” he says. “Promotion of pairings or even allowing the server to drop off a little ‘taste’ of something on the sly will also oftentime promote a sale. Ordering a salad with goat cheese? Suggest a Sancerre. Dover sole with beurre meuniere? Suggest a glass of Meursault.”
At L’Espalier in Boston, “Pairings are one of the best ways we sell alcohol at lunch,” says Beverage Director Lauren Collins. However, if her guests—mostly businesspeople and tourists—are “only” ordering by the glass, it’s because they want to stay sharp for the afternoon, not because they’re watching their wallets. “We had four different wine options by-the-glass in the $45-50 range. At lunch they sell better than at dinner.” The success of the pricey offerings at lunch was a surprise.
Lunchtime sales become that much more important when it’s the only thing you’ve got. Cathy Mantuano is the beverage director at Terzo Piano, in the same building as the Art Institute of Chicago; aside from Thursdays and special occasions, the restaurant is only open for lunch. For Mantuano, building sales starts with creating the right environment, reminding guests they are in a restaurant, not a café, despite the museum location. “The bright white interior makes the dining experience very friendly and upbeat. It creates the right setting.” Presentation gets similar attention: “Sparkling drinks in beautiful glassware catch people’s attention. And bottles of rosé.” Eye-pleasing drinks make people think about having something themselves regardless of time of day, but at lunch those cues can be even more important.
Her wine list is built accordingly. It favors affordable bubbles—Cava, Prosecco, pink sparkling wines—and domestic wines. Like Porterhouse, Terzo Piano sees lots of foreign tourists who are eager to taste American wines: “Not just from California, but Virginia, Washington and so on.” She also has a large proportion of half-bottles. “People really enjoy half-bottles at lunch, and our waiters are really good about recommending them.” Once guests order two glasses of the same wine, servers can suggest a half-bottle that’s similar, broadening the guests’ options and adding to their experience. In addition, half-bottles reassure guests who are wary about the freshness of by-the-glass wine. The challenge, says Mantuano, is finding the right 375s: “Sometimes the selection of half bottles is not the greatest. It’s mostly the usual suspects.”
Mantuano includes pithy, “fun” descriptions of all the wines on her list. She doesn’t print pairing suggestions on the menu, though; she believes it makes guests feel limited to that one option. She’d rather train her staff to create that conversation: “It’s the power of suggestion. People think, ‘you don’t drink at lunch,’ but if you make the suggestion, then it’s okay.” She also tells her servers, sales techniques, especially at lunch, are a numbers game, so they shouldn’t expect results every time—just try every time. Ben Roberts says server attitude is also important: “Especially at lunch, if the server creates a more light-hearted, fun atmosphere, the guest is more likely to relax and order a beverage.”
And that beverage, most likely, will be wine. The martini lunch is gone, and wine, according to Roberts, “is more likely to be seen as an accompaniment to a meal than either beer or spirits.”
However, there is another way your beverage program can impress a guest. “Non-alcoholic beverages work really well at lunch,” says Nugent. “It highlights something else you can do, and it looks good on the table.” So-called mocktails are regular lunchtime sellers at Porterhouse. At Terzo Piano, the chef and head bartender collaborate, using fresh herbs and spices to create housemade sodas.
Non-alcoholic drinks call attention to the beverage program even when guests aren’t indulging. They also give the guest an experience they can’t have elsewhere…and give your bartender something to do besides cut lemons.