Cameron Mitchell Restaurants, based in Columbus, Ohio, operates a dozen restaurants in that city, as well as 13 Ocean Prime steak-and-seafood locations across the country.
Ryan Valentine, director of beverage and operating partner, and Andrea Hoover, beverage operations manager, recently discussed the evolution of the company’s cocktail, wine and beer programs, as well as the changing demands of its customers.
Let’s talk about millennials and beverages. Are they still enjoying sweet wine?
Ryan Valentine: We are still selling a lot of Moscato [a sweet varietal], but rosé is the one that’s all over everybody’s restaurant. Watch out for rosé Champagne: People love bubbles, and the rosés are more interesting [than white Champagnes].
I never thought Moscatos would get as big as they did, but what I love about millennials is that there’s no pattern to what they do or how they think. So it’s fun.
People my age, we find brands or varietals and spirits that we like, and we have this life allegiance to them. What I like about [millennials] is that if you work really hard on different parts of your beverage program, they’ll come in and appreciate all of it. They’ll come in and drink beer one night, then they’ll come in and drink cocktails, and the next night they’ll drink wine. And they’ll bounce around between real inexpensive wine and then they might buy some expensive [wine].
Valentine: I think it’s more meeting their interests. They’re coming in and looking for things both on the food side and the beverage side. So it’s an opportunity to make a point of differentiation.
If two places have a great steak, maybe one place’s sangria or margarita is so good [that it makes them choose that restaurant over the other].
I think we’re trying to meet the range of their interests.
Andrea Hoover: With millennials, when they have the story of what we do and who we are and we establish that trust, then anything’s game.
Is there an example of a drink you introduced in recent years that if you had done it 10 years ago people would have ignored it?
Valentine: Eight years ago we couldn’t have given away a punch, but now we change them seasonally and if we don’t bring the bourbon one back in the fall, they get upset. That’s when you can tell that people are changing. To have people come to a restaurant for a certain food item has historically happened, but for them to clamor for a specific drink, that’s much more rare.
If you’re not thinking in terms of having a destination beverage program, you’re in enormous trouble, because that’s a huge part of people’s expectations now. It better be dynamic, and it better be changing.
When we started doing fresh cocktails 11 years ago, it wasn’t a very crowded game. Now everyone’s in it, and it’s spinning so much faster. Now we’re seeing sherry, last year it was amaro. All the ingredients that keep fueling all the diversity, it’s crazy, but it makes it dynamic, and it means the guest can keep coming back and finding new things, so it’s fun from that standpoint.
How do you conduct research into what’s trendy?
Hoover: I follow bartenders globally on Instagram. From that I just try to catch any trend I can from what I see. I mean, Columbus is coming along, but getting all that exposure at your fingertips is pretty sweet.
How do you translate those specialty cocktails into the high-volume business that you need to do?
Hoover: Initially, when you start working in the mixology world you think seven-, eight-ingredient cocktails are kosher, and then you realize there’s a way to do the prep. So in this current round [of cocktail development], I’m trying to spend extra time on making complex syrups or taking three modifying spirits and instead of adding a quarter ounce of each one [when the cocktail is ordered] I can put them together [ahead of time].
Valentine: Sometimes we see things that are too early in some markets. It sounds great to be a pioneer, but you can’t pioneer too far out. We want to be the first to do the coolest thing, but right when they’re ready for it.
When we opened the first Ocean Prime [in 2006], there was a little Laphroaig [a smoky tasting single malt scotch] in the margarita. That smokiness — it was just too early. Nine out of 10 got sent back. But now you can sell mezcal [a smoky agave-based spirit].
Back then if you said something was spicy, customers would say they wanted it, then they’d try it and they’d push it back. They didn’t want the heat they said they wanted. Now, if you say it’s hot, it better be, because they’re ready for it.
At Ocean Prime, are the cocktails the same at each location?
Valentine: Close. We have roughly two that are specific to that market. For example, we knew that in Dallas tequila was probably going to be more popular than in Troy, Mich. But we have signature drinks that we want to make sure we have everywhere.
How many cocktails do you put on the menu?
Valentine: Eight, nine or 10. We feel like less is more — be great at less things and make sure they’re done really well. Because it’s not just the cocktail; it’s all the people who have to make it behind the bar, and then all the people who have to learn to talk about it and sell it and be excited about it. And the more you water it down with too many, the harder it is to sell.
How about wines by the glass?
Valentine: It ranges by concept, but I think the smallest we have is 20 — 10 white and 10 red, and we go into the 30s.
Are most of your wine sales by the glass?
Valentine: In numbers of orders, yes, but we sell a ton of bottled wine. That’s where the guests teach you things. At some locations they buy a glass of wine or beer and some meat loaf and they’re going to go home. At other restaurants we’ll have a larger wine list.
How about beer?
Valentine: Beer is a game-changer these days. It’s not a big seller at most of our concepts. We’re under 3 percent as a total company for beer sales.
That’s an opportunity.
Valentine: We were slow to put draft systems in, really because we were a young company and it cost a lot to do it. But we went back to Cap City [Fine Diner & Bar], our original restaurant, and put eight handles in, [and we’re putting them in the rest of our restaurants]. People want draft beer, they want local beer, they want seasonal beer, but you also have to be smart. You can over-craft, over-local, over-seasonal. If you’re all craft, what are you doing to the Bud Light guy? He’s still alive, and there’s 86 of them out of 100 people. [The Brewers Association currently puts the Craft Beer market at around 12 percent of national sales.] You better be paying attention to every detail, and if you don’t, people notice.