Skip navigation
Liquid Gold

Liquid Gold

Despite the recession, your patrons are still thirsty. How can you get them to drink with you?

BLUE PLATE RESTAURANT COMPANY, which this year will open its seventh restaurant in the Minneapolis-St. Paul market, is selling a lot of wines by the glass at all price points, despite the economy. The company installed wine preservation systems at three of its locations, which allows the restaurants to break that out-of-reach $90 bottle into a more approachable $30 quartino, or about 1.5 glasses. “In this economy, people might not be ordering the most expensive entrée, but they are still drinking. This is a little luxury,” says Stephanie Shimp, v.p. of marketing.

Blue Plate and other operators have figured out how to pry customers' wallets open a little wider for beverages, even as those customers are economizing elsewhere. How do they do it? Let us count the ways.

  1. Serve It With a Twist

    Home-grown herbs, house-made syrups and other distinctive ingredients help create an impression and demonstrate your passion for beverages. In Austin, TX, Sagra Italian Trattoria mixologist Mason Popp doubles as a greenhouse tender, where he grows herbs for drinks like the Basilco, a basil ginger martini, and Pera Rosmarino, a pear rosemary martini. “Any time he's on the shift we sell more, because there is a good back story to it,” says chef/owner Gabriel Pellegrini. And those $12 martinis yield a nice profit, since intensely flavored fresh-cut herbs can be combined with less-expensive liquor.

    Chapter One: The Modern Local, which opened earlier this year in Santa Ana, CA, has sold a lot of Moscow Mules, a mix of house-made ginger beer, lime and Russian vodka. “Not only is it more green-friendly and economical, but the bright, spicy taste of the ginger beer is exponentially better than any canned version I have ever had,” says Jeff Hall, one of the owners.

  2. Measure Twice, Pour Once

    Without standards, you may see bar profits and quality slip when servers get sloppy about pours and recipes. At Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore, bar manager Corey Polyoka is a stickler for using jiggers and following standards for various drinks. He also thinks appropriate glassware is essential, and not just for aesthetic or taste reasons. “Make sure you offer the drink in the correct glass size so you do not feel like you have to fill up ‘empty’ space,” he says. “If you give bartenders this option they are likely to overpour and overserve your guests.”

    Following recipes is also important if you have a regular crowd. “Our big focus is on consistency in recipes,” says John Metz, executive chef and partner at Marlow's Tavern, a seven-unit Atlanta-area chain. “We do pour testing on every shift, every day.” It's especially important in a restaurant like Marlow's, where the beverage menu changes with each season.

    Managers and bartenders at Blue Plate Restaurants are trained to understand how crucial the right tools, clean and appropriate glassware and washed fruit for garnishes and mixes can be to the finished product. “This is really basic stuff, but when you are only working with a small number of ingredients, you can't make mistakes. When the ingredients speak for themselves, you need to focus on quality,” Shimp notes.

  3. Location, Location, Location

    People can drink anywhere, including at home. What are you doing to create an inviting scene? “Our bar is not just a place to wait for your table. It's a destination,” says Drew Peterson, corporate beverage director for SushiSamba, with seven restaurants across the U.S., one in Tel Aviv and another set to open later this year in London. The bars at SushiSamba are on the small side, and they are integrated into the larger space, which contributes to the scene feeling. The drinks themselves are a big factor in the festive vibe: Peterson says it's common to see patrons using their cellphones to photograph their dramatic drinks, or themselves holding said drinks. Why? Something as simple as dramatic garnishes. The company has earmarked a substantial amount to keep its bars stocked with fresh fruit and organically grown herbs for muddling and garnishes.

    This summer, Applebee's is positioning itself as a Girls' Night Out option via a customizable invitation on the chain's Facebook fan page. The promotion encourages groups to upload photos from their events; those getting the most votes receive $50 gift cards for the restaurant.

  4. Add a Splash of New

    One of Concentric Restaurants's Atlanta concepts, One. Midtown Kitchen, spotlights rare wines as “nightly pours.” The wines may have a smaller profit margin, but they generate greater interest. “We are actually running higher costs than we did when we had a fourth tier (wines priced at four levels), which the nightly pour program replaced,” says g.m. John McDaniels. “The positive is that we are moving more product, so we are generating higher sales. The guests' interests and sense of value have also been enhanced greatly.”

    Offering guests a taste of something is a way to engage them and promote a sense of ownership. “Give them a taste of something expensive of something they may have never tried before, and get them excited about dining and drinking again,” Hall advises. “I have made some of my best regulars by just spending that extra second to just talk with the customer.”

    Brennan's of Houston has found that sampling builds loyalty as well. “If someone is interested in rye, scotch, bourbon, etc. I try to get them to taste a ‘little spoon,’ explaining how it is different from their ‘usual,’” says Richard Middleton, bar manager. “This usually leads me to a product sale with a broadened experience for the guest. When returning guests ask me to bring on something new for them, I know that we are working in sync to make a great experience for them with each visit.”

  5. Spin a Tale 

    “People are looking for something different, something new, something with a story behind it,” says Casey Longton, manager at Hoyt's Chicago, a modern American tavern in Chicago's Hotel 71. The cocktail menu includes standards, but a number of choices reflect pre-Prohibition recipes and incorporate elements, such as egg whites, fresh herbs and esoteric liqueurs that are less familiar. Between that and the variety of muddled fresh ingredients (cucumbers, blueberries, watermelons), “people are blown away,” Longton says. “It's really about the story and selling the story.” One of the top sellers is a Cruzan Rum Sour, made from rum, drunken berries (marinated in Grand Marnier), fresh sour mix and berry fizz, served in a Mason jar.

    At Sustain Restaurant + Bar, which opened in Miami last December, the bar program also centers around pre-Prohibition-style cocktails. “We tweak them a little using small batch production spirits and local seasonal ingredients, house-made bitters and fresh juices. Our focus is on craftsmanship and bringing out what we do in the restaurant,” says owner Brian Goldberg. Examples include Pearly Gates, a mix of Tanqueray gin, Solerno, Cocchi Americano, lemon, crème de violette and blossom; and the 1933, which incorporates Compass Box Orangerie, Cherry Heering, Dolin Rouge, egg white, lemon and Angostura bitters.

    Cedars Social in Dallas offers a list of tribute cocktails — recipes collected from famous watering holes around the country. “I call it the liquid vacation,” says owner Michael Martensen. Guests can order a drink and imagine they are sitting in San Francisco or New York.

    Peter Meemalayath, a wine director for Palm Restaurant Group in Los Angeles, says restaurant guests feel the same way about wine — they love to try new things — and many welcome help from the server or sommelier. He has developed a page of sommelier selections with notes explaining them and discussing each wine's history; it runs as part of the wine list.

  6. Choose, Use Product Wisely

    If you can plan and forecast your needs, alcoholic beverage supplies are the perfect candidates for volume purchasing, which can help lower costs. “You can save a considerable amount of money ordering monthly on well bottles instead of every week,” observes Josh Pearson, head bartender at Sepia in Chicago.

    Chapter One's bar staff uses liqour reps' promo bottles to pour comp drinks and to experiment with fresh fruit and spice infusions. That way, “when you figure out an infusion that compliments the spirit, not only are you able to sell it, but you are able to get a premium return on it,” Hall says.

    Look beyond profit margins when deciding what to add to your beverage menu. Local craft beers might cost more, but if fans of those beers seek you out because of them, you might sell more.

    At Blackbird in Chicago, chief mixologist Lynn House thinks strategically about what goes on the beverage menu. “It's important when building a list to have a few cocktails with low production costs,” she notes. “Nowadays many spirit companies will give you special pricing if you use their product in a feature cocktail. I listen to the deals out there and take advantage of the ones that make sense for me.” House also shops for ingredients already in the restaurant's kitchen when designing drinks.

  7. Got Gimmick? 

    In Plano, a Dallas suburb, owner Nathan Shea installed a 32-foot-long bar made of ice as a conversation piece in a rooftop lounge at his restaurant Urban Crust. Patrons can order a drink at the bar, which doubles as a cooling mechanism. The bar is outfitted with an ice tap that dispenses four different beverages, including Patron and Jagermeister, at 5 degrees. Beer from another tap pours at 32 degrees.

    “People come up to see the ice bar, and they stay for other things,” Shea says. He admits that the ice bar required a substantial investment, but says the money was well-spent.

    Blue Plate goes beyond equipment like a beer engine and wine-keeping system to boost sales. The group also stages clever promotions--beer and zinfandel dinners, discounts for arriving by skis or snowshoes, Plumber's Day celebrations — to drive sales. “We try to go out there a little bit,” Shimp admits. “You want your restaurant to be lively, fun and happening. It gives people something to talk about.”

  8. Think About Your Theme

    SushiSamba has a lively bar scene, thanks in part to an ever-evolving cocktail menu and drinks that infuse the classic flavors of Brazil, Peru and Japan. The chain relies on sake, shochu and emerging liquor brands to help establish an exotic vibe that compliments the menu.

    “I don't need the help of Grey Goose to sell vodka,” says Peterson. Instead, he likes to offer guests an unusual combination, which sometimes requires servers and bartenders to explain a new product. Besides establishing an identify for SushiSamba, using less-familiar ingredients has a more tangible upside. “Those sales happen to be at a better profit margin because some of those products are not as well known,” Peterson says.

  9. When Training, Raise the Bar

    If you want your drinks to command premium prices, intensive training is a must. Ideally, your bar staff can not only mix and pour drinks, beer and wine properly and suggest appropriate beverages. You have also armed them with enough knowledge to explain those beverages to the guest and assure them, when needed, that the high price is justified.

    It's a mistake to ignore the importance of the waitstaff when it comes to training. “When I do a new menu, I make sure to do a tasting with the staff, I type up notes and hand them out. It is important that the waitstaff is just as informed about what goes on behind the bar as they are about the wine list or the chef's menu. Knowledge is power and that translates into sales,” says Blackbird's House.

    At Hubbard Inn, which opened in Chicago's River North neighborhood earlier this year, the affluent young clients can choose from $10 handcrafted cocktails in two categories that underscore their complexity: A Couple of Minutes or A Few Minutes. The former category includes numbers like the English Daisy (Don Julio Resposado, lime juice, English lavender elixir); the latter, The Blinker (Templeton Rye, Cynar, lime juice and grapefruit juice).

    Getting bar patrons to try something new is an art that can be learned. If you stock some less-familar brands, that gives your bar and waitstaff an opportunity to introduce guests to something new, which has the potential for future loyalty. “You create your own new guests and make your restaurant a destination,” says Hall. “This only works when you train your staff and give them the tools and information to be a limo driver, and not just a taxi driver.”