By Jack Robertiello
It’s one of those things that uniformly cause restaurant consultants to shake their heads: the poor use of menus to promote beverage sales.
“We approach the menu as one of the bigger sales tools, whether it’s drink or food,” says Colleen Sisler, manager of creative services at restaurant consultancy iMi Agency. “Putting together a menu that’s informative, easy to read and nice to look at is probably the best tool you can have in your restaurant or bar.”
A beverage menu’s efficacy as a sales tool is undeniable. A survey last year conducted by Next Level Marketing of more than 500 restaurant customers who order alcoholic beverages showed that fewer than 30 percent typically know what they’re going to drink before arriving at a restaurant. And 90 percent look at beverage menus before ordering.
But beverage menus are more than sales tools; among other things, they can help create a much-needed point of differentiation. “One of the first things you try to do is differentiate yourself from others in your competitive set, and the cocktail menu is one major way to do that,” says Annie Akin, executive vice president of beverage consultants Patrick Henry Creative Promotions (PHCP). “Outside of the food menu and the physical design of the restaurant itself, it’s one of the most important marketing tools.”
But a cursory glance at many menus shows that some operators are missing the boat when it comes to employing perhaps the cheapest sales and marketing tool available. Inertia and an unwillingness to change are common, but not every change is difficult, and developing a beverage sales strategy that employs the menu can reap quick rewards.
Menus aren’t the only way a restaurant can tweak and stimulate beverage sales, however, so what follows are some suggestions as to how an operation can turn valuable menu real estate into more business, and hints on other best practices that might improve beverage sales.
PUT THE MENU TO WORK
Take a look at most restaurant beverage lists and you’ll find little evidence of pride in beer, wine, spirits or cocktails — something that runs counter to logic at every level.
“We would never make a guest guess at what we serve for food — why would you make a guest just call out what they want to drink?” wonders Glenn Schmitt, president of restaurant and menu consultancy MarkeTeam. “Beverages are the first and last thing most guests are likely to put into their mouths, and, ideally, a restaurant should present a drink menu to every guest, whether as a stand alone or as part of the main menu when they sit down.”
Schmitt suggests that, left without guidance, men will likely opt for a generic beer and women a glass of white wine, but both will be disappointed by the lack of guidance, originality and connection from the restaurant.
Consider a separate beverage menu that can be left at the table the moment guests are seated. If nothing else, it allows customers to unwind and consider how they want their dining occasion to proceed, and gives servers time to ramp up. This menu helps convey a concept’s niche, attitude or style — a large by-the-glass wine selection or a list of the day’s specialty cocktails will announce a sense of the concept in a way a server cannot.
If a separate menu isn’t feasible, consider giving beverages more room on the standard menu and highlighting the drinks that make you stand out. Is your food beer-friendly? Then here’s the place to feature beverage flavor profiles, suggested pairings and information about the beers you serve. When a server is asked for the twentieth time in an evening “What beers do you have?” and rushes off an endless list in monotone, everyone’s time is wasted. A simple tabletop or insert can handle this job better, sharing information that a server simply can’t be counted on to deliver.
As more menu developers and marketers know, word selection is critical, so be selective. “Fresh” gets loads of play today on all menus, to the point that it risks becoming meaningless and sometimes misleading. “Fresh is important to convey, but not in front of every other word,” says PHCP’s Akin.
If your iced tea is made daily, or more often, say that instead. If a drink is made to order or the bar staff squeezes juice per order, then “hand-squeezed to order” better conveys what you do.
On the other hand, if your orange or lime juice is fresh frozen rather than fresh squeezed, be careful what you say. Restaurants have been known to shift from juices squeezed in house to fresh frozen, or to mixes or syrups without making the change known. Skeptical customers in the age of social media will drag your business out into the electronic town square in a second if your menu is misleading or misrepresenting your offerings.
Instead of “fresh,” better words to emphasize might be “organic” or “seasonal,” says iMi’s Sisler, especially in concepts that change menus frequently. If ingredients are locally sourced, saying so on the menu matters as well.
For some operations, simply adding seasonal, limited-time offerings will convey a sense of freshness in the drink and on the menu. Adding flavored versions of margaritas or mojitos is easy enough, and doing so a few times annually will offer a sense of attention to current trends.
Space also matters. Page after page of beers, wines or margaritas is rarely a useful selling tool, unless those beverages are the entire focus of your operation. Select those that help define your concept, rather than trying to appeal to everyone’s taste. And don’t take on changes you can’t manage operationally.
Most consultants believe in the power of high-quality photography and recommend that operators explore this idea, especially in casual formats where visual cues are important.
“Cocktails photograph so beautifully,” says MarkeTeam’s Schmitt, “and so do beer and wine in the correct glasses.”
Sisler points out another current menu-design trend. Menus from the mid-century and before included antique typefaces and multiple boxes and highlights, and that trend has returned in full force lately. On these large menus, daily drink inserts or boxed call-outs are simple cues that work.
SHARE THE CREDIT
In craft cocktail bars, it has become routine for menus to list the originator of a drink or a bit about its history. This can make an unfamiliar drink sound better or at least validate it in the mind of a customer who knows little about cocktails. The same is true for wine and beer menus — sharing knowledge shows pride and displays confidence, something a new guest will see as an indicator of good things to come.
Omni Hotels & Resorts recently launched a regional cocktail program as part of its summer “Art of Water” poolside menu, crediting Liquid Architecture mixologist Kim Haasarud for the regionally-inspired cocktails. Haasarud created drinks to appeal to the different tastes of guests and locals in the Northeast, Southeast, Texas and West regions.
On these menus, calling attention to the differentiating factors of the drinks and the drink-makers helped build the program’s success, according to PHCP’s beverage experts. “People don’t want manufactured drinks that everybody else has,” says Akin. “They want something unique, and that will bring people back to your operation.”
BATCH THEM UP
If you decide to highlight a handful of beverages — perhaps in rotation — or create a signature drink section, these will need to be delivered consistently and in a timely fashion, with flavor profiles bartenders and servers like serving and are eager to promote.
“Nobody wants to wait 15 minutes for a round of drinks,” notes Schmitt, who advises that trends like cocktails on tap have shown how efficiently batched cocktails can be served.
Even if the tap method is too complicated or expensive, many drinks can be at least partially made in advance, allowing a busy restaurant to promote them without worrying about efficient service. Pre-batching necessitates care and attention — fresh citrus will oxidize rapidly, for instance, unless exceedingly cold — but major operations are willing to solve the operational issues. At the Wynn Hotel in Las Vegas, poolside cocktail service has soared since it began offering shareable pitchers of pre-batched cocktails served with lots of ice and fresh garnishes.
PAIR THEM UP
At Brennan’s in New Orleans, one of the country’s best-known fine-dining breakfast locations, each dish is paired with a wine and cocktail suggestion. And customers take the hint — most tables order one or more adult beverages.
“A lot of places are asking us for pairing suggestions — it makes it easier on the guest and allays fears with regards to selecting the right wine or if a drink will actually go with the food ordered,” says Sisler. Emphasizing the connection between food and beverage is an important way to show that both selections were made with care.
If your by-the-glass wine list is a source of pride, and servers are given samples of new dishes and wines, why not offer customers the same sorts of suggestions? It can not only speed along a guest’s decision but will create an area of competition for your vendors — a spot on your food menu might be valuable enough territory to gain some concessions for you.
In the finest hotels in London, the martini cart tradition is alive and well, where guests watch every detail of their very cold and carefully stirred drink being made. At the other end of the spectrum, at Quaker Steak & Lube concepts, servers deliver a cocktail that has been assembled at the bar in a lidded Mason jar that they shake tableside.
Schmitt points out that both instances give the guests something special, and that simply adding fresh berries and shaking a drink tableside conveys care and freshness, to both the table served and those seated nearby, in a way few other methods could.
“Tableside ‘sizzle’ is way underutilized but really has tremendous potential,” he notes. Tableside drink carts — recently gaining favor in luxury hotel restaurants — may be far beyond most places, but attentive beverage service at the table is a sales-boosting opportunity.
SIPS AND SNACKS
Beer-focused operations have provided smaller servings or samplers for years. Some wine bars serve as many as three different sized servings. Recently, California Pizza Kitchen concepts have started serving half glasses of wines at lunch, cognizant of time and consumption issues. Forcing customers to drink your way isn’t good business, and adding serving-size options can only increase sales.
Where legal, offering customers tastes of your specialty cocktail or new beer or house wine can open the door to increased sales. Olive Garden built its wine reputation on just that strategy years ago, but few restaurants employ that method today, even though they offer bread and butter throughout the meal.
Schmitt also points out that, beyond chips and salsa, restaurants in this country do a poor job of providing a bit of salty snacking with beverage consumption; even olives and corn nuts might spur one extra drink per table —quite a return on the pennies snacks can cost.
Whatever you do to improve your beverage selling techniques, PHCP’s Akin emphasizes one overriding concept: “Beverage menus are a branding tool. Beyond communicating a list of offerings, a beverage menu should always reflect who you are as a brand.”