Foodservice industry executives discussed drink trends and training staff to serve and sell beverages at a roundtable sponsored by WhirleyDrinkWorks

Foodservice industry executives discussed drink trends and training staff to serve and sell beverages at a roundtable sponsored by Whirley-DrinkWorks!.

The keys to successful beverage programs

Roundtable discussion emphasizes importance of quality and customer experience

Foodservice industry executives met during the NRA Show, held in Chicago in May, to discuss trends at a beverage roundtable sponsored by Whirley-DrinkWorks!

Topics ranged from popular drink trends, to how to train staff to serve and sell beverages. Here’s a look at key traits of successful beverage programs and trends developing in the restaurant industry:

Participants:

  • Jim Doak, Ignite Restaurant Group, vice president of menu and beverage innovation
  • Stan Frankenthaler, CraftWorks Restaurants & Breweries, chief officer of food, brewing, beverage and strategic supply
  • Ira Gleser, Whirley-DrinkWorks!, vice president of industry relations
  • Les Padzensky, Warren Theatres, vice president of food and beverage
  • Sean Parisi, Levy Restaurants, national director of beverage
  • Chris Purcell, Tilted Kilt Franchise Operating, director of food and beverage
  • Peter Zilper, Aramark Sports and Entertainment Group, vice president of operational excellence

Moderator:

  • Ron Ruggless, Nation’s Restaurant News, Southwest Bureau Chief

Ron Ruggless: What are the best products to appeal to today’s adult beverage consumer?

Sean Parisi, Levy Restaurants: I think it has to start with being something that is of quality, and ideally brands that have a level of authenticity and carriage to them. … I think those tried-and-true brands that still stand for something are every bit as meaningful today as they were before.

Les Padzensky, Warren Theatres: It’s a great environment to have fun drinks. People going to the theaters is like a vacation. It’s a three-hour getaway from whatever you’re doing, and we make it easy. So today we may have The Iron Man, and it’s a drink made, and it looks red, and we may have the Batman. … And what’s fun about these kind of drinks as well is that you do a little something with them, like a glass or something like that. People want that. You could charge a little bit more for the drink.

Chris Purcell, Tilted Kilt: Everybody it seems these days is a foodie and a mixologist at home, and so they want something that maybe they haven’t been able to replicate themselves. So maybe there’s a little bit of complexity to the drink that they have not quite cracked the code on.

Peter Zilper, Aramark: When we look at our segmentation, what we find out is that the female consumer in particular is a lot more impactful than we thought she was. About 50 percent of the fans that come the most and spend the most are women in our Major League Baseball environment, for example. That’s huge. And so if you think about it, is the female consumer a light beer drinker, or is she a wine drinker, a batch cocktail drinker? So I think having that understanding of consumers has started to drive our development differently and our offerings differently.

Stan Frankenthaler, CraftWorks: There’s certainly this kind of standing strongly on both feet, if you will, or the parallel of really tried and true, premium trusted, well-known brands, you know, at the trump end and a craft discovery if you will. And I think, you know, as Sean was saying, it really is about quality — quality of the finished product. So for us, I mean, innovation is really important, seasonal menus, hitting the right flavors the right time of the year, and kind of feeding into our customers’ want for discovery, a story and some newness, right? But definitely, I think, as everyone’s been talking about, has to be quality, right? Nobody wants to be experimented on.

Jim Doak, Ignite: A couple of points I think for us is freshness in ingredients driven by the seasonality piece. Seasonality has really continued to become a much stronger point for us, particularly with Brick House [Tavern + Tap]. … This localization piece is important too. We really embrace the localization piece as it relates to — and I’d say localization for us, I’d say state or regionals sell. We’ve definitely got Texas bourbon in our Texas Brick Houses. We have got Brick House and a Joe’s [Crab Shack] in Louisville, [Ky.,] that both have strong bourbon programs. … And on the beer side, I think it’s very frustrating for us [that what’s the IPA of the moment.] Because you can’t even work through a keg within a reasonable amount of time before the group has switched again.

Crafting a compelling reason for the consumer to return

Ruggless: In premium beverages, how do you craft a compelling reason for the consumer to come back? How important is speed of service?

Parisi: We feel like the best opportunity to get the consumer to come back is to have the right mix of choices so that the consumer can actually migrate through a number of quality beverage experiences. … What we’ve tried to do is just make sure that there’s choice available to the consumer, and quality of choice in any category. … You just build trust in the offering that’s out there, and I think that ultimately will lead to the greatest number of repeat purchases. It’s just meeting the customer need, doing it correctly. … People are experimenting quite a bit, and they’re experimenting not even within channel but across channels. So I think where we talked about quality being the backbone of that, because when they give you your money, if they have a good experience, you’re just more likely to get it again.

Purcell: No matter what you create, if you can’t build it and deliver it quickly, anything over 90 seconds probably doesn’t have a high chance of success in those event locations, so we do a lot of work in that space of making sure we can execute it quickly.

Zilper: If you’re in concessions, you need to meet that speed environment more than anything. So it’s just getting smarter about distribution, having the right variety. So you can have a ton of variety, you can have a lot of crafts, but you don’t want a lot of distribution on it. Most of what you want to sell is light beer very fast because that’s predominantly what the consumer wants, and by sport that’s a little bit different. … If you look at the Baby Boomer or the Gen Xers, people in my environment, we were generations that were much more obsessed with material obsessions. And I think what’s happening with the younger generations is they’re obsessed with optimal experiences. And so what they’re trading for is experience versus material things. … What we’re trying to really think about is what’s the right experience around beverage. And the product, the packaging, the technology is a small component of that experience or a holistic component of it. So I’m less concerned with the next, you know, strawberry lemonade margarita with jalapeños in it than I am around how am I going to bring the brand to life in a way that’s authentic and meaningful and a way people want.

Frankenthaler: Well, I think I’m a big believer in occasion as well, as Peter was talking about. … In a full-service restaurant environment, right, we are really dancing a fine line between speed, service, experience. … I think the old phrase that I’ve always used [is]: “Read the guest.” What is it that you’re there for? And our brands do service some different occasions for our guests. … It’s also about really engaging with that guest the way they want to be engaged.

​Doak: You’ve got to be true to your brand. … For us, I think what we’re trying to do is identify unexpected value for the guest, and I think that is really driven by quality of the experience, and the quality of the experience is enhanced by the ingredients. Maybe the ingredients are unexpected value. Maybe it’s a product that’s unexpected value, but it’s also the execution level and the execution of that kind of a drink. … We do batch cocktails — always batch cocktails on Joe’s, because of the complexity of them, but also the speed of service to serve those signature cocktails. Of our top 25 drinks, five of them are signature cocktails and of that four of them are rum-based, and one’s vodka-based, so it’s really interesting when you look at that, but it’s easy to — it’s pour and go, pour and go from a consistency standpoint too.

Ruggless: And for limited-time offers?

Doak: There’s always an LTO component. Sometimes LTO is new, sometimes LTO is really putting that signature drink back in front of the guests that you really want them, as you say, define the brand, Shark Bite, Category 5 Hurricane, you know, make sure that those things are back in front of the guests often because that’s what they want. And if it’s a first-time guest, it helps them understand what the Joe’s brand is about, or the Brick House brand is about, when you create those things.

Purcell: You have to work in the direction of having batch cocktails. You have to keep it very, very simple. You have to use technology to reach your bartenders and your servers, and you have to reach them over and over again.

Ruggless: And as part of the customer experience?

Zilper: Experience can come in lighting; it can come in color; it can come in brand. It can come in activating a particular alcohol beverage brand in an authentic way.

Parisi: If I can’t execute it well, there’s no point in putting it on the menu because nothing will ruin it faster [than] a disingenuous experience or a bad experience, however you want to put it. … That means investing in the experience if it’s the right glassware, the right glass shape for the right drink. And if you’re not, if you’re going to deliver me a Manhattan in whatever highball glass the bartender has laying around, that’s not what I want.

Sean Parisi, left, of Levy Restaurants and Les Padzensky of Warren Theatres share beverage program tactics that have worked for their brands at a recent roundtable. Photo: Nathan D. Steinba

Frankenthaler: It’s sort of what matters to your guests, right? I mean, to our guests, you know, offer glassware, theme glassware, beer glasses that have always been hand-washed, never gone through the dishwasher, right? [Ones] that are chilled to the proper temperature, the proper shape for the proper beer. Our guests like the discovery, whether they’re young and starting out here, or whether … [they] have maybe dabbled in more beer. That journey is important, and that learning becomes important, and then that builds on your relationship with your guest.

Gleser: I’ve been sitting here listening to this great conversation, and for me it’s the intersection of being true to your brand and creating that experience. And I think within that intersection, and Sean said it so well, is beverage is a differentiator. And so the examples of the signature drinks that we talked about is — I think the unique opportunity is certainly to have the right flavor profiles and the right delivery, but another part of what he said that I think is really important is that signature drink is a personality. And it speaks to your branding experience. … Even after all that heavy lifting, that hard work is done, how do you execute it? How do you get your staff to deliver it the way you want it delivered with a smile, but the whole package taken together. … One of the key points I’ve taken away so far is that intersection of being true to your brand and that delivery of the experience, and the beverage really is to me the culmination of that and the opportunity for creativity and great marketing.

Ruggless: How important are training and in-house marketing to a beverage program?

Parisi: I think that’s the piece that we are always trying to figure out. What are those programs that the staff is really going to get behind and really push and suggest? … Anything you put out into media or paid advertising that isn’t supported and really well executed in terms of word of mouth and point of sale, suggestive sales, is a miss.

Purcell: Does the message match the experience? … Service employees are a unique bunch in that it’s a transient industry. What is it, 2 percent of people that come to work in our industry actually stay in the industry. So we’re raising them. We’re educating them for their next stage in life. We have to somehow capture their attention, so for us it’s been about engaging digitally and engaging in mobile and getting that message down.

Zilper: It’s a challenge. … I think there’s two components to it. We are talking a lot about technical training, how to pour a beer, how to smile, how to be suggestively selling. I don’t fundamentally think that’s the issue in our business. The reason we have a labor pool that is not performing as well today as it was 10 years ago isn’t because of a lack of training. In fact, I think the training has gotten a lot better. The technology is a lot better. I think fundamentally there’s just a shift in hospitality.

Purcell: Peter articulated it incredibly well. The core of our brand is making a connection of the brand, making a connection with the guest. That’s it. That’s great. I’m going to borrow that.

Parisi: Our CEO, Andy Lansing at Levy, this goes back 10 years, he’s quoted as saying: “We only hire nice people.” He says, it’s three things: “You got to be nice, you got to be passionate, and you got to have a willingness to try to be really good at what you do or great at what you do.”

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