Signature cocktails — alluring libations that capture attention with flamboyant colors and captivating drinkware — are proven money makers. But they don’t come about by chance. There is a science to creating signature drinks just as there is to earmarking beers, wines and spirits for special promotional roles.
By definition, signature food and beverage items embody the personality and style of a restaurant. Ideally, they showcase what an establishment does best and signal a unique experience.
With signature cocktails, quality ingredients, proper mixing, eye-catching drinkware and cordial front-line service, all factor into success. But even a drink that checks off all of those boxes may fall short of its potential if it is obscured by a beverage menu that is so large it is distracting or so unwieldy that it slows service to a crawl.
Hence there is the argument for choosing signature items carefully and having fewer and better choices on the beverage menu. That was a topic of much discussion during a beverage marketing roundtable of foodservice executives at this year’s National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago. The sponsor of the roundtable was Whirley-DrinkWorks!, a designer and manufacturer of high quality food and beverage containers.
Several roundtable participants remarked on the steady stream of new craft beers on the market. They noted the tension between satisfying customers who want the next trendy brew and maintaining a stable, manageably sized beer list.
Keeping up with demand for “the IPA [India pale ale] of the moment” can be frustrating, said Jim Doak, vice president of menu and beverage innovation for Houston-based Ignite Restaurant Group, parent of the Joe’s Crab Shack and Brick House Tavern + Tap restaurant chains. “You can't even work through a keg within a reasonable amount of time before the group has switched again.””
At Brick House, the volatility of craft beers is tempered by including on the list “really strong, good brands that we know guests are always going g to select,” Doak said.
There is an optimum number of selections on a beverage menu, noted roundtable participant Sean Parisi, director of global beverage programming for Chicago-based Levy Restaurants. He said it is possible to cover 95 to 97 percent of the entire market with a carefully chosen 12 item draft beer selection. “All we see when we go beyond 12 or 15 options is declining yields and higher costs,” said Parisi.
Ditto for craft spirits. “I don't think you need to have 10 different craft spirits,” said Parisi. “I think you can be smart having the category covered with one or two.”
Likewise resisting the temptation to pad the list is Chris Purcell, director of food and beverage for Tilted Kilt Pub & Eatery, based in Tempe, Ariz. “We try to cover the category and make sure we develop beverage menus that are representative of good wine, good spirits, and good beer,” said Purcell.
One of the dangers of a bloated beverage mix is overshadowing the marketing that drives signature beverages. That could stunt the effectiveness of a promotional element such as souvenir drinkware. Done well, signature drinkware is a lucrative part of the beverage marketer’s repertoire. Take the Mint Julep and Oaks Lily cocktails that Levy Restaurants sell in collectible glasses at Churchill Downs on Kentucky Derby weekend in May. “Between the two, we do 250,000 signature glassware pieces for the weekend,” Parisi said.
Doak vouched for the impact of unique drinkware in driving signature drink sales. “Absolutely, that continues to still be strong,” said Doak. “We were one of the first to do mason jars, and mason jars still are a strong piece for the Joe's brand, and we also have a great copper mug in Brick House for the lineup of [Moscow Mules].”
The time it takes to mix signature drinks also affects how quickly customers get their drinks, how satisfied they are and how many they buy.
Purcell emphasized the need for speed in cocktail service at Tilted Kilt’s busy units near arenas and ballparks. “Anything [that takes] over 90 seconds probably doesn't have a high chance of success in those event locations,” said Purcell. “So we do a lot of work in that space making sure we can execute quickly.”
Finally, in true signature beverage fashion, the drinks of Warren Theatres, a luxury theater company based in Wichita, Kan., reflect the personality and style of the brand by sporting monikers inspired by popular motion pictures.
“We have guided our guests,” said Les Padzensky, vice president of food and beverage for Warren. “We've put up four batch cocktails with great names, like Pirates of the Caribbean, along with wines and some beers.”