Ruth’s Chris Steak House conducts five wine- or cocktail-pairing dinners each year, all of which feature matched courses of Ruth’s Chris food and a hefty dose of fine-dining education.
“It’s about us taking the lead on education,” said Helen Mackey, director of beverage strategy at Ruth’s Hospitality Group, Ruth’s Chris’ Winter Park, Fla.-based parent company. “When you’re more knowledgeable about what you’re eating and what you’re drinking, you enjoy it more.”
The wine dinners, which cost around $100 each per customer, are a marketing tool as well as a way for Ruth’s Chris culinary team to flex their menu design muscles, Mackey said. The dinners are generally hosted alongside a partner company, such as Bulleit Bourbon or Diageo, and are intended to draw in new customers to Ruth’s Chris, she said.
Donna Hood Crecca, senior director of the adult beverage resource group at foodservice research firm Technomic Inc., said consumers are very interested in interacting with food and wine these days — making Mackey’s strategy a smart one.
“Our recent consumer survey for our Trends in Adult Beverage Report Series found 32 percent of consumers say they have a good level of understanding of the flavor profiles of different wine varietals and styles,” she said in an email. “This indicates that education about wine is important to these consumers, but also shows the opportunity to educate other consumers.”
She added that consumers in Generation X and Millenials have taken the greatest interest in beverage education.
Ruth’s Chris’ focus on education makes the events interactive and engaging, Crecca said. “This strategy should support the chain’s efforts to engage current consumers and attract new ones with their wines.”
Generally, Mackey said, consumers like the idea of the pairing dinners because it helps them learn about combining wine or cocktails with food in a meaningful, fun way. By the end of 2013, Ruth’s Chris will have hosted a total of 13 wine or cocktail dinners. Coming up in June is a $100 event celebrating Napa-valley legend Robert Mondavi’s 100th birthday, which includes five Mondavi wines and summertime foods like a chilled watermelon, goat cheese and toasted almond salad, and a grilled spring lamb chop served with polenta.
In May, the company hosted a $90 nationwide “Big Reds and Bourbons” Dinner, which featured mint juleps, pinot noir, Bulleit bourbon, and southern-inspired cooking like bacon-wrapped scallops and steak served with bacon barbecue butter. Prices varied somewhat based on the Ruth’s Chris Steak House location.
Becoming an authority
Rick Crossland, Ruth’s Chris executive chef, said customers have taken a lot of interest in the dinners. “I think people come for a great evening with great food and drink,” he said. “But they’re also there because they’re very interested in beverages and how they complement a dining experience.”
While the concept of pairing wines with meals is certainly nothing new, wine expert and author Kevin Zraly of Windows on the World Wine School said he thinks Ruth’s Chris’ strategy is a good one. “I think there’s an insecurity in most people when they’re walking into a restaurant and are given a wine list,” he said. “Any restaurant, including Ruth’s Chris, that is trying to alleviate that stress, I think, is a positive thing…I think it’s good marketing. It’s a good way to think of the right wine paired with the right food.”
Still, he said, there are many pieces that make a restaurant an authority on wine. Education, he said, is just one piece. “To me, a wine program is No. 1, a good list; No. 2, good pricing; No. 3, education of the staff,” Zraly said. “Putting together a wine dinner is another arm of those things. It’s a part of the whole.”
Gathering Customer Feedback
Although new menu item testing isn’t the core goal of the program, Mackey said sometimes items from the specialized wine dinner menus will find their way to Ruth’s Chris’ main menu if they resonated with consumers.
One example of that was a Port of Manhattan cocktail — a Manhattan cocktail made with port wine instead of vermouth — that was featured at a dinner in 2012.
Although Ruth’s Chris has not formally gathered consumer data from the dinners, it does make note of trends and consumer feedback, Mackey said. For example, last year, the company hosted a bourbon dinner in June that was purposely scheduled around Father’s Day to attract male consumers.
About 40 percent of those who showed up to the bourbon-pairing dinner were women, Mackey said, adding she was thrilled to learn that information. “We definitely try to pay attention,” she said. “Next step is to get a better idea of what specific demographics are showing up. Different people come to each dinner.”
Ruth’s Hospitality Group operates or franchises more than 150 restaurants systemwide.