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Indies raise the bar with signature drinks


For more than 50 years, the Buena Vista Cafe in San Francisco has been a destination for Irish coffee. The landmark spot claims to have introduced the hot coffee and Irish whiskey concoction to America in 1952 and boasts on its website that it has served as many as 2,000 in one day.

With restaurants nationwide struggling to drive traffic, that kind of reputation can provide a much-needed jolt to the bottom line. Even as Buena Vista has expanded its menu beyond its traditional "bountiful breakfasts" to include a broader range of items, Irish coffee remains its biggest draw.

"People are ordering down a bit, in terms of cost [of their food], but I'm still ahead from last year, and it's mostly due to the Irish coffee," says Michael Carden, general manager of the Buena Vista.

Many independent restaurants have learned that a signature drink is a powerful weapon in the battle for customers' dwindling dollars. To build and maintain a reputation, however, takes more than just a good drink, and operators say they continually promote their beverages to keep them top of mind.

Blanca Aldaco opened her first San Antonio restaurant, Aldaco's, after moving to the United States from Guadalajara, Mexico, in the early 1990s. As she awaited U.S. citizenship and a full liquor license for the first restaurant, she practiced making classic margaritas at home. That practice paid off, and both Aldaco's units now are known for their hand-crafted margaritas on the rocks. To keep sales strong, Aldaco says her entire staff works to keep margaritas in the public eye at every turn.

Her restaurants use table tents to advertise the margaritas, and every server is well-educated about the signature beverages. Aldaco also participates in public cocktail contests and offers margarita-making classes in the restaurants.

And Aldaco didn't stop at one kind of margarita. In addition to the classic version, her restaurants now offer 11 kinds of margaritas on the rocks and a handful of frozen varieties. Favorites include Aldaco's creamy avocado margarita, which was introduced during March 2005 to celebrate St. Patrick's Day, and the sweet, magenta-colored prickly pear margarita.

"All of us believe we have a really good margarita and we're constantly working to create new cocktails," Aldaco says.

Like Buena Vista, Aldaco's has experienced some slowdown in food purchases, but the bad economy has yet to make a big dent in margarita sales, she says.

At Jasper's in Kansas City, Mo., housemade Applecello liqueur has been a hit in the fall for the past six years. Owner Jasper Mirabile uses the liqueur — a twist on his more tradition Limoncello — in multiple drinks, from Applecello-tinis, with vanilla bean ice cream and carbonated water to Applecello-aide. The restaurant also serves Applecello with tea, or with Prosecco in a champagne glass in a drink called the Prosecco Correcto.

The staff at Jasper's talk up the Applecello throughout the year when serving the Limoncello, and in the fall they ask customers when they're being seated if they want to start off with Applecello-aide. Jasper's also promotes the liqueur through print, radio and TV advertising.

Buena Vista in San Francisco also uses traditional advertising to showcase its Irish coffee. The cafe advertises on the back of cable cars that stop within a block of its Fisherman's Wharf location year-round. The restaurant also buys ads in Wharf maps and guides and in such local publications as San Francisco Weekly and 7x7 and Where Magazine, a publisher of visitor magazines.

Charlie Trotter's in Chicago doesn't advertise its nonalcoholic beverages, which supplant wine pairings in a tasting menu, but word of mouth has helped make them a feature on the menu at the acclaimed restaurant for the past seven years. During August, the chilled nonalcoholic flight included Lovage, which features an herb that tastes like strong celery, with salt and sugar to season; Wheat Grass & Annatto; Fennel & Spring Onion; Darjeeling & Rosemary; blended and strained Yogurt, Cumin & Mint; and Sultana & White Balsamic, which pairs golden raisins with the vinegar. Many of the beverages are made fresh throughout the evening.

"We don't advertise it, but we've been [offering] these nonalcoholic pairings for seven years," says Conrad Reddick, sommelier at Charlie Trotter's. "It's something special that people don't expect."

As consumers cut back on spending, Reddick says that sales of the nonalcoholic drink flight have remained relatively steady.

"I think that we're very fortunate, but [the trend in buying fewer beverages] is only slightly noticeable for us," Reddick says. "[Many customers believe], 'If I'm going to Charlie Trotter's, I want the whole experience.' "

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