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Pitcher perfect: Operators woo customers with sangria updates

Pitcher perfect: Operators woo customers with sangria updates


Seeking a new way to refresh parched customers and stoke their tills this summer, some restaurant operators are revisiting sangria, a beverage that is moving beyond its traditional Spanish roots.

Sangria is derived from the Spanish word sangre, "blood," which aptly describes the look of the mixture of red wine, brandy, fruit juices, sugar and soda, served in an iced glass or pitcher with sliced fruits like oranges and lemons. Other variations swap the red wine for white or rosé. However, some operators are using classic sangrias as springboards for their own signature takes. Creative examples of the wine-and-fruit punch, lately surfacing in a variety of restaurant concepts, feature varietal wines, premium flavored spirits and liqueurs and flourishes ranging from fresh berries to sage, elderflower and cucumber.

At Smokey Bones Barbecue & Grill, a summer promotion of three colorful sangrias, three spiked lemonades and three spiked teas, each served in a single-portion, 16-ounce glass pitcher, has been a big hit this summer. "We're selling about 10,000 pitchers per week," said Pete Bell, vice president of marketing for the 73-unit, Orlando, Fla.-based casual restaurant chain. "We haven't seen drinks move like this."

The most popular pitchers of all are the sangrias. The overall sales leader is Berry Burst Sangria, which combines Woodbridge Merlot by Robert Mondavi with Stoli Strasberi vodka and fresh fruit juices. Also a strong performer is Blush Sangria, made with Sutter Home White Zinfandel and Absolut Mandrin vodka. Each is priced at $5.99 and is served with a 14-ounce glass filled with ice. Both sangrias will remain on the menu after the summer promo ends, along with two of the teas. "We're hoping they will have year-round appeal," said Bell.

Another hot-selling summer sipper is the Orchard Sangria ($10 per glass, $28 per pitcher) at ZED451 in Chicago, one of three upscale steakhouses owned by Emeryville, Calif.-based Tavistock Restaurants. It is made by macerating cut peaches, lemons and oranges and pureed plums in white wine and apple juice for three days "until the flavors are uniform," said beverage director Michael Hanley. It is served in a stemmed wine glass over ice with some of the macerated fruits for garnish.

The house is going through 15 10-liter batches of the beverage each week, Hanley said. Profitability is high, because a glass of sangria costs only about half as much as a glass of wine, the former being stretched by the juice and fruits.

Recent gains notwithstanding, sangria still isn't as widely promoted as it deserves to be, in the opinion of Las Vegas-based celebrity mixologist Tony Abou-Ganim, himself a fan of the beverage. "I've always had great success serving sangria at food and wine festivals," said Abou-Ganim. "But everywhere I make it, people say, 'Wow, I never think of sangria.' "

Not only is sangria charming and flavorful, it also lends itself to high-volume service, Abou-Ganim noted. Ideally, it should be mixed in advance and allowed to rest so the flavors marry. "You can and should make it 24 hours in advance, if not 36," he said.

At the Mediterranean restaurant Brosia in Miami, the varietal wines pinot grigio and Malbec anchor white and red sangria, respectively, along with liqueurs and spirits like peach schnapps, triple sec and apricot brandy. Each is priced at $8 per glass. For good measure, a splash of cava, Spanish sparkling wine, tops off the white sangria. "We wanted to bring that extra flavor of Spain into the drink," said owner Scott Engelman.

Customers of Berryhill Baja Grill, a Houston-based chain of 15 "fresh Mex" restaurants, have the option of swirling a shot of house-made Rojo or Blanco Sangria into a made-from-scratch frozen margarita. "It creates a new color and a whole different flavor profile," said vice president Kristine Troger.

Three house sangrias — plus a daily sangria special — are planned for Miss Pearl's Jam House, an island-themed casual restaurant slated to open this month in Oakland, Calif. In addition to menuing red, white and rosé house versions, beverage director Geoffrey Perry said he will mix a daily offering "based on our whim." Some possibilities are Spicy Sangria, featuring red wine, cut citrus, rum, sugar, hot sauce and citrus-flavored cola, and Sage, Elderflower and Cucumber Sangria, with sauvignon blanc, vodka, elderflower cordial, white cranberry juice, fresh sage and diced cucumber.

In addition, Miss Pearl's will offer a "garnish-your-own" sangria served with a tray of cut fruits that guests may add as they please. "I really like letting people be interactive," said Perry.

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