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Spirits rising: Chains adopt artisanal flair to conjure up stronger bar sales

Spirits rising: Chains adopt artisanal flair to conjure up stronger bar sales

Legal Sea Foods, the 31-unit casual-dining chain, has tapped a top mixologist to help upgrade the restaurants’ bar operations. The 200-unit P.F. Chang’s is employing back-of-the-house staffers to juice ginger and purée hibiscus for its progressively more adventurous drinks menu. And Cheeseburger in Paradise, with 33 locations, recently featured upscale reposado tequila in a popular, premium-priced promotional cocktail.

The creative spirit increasingly common in the bars of independent restaurants is seeping into larger operations as more chains turn up the artistry in their beverage offerings.

As beverage spending gradually rises across the industry, patrons of chain restaurants are purchasing better-quality and artistically prepared beverages, ranging from innovative specialty cocktails and artisan-distilled spirits to craft beers and lesser- known wines. 

As a result, operators are striving to enhance the appeal of such items by serving them in interesting glassware, preparing them tableside, and adding such flourishes as ice hand-chipped from a block on the bar, fruit or bacon infusions, and fresh herbs painstakingly picked and muddled to order.

“We want to recreate on a large scale, as best we can, the experience of being served by a bar chef at a cutting-edge cocktail bar,” said Sandy Block, a certified Master of Wine and vice president of beverage for Boston-based Legal Sea Foods.

With that in mind, this year Legal hired noted mixologist Patrick Sullivan, former owner of the B-Side Lounge in Cambridge, Mass., and mentor to some of Boston’s top bartenders, as its director of bar operations. “He is an absolute fanatic about freshness,” Block said. In addition to mandating fresh-squeezed juices and the use of jiggers for precise spirit pours, Sullivan has devised simpler, more balanced cocktails. 

“The bar program has been reinvigorated to a point higher than ever before,” Block said.

He noted, however, that speedof service and cost restraints determine which methods and products can be adopted. “We will not be adding bitters with an eyedropper or using truffle oil in cocktails,” he said.

Happier hours

For many, such tactics are having the desired effects, as recession-weary customers slowly return to the bar stools they deserted during the worst of the economic meltdown. 

“I am seeing in the bar a definite upward tick in unit sales per week, which is very exciting,” said Mary Melton, director of beverage for Scottsdale, Ariz.-based P.F. Chang’s China Bistro Inc., which has 200 namesake casual Chinese restaurants. “There are more guest checks with beverages on them today compared to a year ago.”

At P.F. Chang’s, fresh lemon and lime juice are standard for signature cocktails, and the corporate test kitchen has experimented with proprietary syrups and bitters.

“Our young bartenders like to suggest a Caipirinha or a Pisco Sour instead of a Lemon Drop,” Melton said.

What’s more, the kitchen gets involved in bar prep. “The pantry guys love the idea of juicing ginger or making hibiscus
purée,” Melton said.

Switching to fresh juices is an important step in upgrading a bar, said David Commer, president of Commer Beverage Consulting in Lewisville, Texas. Part of his work is advising chain operators how to incorporate mixology trends in a practical and profitable way.

“Maybe the entire juice program will not go over to fresh, but they can make inroads into it,” Commer said. He added that quality commercially made syrups, which now come in such flavors as watermelon-habanero, can be a solution for operators who lack the skilled labor to prepare syrups from scratch. 

At Old Chicago restaurants, “we’re seeing people take the first tentative steps back into higher-quality cocktails,” reported Tracy Finklang, corporate beverage manager for this division of Louisville, Colo.-based Rock Bottom Restaurants Inc., with 102 casual eateries. “We’ve had better years than the last one, of course, but we are definitely moving in the right direction.”

Old Chicago’s bartenders muddle fresh mint for mojito variations like the pomegranate-laced Pomojito, the Mangojito and the new French Mojito, in which trendy elderflower liqueur replaces the customary rum. All three cocktails also are flavored with commercial mint syrup. And at a Rock Bottom restaurant in Omaha, Neb., a sister concept to Old Chicago, the bar is tinkering with fruit-infused spirits.

“We’re not quite as avant- garde as the cocktail lounges,” Finklang said. “As a chain, you have to look at what can be translated from Nebraska to Florida to Montana.”

And nationwide, more adults appear to be quaffing adult beverages. A recent Gallup poll found that 67 percent of U.S. adults drink alcohol, a slight increase over last year and the highest figure recorded since 1985. Among drinkers, beer remains the favorite beverage, followed by wine and then liquor, Gallup reported.

Citing improved sales and traffic trends in restaurants and bars, Technomic Inc., the Chicago-based research firm, recently revised upward its outlook for alcohol sales away from home. The new forecast calls for 1.1 percent overall growth in beverage alcohol sales this year, up from the 2.5-percent decline it predicted at the end of 2009. 

Spirits should increase the most, by 1.6 percent, followed by beer with 1.2 percent growth. 

Wine sales were forecast to fall 0.6 percent, Technomic said, as consumers continue to trade down to less expensive wines. 

“We don’t want everyone celebrating that the industry is back because it is still down probably 10 percent, versus three years ago, and there still are significant challenges,” said David Henkes, vice president and director of Technomic’s on-premise practice. “But it is doing better. We are a little more optimistic than we were, say, six months ago.”

Take your best shot

Patrons may not be buying as many rounds as they did before the economy tanked, but many seem willing to spend a bit more for premium and specialty beverages, operators said.

At Cheeseburger in Paradise, a Tampa, Fla.-based casual-
dining chain with 33 units, the Pink Flamingo margarita became the top-selling specialty cocktail during a three-month promotion, even though it was priced a couple dollars more than the chain’s typical margarita. It boasted upscale reposado tequila and a premium liqueur flavored with passion fruit, blood oranges and mangoes.

“It was a $7.50 drink, on the high end for our concept, and we didn’t have a problem selling it,” said Monica Tary, director of beverage and training. 

Craft beers also are finding a thirsty audience. At mid-year 2010, the United States had 1,625 breweries, the largest number in a century, according to the Brewers Association, a trade organization. And the nation’s craft brewers continue to outperform the overall beer market. The volume of craft beer sold grew 9 percent for the first six months in 2010, compared with 5-percent growth in the first half of 2009. In comparison, overall U.S. beer industry sales are down 2.7 percent so far this year. 

Beer drinkers at Cheeseburger in Paradise have embraced the Beer Tube, a cylindrical vessel that is filled with draft beer at the bar and toted to the table.

It holds as much as 100 ounces to serve a large party. Guests enjoy pouring their own brews from a tap on the tube.

“This has really helped our beer category grow,” Tary said.

Craft and import brews also are major attractions at Culinary Dropout, a gastropub in Scottsdale, Ariz., and part of Fox Restaurant Concepts, a multi-concept operator with 28 restaurants, also based in Scottsdale. Culinary Dropout has a 60-item beer selection, six of which are on draft. The beer list ranges from Belgian ales to U.S. microbrews to Aluminum Ales, the latter a collection of craft brews in cans. Culinary Dropout offers a whimsical Paper Bag Special, a can of below-premium brew delivered to the table in a brown bag and priced at $1.95.

Taking a page from their brewing brethren, small-scale artisan distillers have grown rapidly, too. There are now more than 200 of them nationwide, up from a few dozen a decade ago, according to the American Distilling Institute. The distillers make small batches of vodka, gin, rum, brandy and even legal moonshine. The latter is unaged whiskey that some creative barkeeps are using in specialty cocktails. 

When it comes to wine, Fox Restaurants, like many restaurant companies, saw sales of bottles priced in the $75 vicinity fall sharply during the recession. For alternatives, director of hospitality and beverage Regan Jasper has introduced guests to grape varietals like Argentine Torrontes and Spanish Albarino, priced at $5.75 and $7.50 per glass, respectively. 

Legal Sea Foods also has added some higher-echelon wines by the glass for guests who are putting the recession behind them but are not yet ready to spring for a bottle, Block said. Examples are Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand, priced at $12.75 per glass, and Napa Valley’s Shafer Merlot, priced at $13.50. Legal’s typical price point for wines by the glass is about $9.

In spirits, patrons are exploring greater variety, some operators said. “Five years ago, we sold a lot more wine by the glass, followed by spirits and then beer,” said P.F. Chang’s Melton. “Now our spirits sales come pretty even with our wine sales. And tiki drinks, tequila, rum and mezcal are very important to our bars, whereas until recently it would have been vodka, in every flavor.”

Fox Restaurants’ Jasper reported a decrease in calls for premium-brand liquors and mixers and an increase in orders of house-created specialty cocktails like the Bacon-Infused Bloody Mary and the Clown Punch, both featured at Culinary Dropout. The latter is a mixture of elderflower liqueur, gin, peach, fresh lemon and orange juice topped with pomegranate foam. 

Until recently, martini glasses were omnipresent at the bars of Fox Restaurant eateries.

“But now, not every drink has to come in an ‘up’ glass,” Jasper said. For example, at Culinary Dropout, a variety of drinks are served in rocks glasses, Collins glasses and coupes. There’s also a high-end ice machine that makes impressive, extra-large square cubes “that melt slowly and don’t dilute drinks,” he said. 

Old Chicago’s new beverage menu includes “rewinds,” or revivals of bygone drinks like the Harvey Wallbanger, Tom Collins and stone sours, which are sours made with orange juice. At Cheeseburger in Paradise, guests are enjoying Sky Juice, a tall, iced drink prepared with blue curaçao and lemon-lime soda that is finished at tableside with a pour of cream of coconut, creating the semblance of a cloudy sky in the glass.

The creative activity extends to alcohol-free beverages as well.

“This is a huge opportunity because it is an underserved market,” said Commer, the consultant. “Not everyone drinks alcohol. And I can get my iced tea or my soda anywhere.” 

Targeting the market for 
alcohol-free drinks that appeal to adults, some companies that do not sell alcohol have paradoxically named nonalcoholic drinks after well-known cocktails. Examples include Taco Bell’s Classic Margarita Frutista Freeze and Burger King’s Mimosa, which is made with a citrus soda and orange juice. The tactic allows new products to share in the name recognition of long-established libations.

Red Robin Gourmet Burgers, a casual-dining chain based in Greenwood Village, Colo., with more than 430 units in the United States and Canada, offers the Freckled Lemonade Shake, made with strawberries, lemonade syrup, soft serve ice cream and whipped cream. It is an extension of its top-selling signature drink, the Freckled Lemonade.

“Guests know they can come to us for something unique in a special glass that isn’t just a soda,” said Jill Helmerick, Red Robin’s director of beverage.

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