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Take advantage of neat deals while the economy’s on rocks, drink experts say


NEW ORLEANS The recession can be a useful bargaining tool when it comes to negotiating beverage purchasing deals, said experts attending Tales of the Cocktail, a beverage industry conference held here recently.

The five-day event, which was held chiefly at the Hotel Monteleone July 8-12, brought together foodservice operators, bar professionals, consultants and suppliers who discussed cutting-edge trends in the bar and beverage business.

While some participants acknowledged that beverage sales had been impacted as a result of the economic downturn, they said opportunities exist as well for proactive operators and buyers looking to manage costs and find innovations that worked for them.

Tylor Field, vice president for wine and spirits at Chicago-based Morton’s The Steakhouse, said that was especially true where wine purchasing is concerned.

“There’s a limited amount of buyers and a lot of wine going unpurchased,” Field said. “If you’re not out there negotiating prices as a multiunit chain, you’re doing yourself a disservice.”

Field also advised attendees to take advantage of beer and nonalcoholic rebate systems.

But while the deals are out there, beverage buyers have to ask for them, said Charles Joly, executive manager of Three Headed Productions, principal in Angel’s Share Mixology and chief mixologist for The Drawing Room in Chicago.

“Your suppliers are never going to come to you with great prices,” he said. “But once you start shopping around, you can really start to adjust your costs.”

Finding the best value product for the money is what managers, operators and bartenders should strive for, Joly said. Finding and tasting new products that can deliver quality and possibly value is a part of the job.


“To find something that hasn’t become established as a well product, you have to do research, you have to drink [to] find that bottle of bourbon that’s $14 rather than $30,” he said.

Consultant Kathy Casey, president of Kathy Casey Food Studios and Liquid Kitchen in Seattle, however, cautioned against focusing too much on deals and paring down beverage programs too much.

“A lot of people put the ‘ix-nay’ on new products or development,” Casey said. “For those who are forward-thinking and are ready to go when the turnaround hits, those are the people who are going to see the results.”

Discussing ways to watch costs at the bar, she advised attendees: “Don’t think totally fresh, but maintain fresh and quality where you can. Keep it tight on your prep. If a bartender wants to use basil, for instance, [buy] a five pound bag of basil [and] keep what you don’t need in the kitchen and pull out only what you need for that shift.”

And when fresh herbs start to wilt, she said: “Put them back in the kitchen because they can be chopped up to use in recipes. With fresh food, don’t get a whole case, get what you need, go seasonal.”

Some panelists advocated calculating return on investments and being smart about how to position different products. Casey suggested considering less expensive base spirits. Rather than calling out a brand-name spirit, she said, some menus are highlighting other high-end ingredients or mixers.

Joly also pointed out that the days of having 25 different bottles in the vodka category alone are being ditched for a more compact selection of spirits.

That streamlining could be used to a beverage program’s advantage, he said, because it allows operators to create and solidify relationships with brands.

Participants also addressed other trends that were impacting the beverage business. For example, Michael Waterhouse, proprietor of New York’s Dylan Prime and Devin Tavern, commented that people are beginning to take notice of smaller artisan distillers.

“It’s green, it’s small, it’s local, it’s homemade,” he said. “People are looking for this.”

Participants also noted that while gin might not be the new vodka, it has emerged from relative obscurity into the forefront of the spirits world.

“Gin sort of made this 180 [degree turn], where three years ago there were so many people coming to me with new vodkas, now it’s gin,” said panelist Jim Meehan, co-owner of New York cocktail lounge PDT.

“Gin has taken over from vodka in the U.K. and Europe in general,” said Simon Difford, owner and editor of Sauce Guide Publications.

He noted, however, that this is largely driven not by consumers, but by bartenders.

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