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Popular, premium beverages key to profitable holidays

Beverage veterans’ advice for surviving the end of the year

As you read this, restaurants and bars are experiencing their busiest time of year, and hanging on for dear life to survive the crush. It’s a time for festive company holiday parties and entertaining clients in a lavish fashion. It’s a time for families and friends to gather around the dinner table and toast the accomplishments of the year, and to treat themselves to some of the finer things in life.

For operators, these are the most important moments to get right, with beverage sales at their most lucrative of the year, paid for by guests who are entertaining their most important clients and cherished family and friends. Those in purchasing roles have to plan ahead wisely, and have sharp focus on sales and understanding what their businesses need to thrive in this chaotic time of the year.

“We are a busy restaurant 363 days a year, but in November and December, we are very busy,” said Aaron Wood-Snyderman, wine director at the Metropolitan Grill in Seattle. “Our beverage sales go up 45 percent during the holiday season. And a huge change comes at lunch, with beverage sales there going up by 1,000 percent. Keeping up with inventory during this time of year is like trying to tread water in a tsunami.”

Buyers need to think strategically, making informed predictions as to what types of beverages will be most in demand. It’s a multi-month-long chess game, where foresight and planning are imperative.

“My best advice would be to simply pay attention,” said Christopher Saenz, general manager at 2120 Restaurant on the Amazon campus in downtown Seattle. “Do your research by analyzing trends [in your own operations], sales mixes, and year-over-year spending to decide what types of products make sense to buy during this time.”

Saenz stresses that, with the increase in buying, operators also need to pay close attention to organization and tracking sales, so at this time of year, he and his staff take weekly inventory. His restaurant sees a 30 percent increase in private dining volume, so he uses that as another outlet to move product.

“Private parties are a way for us to push excess product quickly,” Saenz said. “By being hyper-focused on our inventory management, we are able to push higher-end bottles that we bring in for these groups to help them meet their food-and-beverage minimums. And as such, when I am suggesting bottles for groups, I can focus on items that need to be moved.”

Wood-Snyderman said he helps manage the season by limiting beverage options for private dining.

“The only way I get through this time of year for our private dining guests is by creating a private dining wine list that is severely truncated from our normal list,” he said.

“My private dining room wine list is about 45 selections, populated by wines that are primarily in the $50 to $150 range, as that is what most of these guests are looking for. And for those wines, I keep a significantly elevated [inventory] of two or more cases on hand.”

In Washington D.C., Winn Roberton, head sommelier at Bourbon Steak D.C., sees his clientele change during the holidays.

“We are located in the Four Seasons Hotel, which is very busy over the holidays,” he said. “There are more families, and less business people, so it's a different kind of fun they are trying to have.”

Winn said he prioritizes keeping things simple and being prepared.

“I'm not buying anything 'off the beaten path' in December,” he said. “I get to have that fun in a different part of the year.”

Wood-Snyderman takes the same approach by listening to what the guests are asking for.

“Order what sells,” he said. “This is not the time of year to try to convince your guests to try new and esoteric offerings.”

Instead, he focuses on premium wines that move well.

“I’m very proactive in my ordering, and order heavy on everything we sell a lot of,” he said. “Obviously, this means upping my pars on all the wines we pour by the glass, but also on the $100-to-$300 bottles that we sell a lot of. To get people to spend money, you need to give them the opportunity to spend money, and running out of their favorite $250 bottle of wine doesn’t help.”

Saenz said his customers are in less of a hurry and more extravagant during the holidays.

“Generally during this time, our guests are willing to spend more and stay longer,” he said, adding that he sees a 25 percent uptick in overall sales during the holidays.

“As such, we see a great increase in bottled wine sales and high-end spirits,” he said. “This is the time of year when we bring in many different whiskeys in higher price brackets since folks are more willing to purchase them.”

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Customers are more apt to purchase high-end spirits and wines during the holidays.

He added that some of his customers are, in fact, interested in more obscure items at this time of year.

“Don’t be afraid to invest in some more hand-sellable items, as the sales opportunities for these are very present,” he said.

Taking advantage of discounts for bulk buying is also a must to enhance profits at this time of year.

“Reach out to distributors to see if there are volume deals for anything that you move a lot of,” Wood-Snyderman said. “This can be for your glass-pour wines, well liquors, common-call liquors, etc. If the price comes down 30 percent on a well-known liquor that you sell a lot of, then buy a bunch of it at once.”

And lastly, keep in mind that the holidays are a memorable time for guests.

“We have a much greater opportunity to make a lasting impression with our food, ambiance, and service at this time of year,” Saenz said. “So we frequently go over the top for guests by putting a greater need for perfection in our execution and hospitality. We want to ensure their celebration is a meaningful and unforgettable experience.”

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