Sales of adult beverages in the U.S. increased in 2011 and will continue to rise, according to a study by restaurant research firm Technomic.
Technomic's 2012 BarTAB (Trends in Adult Beverage) report showed that sales of beer, wine and spirits in restaurants increased 4.9 percent in 2011, reaching $93.7 billion and are trending up for 2012 and 2013.
One reason for that sales growth and its predicted continuation may be pent-up demand left over from the recession, said Technomic senior director Donna Hood Crecca. “Now that we’re into the recovery and consumer confidence is improving, they’re giving in and going for that affordable indulgence,” she said.
According to the report, one third of consumers say that alcoholic beverages at a restaurant influence their decision to go there, meaning that adult drinks are becoming a competitive differentiator. “Operators are also doing a great job promoting [drinks],” Crecca added. “They’re doing beer dinners and tequila dinners. That generates excitement among consumers.”
The study also found that when it comes to beverage sales, beer is, by far, the largest on-premise category, accounting for more than four-fifths of all beverages sold. Imported and craft beers are growing in popularity. Craft beer volumes increased 11 .4 percent during 2011, while imported beers grew about 1 percent, Crecca said.
But because domestic beer brands still make up most U.S. on-premise beer sales, restaurateurs and bar owners should be cognizant that the craft beer trend is just that — a trend, she noted. “There’s a lot of growth in craft beer; there’s a lot of excitement around it,” Crecca said. “But craft remains kind of a small part of the overall beer business. The major domestic brands are still holding on to the lion's share.”
Spirits make up one-third of total on-premise beverage dollars, the study found, with vodka being the largest spirit category. Crecca noted that single-malt scotch and cognac are also growing categories within spirits.
More than three-quarters of all consumers also order food with their adult beverages, making it an important growth category for restaurateurs. In addition, more and more consumers are starting to think about food and drink together, Crecca said, and restaurateurs would be smart to capitalize on the trend.
“There’s larger interest in how food and beverage work together,” she said. “Blending food and drink together, whether it be a spiked milkshake or a bourbon glaze, I think is great for both the drink side of the menu and the food side of the menu."
Customers are simply looking for more complex flavor profiles — something booze can provide, said Crecca.
The alcohol-and-food pairings are already popping up on restaurant menus. Applebee’s last month introduced its spirit-infused menu, which included Brew Pub Pretzels & Beer Cheese Dip and Napa Chicken & Portobellos, a dish made with chicken breast in a cabernet demi-glace. In September, Red Robin introduced a beer milkshake made with Samuel Adams Octoberfest draft, vanilla, caramel and soft-serve ice cream.
Crecca notes that restaurants should be benchmarking their own adult beverage sales and noting if they are keeping pace with the industry as a whole. “Are their bar sales up? If not, they should maybe delve into their programs and see what might be holding them back,” she said.
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