Sponsored by Whirley-DrinkWorks!
In a day of mounting challenges for chain restaurant operators, there is a proven, and some might say underutilized, method of boosting traffic and profits --- using beverage promotions to create exciting, memorable and shareable experiences for customers.
Thoughts about why the guest experience matters, and how beverage promotions can enhance it, were the primary topic of discussion at the third annual beverage marketing roundtable of foodservice executives at the National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago this year. The roundtable was once again sponsored by Whirley-DrinkWorks!, a designer and manufacturer of custom and collectible drinkware for the foodservice industry.
“People are now looking for unique experiences,” says David Morgan, vice president of food and beverage for Dallas-based Omni Hotels & Resorts. He pointed to Omni’s poolside signature drink cocktail promotions that engage guests with stories about distinctive ingredients and novel recipes. One example is the Vermont maple syrup which adds natural sweetness and nuance to drinks like the Handmade Maple Mule and the Banana Bourbon Maple Freeze. Another is the Jalapeño Avocado Margarita which stimulates the sipper’s imagination and palate.
“When we develop cocktails, an important part to us is the story and how it relates to the customer,” says Morgan. “So hopefully they not only spend more money, but they also walk away realizing that they have had a new experience and have learned something.”
Consumers enjoying colorful signature beverages tend to share images of them with their social media friends. “We have been looking a lot at the experience the guest has with the beverage,” says Andrea Benzschawel, director of beverage at Buffalo Wild Wings, a Minneapolis-based casual-dining chain. “We ask ourselves, Is this Instagramable? Is it something cool that they will want to share and talk about having had at Buffalo Wild Wings?”
Buffalo Wild Wings adds to the experience by decorating cocktails with innovative garnishes and by encouraging interaction between the server and guests. An example of the latter is an Avion Tequila shaker margarita program that engages guests by having the server hand-shake the drink at tableside. “We consider ourselves to be an experience brand,” says Benzschawel. “For us, the experience is key.”
Sharing eye-catching images of drinks in collectible drinkware has a major promotional impact, notes another roundtable participant. “Our guests love to Instagram our 32-ounce cup [of McAlister’s Famous Tea],” says Jessica Osborne, director of brand marketing at McAlister’s Deli, a fast-casual sandwich chain based in Atlanta, part of FOCUS Brands. “Our biggest promotions or contests on social media involve taking a picture of yourself with your tea. People just love it and they are fanatic about it. It’s amazing. It’s like free content.”
Also emphasizing the beverage experience is Mellow Mushroom. The pizza-oriented casual-dining chain, also based in Atlanta, was an early proponent of craft beer a few years ago. But as competitors have joined the craft beer bandwagon, Mellow Mushroom has added handcrafted cocktails and premium wines to its promotional repertoire. “It’s still going well with craft beer, but you have to bring more to the table now,” says Eric Brown, director of beverage operations and innovation for Mellow Mushroom.
The goal for Mellow Mushroom is to offer guests a more unique beverage experience than what they would have “if they just ordered their refrigerator beer” or go-to drink, as Brown puts it.
“We want to offer them something that they did not expect and create an experience,” says Brown. “That has been done very well with beer. Now we are also incorporating some handcrafted cocktails and some wines. It’s all about creating that memory.”
Brown sums it up: “If we’ve done our job right, our guest will remember three things when they go home – they enjoyed great food, great beverages and great service.”
There was consensus at the roundtable that beverage promotions which enhance the guest experience are important opportunities to seize today.
The need to focus on beverage service was stressed by three sources:
“Beverage seems to me to be an area where it's relatively easy to create innovation and excitement,” says Neil Culbertson, founder of Growth Partners, a restaurant marketing and consulting firm based in Greenwood Village, Colorado.
“With labor cost getting to where it is, and the margins being what they are on the food side of the business, it's crazy to me that there would not be more focus on beverage,” says Morgan.
“Our channel is being challenged right now,” says Nate Grover, beverage program and innovation manager at Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill & Bar, a casual-dining brand of Glendale, California-based DineEquity Inc. “The bar is a revenue center that at times does not get a lot of focus, although it has high margins. You can really help drive the business if you focus on beverages.”