Everyone’s looking for a reason to celebrate.
That’s what one restaurant marketer says to explain the growing success of holiday promotions on-premise. It started with St. Patrick’s Day crowds jamming into Irish-themed pubs and restaurants; now that holiday has sparked numerous weekend- and week-long parties—even at operations with tangential connections to the Irish.
Meanwhile, Cinco de Mayo is catching on as well, not only in Mexican-related restaurants but all over. For instance, Bahama Breeze offered $5 Margaritas, with some locations additionally hosting block parties with $3 bottled beers, two-for-$5 tacos and empanadas, and live entertainment. TGI Fridays offered Cinco deals on its signature Casamigos Strawberry ’Ritas and Sauza ’Ritas.
But for many operations, St. Patrick’s Day still rules as the busiest day of the year.
At the six units of West Hollywood-based Irish sports bar/gastropub Rock & Reilly’s, St. Patrick’s gets special attention, says Jamie Schneider, director of sales and marketing for parent company the Lore Group.
The chain’s iconic Sunset Strip location hosts an annual block party that brings in 6,000 or so people in the space behind the restaurant. Complete with VIP tents with tables and bottle service, games, eight bars, leprechauns walking around on stilts, bagpipers and food vendors, the charity-tied event runs from 1 p.m. to 10 p.m., Schneider says.
Rock & Reilly’s holds the block party the Saturday before March 17. “We’re so busy on [St. Patrick’s Day] already, that’s why we do the block party the week before—we sort of double dip,” Schneider says. Other Rock & Reilly’s units stick to celebrations on the day, with the expected decorations and green beer, and fare such as shamrock-shaped pretzels, corned beef hash and sliders, bangers and mash, shepard’s pie, and Irish nachos (house-made kettle chips, peppered bacon, Irish cheddar, scallions and corn salsa).
Rock & Reilly’s capitalizes on other holidays as well. For Cinco de Mayo, the chain changes its name to Rock & Rodriquez, inspired by the weekly Rock & Rodriquez Taco Tuesday special. Venues are transformed into Irish Catinas with red and green decor, featured tequila drinks, Coronas and tacos. It’s a more modest promotion compared to St. Patrick’s Day, but still performs well for the participating units.
Cinco Stepping Up
Cinco de Mayo is showing strength as an on-premise celebration. Ironically, the holiday is barely even marked in Mexico: May 5th is the day the Mexican army defeated the French in a battle at Puebla; Mexican Independence Day, achieved 50 years later, is celebrated in September.
But for consumers in the U.S., it’s become a great excuse to drink tequila and enjoy Mexican beer and food.
“Cinco de Mayo is our single biggest sales day of the year, whether our customers know what they’re celebrating or not,” says Kianne Hilburn, marketing manager for Chuy’s Restaurants Chuy’s. The Austin, TX-based Tex-Mex concept, which has 91 locations across 19 states, operates in a lot of college towns, “and this sort of thing really resonates with that demographic and they want to be part of it.” Chuy’s extends its standard 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Happy Hour to the full day on Cinco de Mayo. It partners with Corona beer for a dollar-off promotion, and offers dollar-off floats of Patron tequila or Cointreau or other spirits on Margaritas (in markets where allowed).
Food is important during such traditionally drink-centric partying. Chuy’s creates a free, build-your-own nacho bar served from the trunk of a repurposed Cadillac or other vintage car.
“It’s important on a drinking holiday for people to snack, especially while they’re waiting for their next beer or Margarita,” Hilburn notes.
Menu covers and in-store banners promote the offers in advance. Each Chuy’s restaurant is autonomous in terms of participation, Hilburn says.
Pricing is tiered depending on locations, but the dollar-off holds at all participating units.
Chuy’s also has limited-time T-shirt offers and souvenir cups for Cinco de Mayo. The cups are a key component: “It’s too hard for the dishwashers to keep up on that day with all those glasses, and it’s a nice giveaway, so we sort of kill two birds with one stone,” Hilburn says.
At the other end of the spectrum, Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar’s—not exactly a concept you’d expect to have a Cinco de Mayo special—offered a $100 Margarita. Made with Tequila Herradura Selección Suprema Extra Añejo and Grand Marnier Cuvée du Centenaire, the $100 Margarita was served in glassmaker Baccarat’s Diamant highball glass, which guests were invited to take home in a red Baccarat box.
The fine-dining restaurant featured the cocktail for a few days around Cinco de Mayo weekend in 2017 at its 69 locations.
The promotion was new and unique for Fleming’s marketing plan, says director of wine Stephen Blevins. “We have, of course, done promotions over holidays, but we’d never taken the opportunity to celebrate something that was quite so far out of the usual realm of the luxury steakhouse,” he says.
The $100 Margarita promotion went better than expected, Blevins says. At the time, he worked at a Newport Beach, CA, Fleming’s unit, where word got out in advance of activation and about half a dozen were sold off menu. Some units needed to order additional glassware.
Blevins doesn’t think that running a Cinco de Mayo promotion would become a tradition at Fleming’s every year. “The partnership with Baccarat and Herradura made it special,” he notes. “A large part of the allure for us was not just the high quality of the spirits, but that fact that there was something guests could take home as well.”
More Than One Day
Many operators extend occasions such as Cinco de Mayo. At Chuy’s, “We don’t see it as a single-day event because we’re so jam-packed that day; we want people to have a good experience, but it’s hard to fight tooth and nail to get a seat at the bar or a table,” Hilburn says. “So last year we made it a three-day event to give regular customers a chance to join in.”
What’s more, she says, “We’ve even done a hangover special the day after, with discounts on Tito’s Bloody Marys and dishes served with green chile sauce—which has 10 times the vitamin C as orange juice.”
Kimpton Hotel and Restaurant’s Sable Kitchen & Bar at the Hotel Palomar in Chicago celebrated Cinco this past year with a $35 food-and-beverage pairing for five days. The promo included molé chicken thigh taco, pickled pineapple, cilantro-crema paired with the Mojo Manor (spiced-pineapple syrup, Don Q Cristal rum, lime juice); and frijole charros (rancher’s style beans with rice) paired with a Oaxaca Old-Fashioned (mezcal, tequila, Aztec and orange bitters).
Tijuana Flats one year offered beer specials for five days straight for Cinco de Mayo. The Maitland, FL-based chain, which operates more than 135 units, primarily in the Southeast, routinely teams up with Corona for Mexican beer specials, says chief marketing officer Monique Yeager.
“Our brand is all about the fun: We have live music, drink specials and food specials, but it doesn’t stop there,” Yeager says. For Cinco de Mayo, “Our teams go outrageous with decorations, they design their own shirts for the day, do contests in-store, dress up and throw a party.” It’s such a big day for Tijuana Flats that the entire support staff heads to a restaurant to work for the day, she notes.
Tijuana Flats promotes events to its “Flatheads” customer affiliation group via email and texts. It supports efforts on social media and in some markets in partnership with radio stations. Prizes go to the most creative units.
Other holidays provide plenty of customized promotional opportunities. Halloween, for instance, provides a reason to decorate and host costume contests, along with creative cocktails and menu items.
Sable Kitchen & Bar added a special Halloween cocktail to the seasonal list called the Skullywag. Made with Buffalo Trace bourbon, Rhum Clement Blue, Tempus Fugit crème de cacao, cinnamon syrup, fresh lime juice and Fee Brothers Old-Fashioned bitters served in a skull glass, the cocktail was so well received that Sable added it to the winter menu.
At the Kimpton Grand Hotel Minneapolis, Halloween 2017 brought the $12 Green Goblin (Plymouth gin, green Chartreuse, lime juice, house- made cucumber-limeade syrup) and such dishes as The Eyes Do See You! (squid-ink spaghetti with ricotta quenelles shaped like eye balls with a dash of sriracha in the middle, priced at $10); and Beet The Chicken Across The Road (beet risotto with fried chicken wings and feet, with a skewer of bacon-wrapped grilled chicken hearts and livers) for $13.
Valentine’s Day routinely gets the full romantic dinner treatment at most restaurants, with festive cocktails and specials on Champagne. Rock & Reilly’s offers something a bit different: Shred Your Ex, in which customers are invited to run a photo of their exes through a shredder and get a free drink. It’s quite popular, Schneider says.
Other low-key holiday promos help Rock & Reilly’s build customer loyalty, such as its Orphans’ Thanksgiving and Christmas that include discounted meals and gifts for all customers. On New Year’s Eve, customers receive a glass of Champagne each time the clock strikes midnight in a city named Dublin (five in all).
Louisville KY-based Tumbleweed Tex Mex Grill & Margarita Bar, which runs 20 locations in Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio, will tie in its Margarita of the Month to different holidays, says director of beverage development and purchasing Steve Brooks.
For instance, The Merry Berry, a strawberry Margarita with a red-sugar rim promoted with a dollar-off discount, was a year-end holiday offering; the Margarita of the Month gets a green-sugar rim in March for St. Patrick’s Day.
“We can easily say the most successful Margarita promotions we’ve had are tied to a holiday, because it’s much easier for servers to sell one then, as people make the connection,” Brooks says. The holiday tie-in and dollar-off discount “gives servers two ways to suggestively sell,” he says.
Tumbleweed promotes the holiday Margaritas in store for a month with table tents, on menus and on in-store TV ads. It has competitions within each unit, with prizes for the highest sales for Margarita of the month.
“For us, it helps sales, and we definitely sell more than when we don’t do contests with the staff,” he notes. The specialty Margaritas are also good for Tumbleweed’s bar costs, Brooks adds. “We use a good, if inexpensive, 100% agave tequila, so our bar costs come down and bar sales go up.”
Seize the Days
National days, such as National Tequila Day, National Margarita Day, even National Taco Day, have created opportunities for creative promotion lately as well, says Chuy’s Hilburn.
Other options can bear fruit as well, says Fleming’s Blevins. “There are more than enough off-the-wall holidays, whether it’s Bastille Day or something like that, where we could come up with something very similar in the future,” he notes.
“We certainly spend a lot of effort on Valentine’s Day, New Year’s Eve and so forth, but thinking outside the box more and more of holidays, we’ll try to find unique ways to market to our guests.”
Bevins doesn’t know if holiday promotions are traffic drivers for the chain. “But if we can plan strategically unique program—something like the $100 Margarita that appeals to folks who already come into Fleming’s—that’s an interesting and comfortable way for them to celebrate,” he says.
Jack Robertiello is a freelance spirits writer and judge based in Brooklyn, NY.