Quaker Steak & Lube is known for its wings, its vast assortment of hot sauces and its motorsports-themed decor. The Sharon, PA-based casual-dining chain also aims to be a draw for drinks, thanks to an updated beverage program.
Part of the strategy is quality vs. quantity, notes corporate beverage manager Shannon Salupo, who joined the company in 2016. “When I came in, our beverage alcohol menu was big—it had nearly 50 drinks,” she recalls. “That was a huge challenge for both our operators and suppliers.”
Salupo worked with the team to pare the selection down to 23 drinks. She also refined and redesigned the menu, enhancing descriptions, and adding images: “Customers order with their eyes.”
The revamped beverage menu, unveiled in July 2017, is designed to look like a storybook. The first pages of the book delve into the origins of Quaker Steak & Lube, while an entire page points out the premium spirits brands available. “Our cocktail program has provided us with a big boost, even as casual-dining traffic has been down,” says Salupo.
Getting Back on Track
Launched as a truck stop-styled restaurant in 1974, Quaker Steak & Lube—a play on the motor oil Quaker State—paid homage to classic gas stations and muscle cars. Founders George “Jig” Warren III and Gary “Moe” Meszaros wanted to capture a style of roadside spots that were disappearing amidst the gas crunch of the early ’70s.
Originally a “cook-your-own-steak” restaurant, Quaker Steak & Lube evolved into a casual-dining concept. Menu items today include tacos, fish and chips, ribs, chicken sliders, mac and cheese, as well as its signature wings. The company now serves more than 30 million wings annually.
Quaker Steak & Lube expanded to more than 60 units by 2014, primarily in Pennsylvania and Ohio, with some in the South and Midwest. But The Lube, as it’s known, stalled in November 2015 when the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
TA Restaurant Group, a division of Westlake, OH-based TravelCenters of America, immediately acquired the now 50-unit chain for about $25 million. Looking to expand the brand, TA Restaurant Group has made several capital improvements to Quaker Steak and hired a new corporate chef, Lance Mathews, along with Salupo.
“We are big on entertainment, as well as motor-themed events,” says Salupo, who previously served as casino beverage manager for the Caesars Horseshoe Southern Indiana Hotel and Casino in Elizabeth, IN. In fact, the original location still hosts Bike Nite every Wednesday, while the Middleton, WI, restaurant hosts a Car Cruise-in on Thursday evenings.
’Ritas, Teas and Leaded Lemonade
As with many restaurants, Quaker Steak & Lube’s top-selling cocktail is the Margarita. While she discontinued the less-profitable beverages, Salupo increased the Margarita options.
The standard Lube-A-Rita, priced at $6 to $8 depending on location, is made with Sauza Blue 100% agave tequila, triple sec and the brand’s own citrus Margarita mix. Guests can customize flavors with their choice of strawberry, wildberry, raspberry or mango purées.
Premiumization is a hot trend, so Salupo retained The Classic Patrón Margarita, made with Patrón silver tequila, Cointreau and citrus mix. Salupo reports high sales for this cocktail, but lower margins. Ranging from $9 to $11, “it’s a very conservative price for a top-shelf Margarita with Patron,” she says.
The margins are better, Salupo adds, for the new Desert Cactus ’Rita ($6 to $9), with Jose Cuervo Gold tequila, triple sec, citrus mix and prickly pear purée.
The second-best seller among cocktails at Quaker Steak & Lube is the Long Island Iced Tea, which has long been a staple of the chain. Salupo last year rebranded the cocktail after the chain’s name (like with standard Margarita), christening it the Lube Island Tea.
While the previous version was made with well spirits, the new Lube Island Tea uses premium brands such as Absolut vodka, Cruzan rum and Tanqueray gin. This increased the cocktail price by about $1.50; Lube Island Teas now range in price from $6.50 to $11 depending on location.
Raising the drink price did not hurt sales, Salupo says, because today’s customers have become accustomed to and prefer drinking higher-quality spirits.
The beverage program has come to embrace other elements of the modern cocktail movement.
For instance, The Jameson Peach Smash (priced $6 to $9) is made with Jameson Irish whiskey, peach purée and house lemon sour mix. It’s hand-shaken and served over ice with a fresh grilled peach.
“We’ve also had some success with Tiki” and tropical-inspired drinks, says Salupo. One is the Shark Punch, with Captain Morgan spiced rum, Cruzan silver rum, Malibu coconut rum, banana liqueur, orange and pineapple juices.
Another is the Caribbean Cooler, with Cruzan silver rum, DeKuyper blue curaçao, pineapple and lemon sour. Priced from $6 to $9, the tropical-inspired drinks are served in a Tiki-shaped glass and garnished with plastic fish.
Along the lines of premium beverage options, Quaker Steak & Lube now also offers its Leaded Lube-N-Ade with hand-squeezed lemons and pure cane sugar with Cruzan rum, Tanqueray gin and triple sec. It’s priced from $7.50 to $9; an Unleaded version is available for $3.
The popularity of the chain’s Long Island Iced Teas and boozy lemonades inspired the Deep Eddy Peach Palmer (priced $6 to $9). It’s made with Deep Eddy lemon vodka, peach purée and fresh-brewed sweetened iced tea, shaken up and topped with a fresh grilled peach.
Giving it Some Glass
The tea and lemonade cocktails are served in a logoed bar jar glass that customers can keep. “Glassware continues to contribute more and more to the experience of the cocktail,” Salupo notes. In fact, purchases of the Grand Red Sangria and Moscato Grape Sangria have nearly doubled since the chain began serving the Sangrias in a wine glass vs. the less-appealing pint this past April.
A unique vessel helped sell Salupo on Moscow Mule drinks. Members of the beverage committee had suggested adding Mules during a meeting, but she was skeptical. “I said that we didn’t need the Mules, but the committee convinced me.”
Salupo was glad she changed her mind when she saw how the Mules looked served in a hammered black stainless-steel mug embossed with the Quaker Steak & Lube logo. “They really fit who we are as a brand,” she says.
Priced from $7 to $9.50, the lineup includes a Tito’s Mule, made with Tito’s vodka, a squeeze of fresh lime and Goslings ginger beer; a Strawberry Bourbon Mule, with Maker’s Mark, strawberry, lime and Goslings ginger beer; and a Dark & Stormy Mule, with Goslings dark rum, lime and Goslings ginger beer.
The latest drink menu launched in April. Preliminary results were showing the Coconut Whiskey Colada (made with Stillhouse coconut whiskey and house-made banana mix), Tito’s Strawberry Lemonade and the Tito’s Vodka Mule as the front-runners.
Most Quaker Steak & Lube locations have around 20 beer tap handles. Any more than than, Salupo believes, and operators may face difficulties rotating in so many different draft options.
Of the 20 taps, corporate mandates about half. “We went from three to our mandates of 10 to 12,” Salupo says. “It was a big change, but it helped create a more consistent program across the board. It seems to be working so far.”
All locations must offer at least four tap handles of local beers. Local intelligence is vital to the success of any beer program, Salupo says, so operators are encouraged to look at the data for what regional brews sell best.
The must-stock brews include domestic light lagers and macro brands such as Bud Light, Coors Light and Blue Moon, and popular imports including Stella Artois, Corona, Heineken and the red-hot Modelo—which is up double digits, Salupo says. Lagunitas IPA is starting to make its way onto most tap lines as well.
For all of the hype over craft beer, Salupo cautions operators not to lose track of the profitability of domestic light brews. “For most restaurants, that’s the majority of their beer sales,” she says. “It’s become a forgotten category, underappreciated at this point.”
Guests can select any draft beer to be served in the signature, 100-oz. Lube Tube glass. Prices range from $20 to $35 depending on the style of beer, Salupo says, though many restaurants offer $15 domestic specials on select days.
The chain currently a few canned beers, including Pabst, and Yuengling Black and Tan where available. “It’s definitely worth looking more into the opportunity” for more cans, Salupo says.
Restaurants will often plan events with their local breweries, which helps create buzz. For example, the Quaker Steak in Vermilion, OH, teams up with Cleveland-based Great Lakes Brewing Co. on Pints for Pups. Of the $10 initial purchase (which includes the pint glass), $5 goes to the local Sandusky Human Society, as does $1 out of every refill.
Although wine may not be the first beverage that comes to mind at a chain famous for hot wings, Salupo believes there’s room for category growth. She expanded the wine program which was previously just a few options by Barefoot and Kendall-Jackson.
Salupo looked to the category’s fun side and some of the current trends in wine packaging. For instance, the house option is now a boxed wine from The Original House Wine.
Available in merlot, chardonnay, riesling and moscato, it’s priced from $5 to $7 a glass. “It’s neat, fun packaging that appeals to anyone looking at it,” Salupo explains.
Another new option is canned wine from Underwood in Oregon, available in pinot noir, pinot grigio and rosé. The 12-oz. Underwood cans, priced from $13 to $16, yield about two-and-a-half servings.
Salupo likes the larger format because the can is shareable and the packaging appeals to guests. “When they see it, everyone wants to try it,” she explains.
The two premium options are Josh Cellars cabernet sauvignon and Chloe chardonnay. The menu now includes tasting notes on these wines.
Shaking It Up
Quaker Steak & Lube earlier this year launched several limited-time flavor offerings including a Beer of the Month and seasonal, limited-edition adult milkshakes—available in spiked and non-alcoholic versions.
The adult shakes LTO rotate every two months. This past February and March highlighted the Jim Beam Cocoa Puff Shake, made with ice cream, Jim Beam bourbon and Cocoa Puffs cereal. The alcohol-free version of the same contained the same Cocoa Puff base with hints of banana.
The LTO shake for April and May was Absolut Lime vodka blended with Edy’s ice cream and Skittles candies. The summer cocktail is a Cruzan Tropical Fruit Rum shake made with Jolly Rancher candies, while the fall will bring a shake with sea-salted caramel.
The brand is using social media and digital platforms to announce the new shakes while building hype and connections with their fans. This is the first time Quaker Steak & Lube has ever done adult shakes, Salupo notes, “and we’re seeing a lot of excitement.”
Priced from $5 to $6, the shakes are “a great value” for guests, Salupo says. “We’ve been playing around with candy and fun flavors,” she adds. “This is an area where people want to taste something a little bit different.”
Salupo was part of a six-person team that traveled around to the brand’s 50 locations in July 2017 to update Quaker Steak & Lube employees on the new menus.
Even in the era of Skype and YouTube, Salupo puts much stock in face-to-face meetings. A recent industry study found that most bar staff polled still wanted live, in-person training, she says. “I believe that education and training are the most important things to our success.”
The expanding wine program has Salupo getting out more to help educate staff on-site. “I want to explain to them in-person why we’re doing this, and how it fits with our brand,” she says.
The visits include tasting the wines, and lessons in how to recognize important aspects such as specific flavors and tannins. “I want to help them learn and really get behind this,” Salupo says. “The way to keep from failing is to make sure that we love what we do.”