Although there are no cardinal rules decreeing what we should or shouldn’t drink while dining in an Italian restaurant, certain beverage choices are considered “givens,” and wine happens to be the top choice in that category. There is room available on menus for beer drinkers as well as the spirited few, but in most Italian restaurant chains, wine sales, in particular red, still out-cork the rest.
At Il Fornaio, Chianti Classico is the top seller by the glass and bottle.
Rules or no rules, in conversations with a number of Italian chain beverage pros, the majority of customers who select red-sauced pastas, pizza and “center of the plate” meat dishes prefer red wine, while those ordering seafood or white sauced pasta favor white. At most operations, servers are coached and trained to sell more beverages through programs run both on- and off-site by wine and beer distributors, and in-house promotions are used to help move new and old inventory alike. Wine sold by the glass outsells bottles, and if available, house brands outsell everything.
IN THE OVEN
Michael Beatrice, CEO of the Italian “smart casual” privately-held Il Fornaio chain, says their house wine, their number one seller by the glass and bottle, is a Chianti Classico produced specifically for them in the Dievole winery in Tuscany–one of the oldest wineries in the world. A half-bottle of Il Fornaio’s Chianti Classico sells for $14.50 and a bottle goes for $27. Number two and three on the list, also under the Il Fornaio label, are their house chardonnay
and pinot grigio, produced for them in a small specialty vineyard in California.
Located in five states, primarily in California and Nevada, Il Fornaio is a 24-unit chef-driven organization offering high-end tasty Italian dishes such as Antipasti Carciofini Ripieni–baby artichokes stuffed with calamari, bread crumbs and parmesan cheese, baked in a wood-fired oven, served over pesto sauce and topped with crispy leeks. The core wine list is representative of the major growing regions of Italy, and includes a smaller selection of domestic wines.
According to Beatrice, 85% to 90% of their wine by the glass and core list is developed by a wine consultant and their executive chef. Units must carry a minimum of 12 wine selections by the glass, with the balance of the lists selected by individual unit management. General managers are educated on wines and are allowed the flexibility to make wine selections incorporating wines indigenous to their area.
The by-the-glass list is reviewed and changed four times annually, and their core bottle list is reviewed three times each year. Both lists are about the same at all Il Fornaio units, but reserve lists are selected by
local managers for each location. The Corte Madera, CA location reserve list, for instance, has more than 150 selections, 90-plus on their core bottle list and just under 20 available by the glass.
By-the-glass prices range from $5.95 to $12, and the core bottle list ranges from $23 to $100, while some wines on the reserve list top $200. Average bottle sales run between $20 and $40, and by-the-glass wines average $6.50. “Overall beverage sales run almost 30% with wine probably making up 70% of that,” says Beatrice.
PIZZA AND MORE
Headquartered in Northborough, MA, the 90-restaurant Bertucci’s Brick Oven Pizzeria chain has locations spread throughout the East between New Hampshire and North Carolina. Wine pairing suggestions are offered next to certain items on the menu; for example, Hess Select Chardonnay is paired with Scallops
Bertucci’s offers 25 selections of wine, with over half being Italian, ranging from $3.79 to $6.79 a glass. Steven Scrima, vice president of food, beverage and procurement says, “We definitely sell more wine by the glass, no doubt about it.” Top five sellers by the glass are Belmondo Pinot Grigio, Ecco Domani Merlot, Ruffino Chianti, Beringer White Zinfandel and Black Swan Shiraz. Bottles run from $19.99 to $34.99 with Ruffino Chianti leading sales at $19.99. Number two and three are Ecco Domani Merlot and Beringer White Zinfandel.
Antipasta from Romano’s Macaroni Grill
“The main things driving our wine selection are guest comments and industry trends, what people tell us they are looking for, and what we read,” says Scrima. The wine list usually changes twice a year–with the bottom three sellers being replaced. Out of total alcohol sales, 51% comes from wine. “Currently our new list that we are going to go live with in June, we’re adding six to ten–we definitely want to expand on the category and will continue to do so as well,” says Scrima.
CHIANTI IS KING
Based in Minneapolis, MN, the 95-unit Buca di Beppo chain proudly touts a best-selling house Chianti, Buca Il Piaggione Chianti. A blend of sangiovese, canaiolo, malvasia and trebbiano grapes, the wicker-wrapped Buca Chianti is a soft, dry red wine with hints of vanilla and blackberry. Glasses go for $6.95, 1 liter for $26.95, 1.5 liter for $36.95 and a 3-liter bottle for $61.95.
Adrienne Uitz, manager of beverage purchasing and programs, says, “Hands down, without even a close second, we sell the most of our house Chianti which is produced and sold exclusively for us. It’s proprietary for Buca and number one in sales by the bottle and the glass. The next closest second would be our Il Piaggione Chianti Riserva, which sells for $7.50 a glass,” she says.
Jeff Abramson, Buca’s senior director of purchasing, says, “Nine out of our top ten wines are red, and out of our 48 wines, 47 are Italian. Selection influences include high quality and excellent value Italian wines that people aren’t familiar with in their everyday life.” Buca managers are planning to complement their immigrant Italian food image by adding an Italian immigrant wine page. Currently being tested in three markets, this summer’s new page will include 12 to 14 wines showcasing Italian-American wine makers from California.
Across the board, the wine selection is the same, and is reviewed approximately once a year. “We average 60% of our total alcohol sales as wine sales, 20% are beer and 20% are spirits,” says Uitz.
A survey of leading Italian chain restaurants wouldn’t be complete without including Brinker International concepts Romano’s Macaroni Grill and Maggiano’s Little Italy. Both, along with five other Brinker concepts, are based in Dallas, TX.
Although unwilling to tip their hand on sales percentages for competitive reasons, Brinker International spokesperson, Chris Barnes, says, “Obviously, wine is a very significant part of our beverage mix for both concepts.”
The 212-unit Romano’s Macaroni Grill offers a little over 30 wines with two-thirds being domestic. Peter Czizek, beverage director, says, “We sell more wine by the glass, with our Macaroni Grill label house wine being our best seller.” The chain offers a Chianti-style red, a chardonnay and a white zinfandel, all produced in California. Merlot, chardonnay and pinot grigio from the premium wine list are the top choices after the house wine, with by-the-glass prices ranging from $3.99 to $8.50 and $16 and $70 for bottles.
Romano’s officials recently looked at their wine selections through the purchasing habits in restaurants as well as in the retail segment. “We also try to stay ahead of the trend a bit by offering varietals or wines from certain regions or countries that we feel are up and coming, such as the rise in popularity of Australian wines and varietals such as sauvignon blanc and riesling,” says Czizek.
“Our servers greet every table with our Macaroni Grill label Chianti. We offer the wine at the beginning of the meal, as part of our Italian heritage. As far as specific wines with certain dishes go, we teach our servers that there are no wrong wine choices when it comes to our great Italian food. They all complement each other very well,” says Czizek. Additionally, like Bertucci’s, Macaroni Grill lists wine suggestions next to their featured menu items.
Dave Pennachetti, beverage director of the 28-unit Maggiano’s Little Italy says, “The majority of our top choices are Italian wines, the top three being pinot grigio, Chianti Classico and merlot.” Prices by the glass range from $5.50 to $9.95 and from $22 to $160 for bottles. Servers are trained to suggest wine with certain dishes. “Guests normally order Chianti or Chianti Classico with tomato-based pastas such as spaghetti and meatballs and chicken parmesan. They also order pinot grigio or chardonnay with salads and appetizers and merlot or cabernet with meat-based dishes,” says Pennachetti.
BERTUCCI’S BRICK OVEN
PIZZERIA BEER LIST
(top sales #)
DRAFT BEER ($3.99 TO $4.99)
Sam Adams (#1 by far)
Coors Light (#2)
Bud Light (#3)
BOTTLED ($3.49 TO $3.99)
Bud Light (#1)
Michelob Ultra (#3)
Coors Light (#4)
Sam Adams Light
Sam Adams Seasonal
St. Pauli Girl (non-alcoholic)
BEER AND SPIRITS, ITALIAN STYLE
Beer is not a big part of the program at some of these Italian chains; At Il Fornaio, for example, list selection is made up individually at the units with a dozen beers at the most. In fact, corporate level executives don’t facilitate the beer selection at all. The mix generally runs between $5 and $7 and includes an Italian beer or two, such as a Moretti or Peroni, a light beer and Heineken.
But at Bertucci’s, beer sales account for 36% of total alcohol sales. Customer requests, consultations with distributors, and industry trends dictate Bertucci’s beer list. “We sell an equal amount of draft and bottled beer and more domestic than imported, with the majority of that being limited by choice because we only have Peroni and Heineken on for imports,” says Steven Scrima, vice president of food, beverage and procurement. Corporate headquarters requires 13 beers on the menu, allowing local managers 4 to 6 choices, enabling them to incorporate popular local beers.
Buca di Beppo keeps beer on the down low. “We only offer one bottled beer – an Italian import beer, Moretti, in both a pilsner or rossa. On tap we work with Miller Lite, Coors Light, Sam Adams Boston Lager and Heineken,” says Adrienne Uitz, manager of beverage purchasing and programs. Average price for all beer is $4.75.
As for beer sales, Romano’s Macaroni Grill is split evenly between draft and bottles, led by domestic brands. Core beer selections are based upon the most popular brands and trends including Michelob Ultra. Domestic bottles sell between $3.25 and $3.79 and imports range from $3.95 to $4.25.
Maggiano’s beverage director, Dave Pennachetti, says beer sales are split evenly between bottle and draft, attributing 60% to imported and 40% domestic. Beer selection is skewed more to imported than domestic, with lagers, ales and stouts included, as well as a few light beers, low carb and non-alcoholic. “We have a core selection and allow local options based on popular regional brands, i.e. Yuengling in PA, Coors Light in CO, and Shiner in TX,” says Pennachetti. Domestic prices run between $3.75 and $4.25 and imports go for $4.95 and $5.25.
Maggiano’s also does well with a Frozen Peach Bellini, its signature drink made with peach purée, sparkling wine, rum and peach schnapps. San Pellegrino and Panna Mineral Water round out the Italian beverages on the menu.
At Il Fornaio, specialty Italian beverages include a Bellini made with fresh peach puree nectar; a Negroni made with Tanqueray gin, Campari and sweet vermouth; Limoncello; La Dolce Vita, made with Disaranno Amaretto, cranberry juice and fresh squeezed orange juice; and a Vanigliatini with Stoli Vanil vodka and Tuaca liqueur.
Buca will be upgrading its spirits menu, with a summer roll-out of a new signature drink menu with specialty Italian influenced cocktails. “We’re thinking that our percentages would change somewhat when we do our new signature drinks–that more sales will shift toward spirits,” says Abramson. “We already do have an after-dinner offering on our dessert menu, Limoncello, that sells for $3.25 a shot and a bottle is $13.95,” says Uitz.
At Bertucci’s, a full bar is offered in most locations, with cocktails accounting for 13% of alcohol sales. The eight Martinis on the menu go for $6.99 and include a Perfect Italian Martini, consisting of Tanqueray Ten, dry and sweet vermouth and a hint of amaretto, and a Limoncello Martini made with vodka and Limoncello. “We also move quite a bit of bottled water,” says Scrima. Half and full liters of bottled Fonteviva Italian Mineral Water, with and without gas, sell for $2.99 and $4.99 respectively.