Upscale pies pair with house-brews, imported wines and flavored Martinis.
Traditionally, pizza restaurants have been largely the domain of big fountain sodas and bottles of beer. But that was before pizza went upscale. Now, sporting such succulent toppings as roasted duck, tandori chicken, artichoke hearts and fresh clams, pizza has moved uptown. So it’s no surprise that the beverage side of the pizza business is keeping pace.
According to Clark Wolf, a national food and restaurant consultant, customers are expecting more from their pizza and that, in turn, means they’re expecting more from their drink options.
“It used to be that pizza was just convenient and comforting,” he says. “Now, people go out for pizza for a lot of reasons. Some of it’s qualitative, wanting something good and tasty. Sometimes pizza is considered a light, wholesome meal.” He adds that, “Pizza is so upscale now that you can go out for a slice of pizza with a client. And as pizza moves upscale and diversifies, the options of what goes with it in the glass increase.”
Right now, Wolf sees the upscale pizza restaurants following many of the same beverage trends as the rest of the food industry. “The most exciting trends right now are micro-brews; Italian varietals, especially those made in this country; and that little tiny trend that seems to be eking out everywhere: ‘tinis, especially Vodka Martinis,” he says.
BREWING UP CUSTOMERS
Pairing pizza with beer is nothing new. What’s new are the beers themselves. More than ever, pizza restaurants are opting for regional microbrews that offer their customers a unique flavor, a variety of options and a point of differentiation.
Some companies, such as Pizza Port, a southern California chain, have gone one step further brewing their own specialty beers right on-premise. “We opened in 1987 with just pizza, and then we started buying the best microbrews we could find at that time,” says Mike Gabbard, general manager of Pizza Port’s Solana Beach location. “Brewing started out as a hobby of the owners. It kind of got out that the owners were making really good beers, and it ballooned from there.”
The restaurant started brewing beers for sale in 1992. “When we first started brewing in San Diego, it was very limited,” Gabbard adds. “The style of beer that we were trying to introduce to customers was very new, so it took five or six years for customers to really get into it.”
Thirteen years and numerous awards later, Pizza Port attracts customers often just for the beer. “We get a lot of visitors for the beer, and once they get here, they find we have great pizza, too.”
Currently, Pizza Port offers a rotating selection of more than 30 house brews. Most of the beers tip their hat to the favorite local pastime surfing with names such as Sharkbite Red, Boardwalk Brown and Wipeout IPA.
Gabbard believes the appeal of on-location brews is based on customers’ increased knowledge of, and interest in, what they’re drinking. “People are more educated, partly as a result of the Internet,” he says. “And once they taste something unique, they want to know why it tastes that way. They’re asking different questions, so it forces us to be more educated than just a beer slinger. When you’re making your own beer, you can talk with the brewers and the owners to find out why they did this or that and then pass that on to the customers.”
BJ’s Pizza and Grill, a 36-restaurant chain that serves up deep-dish pizzas, also capitalizes on the interest in on-location brewing with 10 microbrewery locations. The breweries are open-air, allowing customers to watch the beer being made while they nosh on slices. “If you come at the right time, you can see the brew master in there working,” says Shawn Fulk, manager of BJ’s Lloyd-center location in Portland, OR. “It’s a huge draw.”
The company offers six house staples, such as Nutty Brewnette, as well as three to four specialty items. “At Halloween time, we do a pumpkin ale, which is always a huge favorite,” says Fulk. “One of our most popular draws is BJ’s beer of the month, which is when our brew master gets a little crazy. He does something different every time.”
Additional crowd pleasers are the restaurant’s daily Hoppy Hour, which features half-price appetizers and discounted beer, and BJ’s 1/2 gallon growler to go. “We fill it with beer, seal it off, cap it and send them home,” Fulk says. “Customers can take the experience and flavor home with them.”