It’s a problem many Asian restaurants are starting to address, including the idea that “in Asian restaurants only beer is the best beverage of choice,” says Chitdamrong.
“Ten years ago in any Asian restaurant there would not have been more than 25 selections of wine because the public wasn’t open to Asian cuisine, and alcohol was not perceived as part of the Asian culture. But now people have been eating a lot more ethnic cuisine so the market is more open and willing to experience something new,” he says.
Indeed, today there IS a different story. With beverage selections on the rise in Asian restaurants, it’s apparent that Americans are slowly beginning to outgrow these stereotypes. Through customer education, increased exposure and awareness of ethnic cuisine, and the demand for a full-fledged dining experience, Asian restaurants are experiencing growth not only in wine, but beer and spirits as well. Riding along on the rim, there’s also more interest in saké awareness and premium availability, as well as specialty signature drinks dancing to an Asian twist.
LESS BEER, MORE WINE
“Tsingtao is the only beer we carry,” says Chitdamrong. “Beer works good with certain dishes like our spicy beef salad, but it limits the full flavor potential of the dishes. Wine enhances our food to a higher level because of the fruit of the wine, the style finesse and elegance, and the acidity. With Asian food the beverage should have a high acidity to penetrate the different flavors inherent to Thai food.”
No doubt, you get the point that at Erawan, wine rules and consequently their royal Thai menu is created to match the wine. Selling mostly by the bottle and the majority being under $100, Chitdamrong offers 300 different selections combining old and new world wines. Best sellers include an Austrian riesling, a New Zealand sauvignon blanc, California chardonnay and pinot noir, and an Australian shiraz.
So how is Erawan doing and how do they do it? Beverages account for 35% of total sales, and not surprisingly, wine accounts for 30%, almost all of that. Chitdamrong believes that initially it’s up to the customer to become open-minded enough to discover that the wine really does enhance the food to a higher level. In addition to the staff being well versed in suggesting wines, “we have a sommelier that goes to each table and help the customer pair what they’ve ordered with one wine to give them more excitement for a better dining experience–by bringing out more flavor. This way we build up our customer’s confidence so the next time they come in they are more comfortable,” says Chitdamrong.
Although their staff is also well trained in wine pairings, chic Pan Asian restaurant Karma, in a Crowne-Plaza Hotel in suburban Mundelein, Illinois, beverage sales are heaviest in spirits. Beverage sales run around 25% and according to Kerri Schweda, general manager, “are growing toward 30%.” Wine sales account for 25% and the 23 selections of beer including Ashai, Sapporo and Tsingtao, account for the remaining 15%.
Of total beverage sales, spirits weigh in at 60%. “Generally our customers start off with cocktails in the lounge that they might carry to the table with them,” says. Schweda. They sell primarily vodka Martinis and find their signature drinks, Gingertini and Karma Electra, are very popular.
Once they get to the table, Schweda says, “our servers are trained to recommend a certain glass or bottle of wine with certain dishes. Educating ourselves, we do wine tastings a couple times a week where our chef lets us sample special dishes, letting the staff know which wines will best pair. He gives us the basis of what we should be looking for, and then as a team, we decide what is the best match. We also have wine vendors that come in and do wine tastings.”
Karma offers 28 wine selections ranging from $22 to $85 a bottle but sells mostly by the glass–offering 14 selections ranging from $5 to $9–with a pinot grigio from California and an Argentinean chardonnay in number one slots.
Under that wine umbrella, Karma sells three varieties of traditional saké and five infused sakés including citrus, pear and raspberry flavors. “Saké is coming around with traditional sakés more popular. People are not all that familiar with it and it’s been hard to promote, so from time to time we walk around the lounge on a Saturday night when they’re waiting to be seated and offer little samples. We sell a lot of Sho Chiku Bai Saké which we serve in a little tiny green bottle that people seem to enjoy.” In addition, when they do order, Schweda says, “if they’re saké drinkers they generally order it warm, and if it’s their first time they’ll try it chilled.”
KEEP IT COOL
Serving it warm, however, is no longer the norm. At Doraku, Benihana’s sushi concept based in Miami’s South Beach, more than 20 different kinds of premium saké are served at room temperature or chilled. Kevin Aoki, vice president of marketing for the international Japanese restaurant chain says, “in Japan, when it’s cold outside they heat up saké to warm you up and when it’s hot they serve it cold. The sakés that were first imported were less expensive so when warmed they went down more smoothly.
“We’ve been serving saké for 35 years and we’re going to be adding four different premium sakés from tart to fragrant to smooth and dry.” In addition to the premium sakés, Benihana is launching fifteen saké cocktails consisting of saké, fresh fruit nectars and alcoholic beverages. “We’re trying to create drinks to get people to try saké in cocktails hoping that they will eventually try our premium sakés,” says Aoki.
In addition to saké and saké-based cocktails, Benihana offers ten wine bottle selections under $50 (not counting champagne), four wines by the glass for $5.75 and seven types of beer including Sapporo, Asahi and biggest seller, Kirin. “Twenty years ago beverage sales were up to 20% and then around 10 years ago it dropped to about 15%. With the awareness the Mothers Against Drunk Driving brought, people were drinking less and it dropped,” says Aoki. “During the last 2-3 years we’ve been creeping back up and today were about 17%.”
Aoki believes the addition of sushi to the menu helped steer customer interest toward wine. “In the past 20 years we’ve added sushi bars in all our restaurants and since we’ve done that, people who are favored to eat sushi are shifting from cocktails to beer and wine.”
Customer demand is also responsible for beverage sales creeping back up. “Our customer base is getting more younger and they are more appreciative of different name brand wines instead of generic–and are willing to pay for them,” says Aoki. “They are becoming more specific on what they want and more educated on the different qualities of wine. Five years ago our servers would have been asking if they would like red or white with their meal where now it’s, ‘Chardonnay, Cabernet, Merlot?'”