If you’re like most operators, you have a bottle or two–maybe even dozens–of ultra-premium spirits on your backbar. Their mere presence lends an aura of class to the bar, signifying your establishment’s good taste. But often, these expensive products end up sitting on the shelf, gathering dust, waiting for the high roller to walk in the door.
Even if you have only one bottle of these top drawer brands, they constitute expensive inventory. Most likely, they also represent some of the best margins in the bar. So why not put them to work? The fastest, and best, way to get them to move is to hand-sell them. And with the holiday season upon us, customers will be even more inclined to splurge.
Hand-selling is perhaps the most artful of all forms of salesmanship. It requires acute powers of observation, a good sense of timing and great presentation skills. It is more proactive yet not as pushy as up-selling, another way to get a customer to order a higher class spirit. “Sounds difficult,” you say, but with practice anyone can learn to do it.
So just what is hand-selling?
“High-end spirits don’t sell themselves,” said Arnie Millan, owner of Avenue One, a French bistro in Seattle. “You really have to talk about them.”
“Hand-selling means getting behind small producers of new and interesting products that we can tell stories about,” said John Lancaster, wine director of Boulevard in San Francisco.
“Hand-selling means having an awareness of what we’ve got and taking advantage of opportunities to sell it,” said Bill Hemme, bar manager at Four Farthings, Chicago.
The purpose of hand-selling, in fact, is not just about making a buck, or an extra buck. It’s more esoteric than that. While up-selling is a straightforward no-nonsense way to increase check averages, hand-selling is a more subtle attempt to match a customer’s tastes with something that will knock his or her socks off.
“We put things out there that people haven’t had to give them a memorable experience,” Lancaster said. “There are a lot of dining options out there. This is a way to get people to come back. It’s a way to put a capper on a great evening.”
Hand-selling is reserved for your best stock because typically it is the least known and understood of all the brands in your bar. The spirits your staff hand-sells will be those that require and deserve an explanation about why they are rare, unique and expensive. Well vodka needs no explanation, but customers should be told why a quadruple-distilled vodka made with organic wheat commands a higher price.
What you stock at the upper end in spirits really depends on what type of place you have, where your interests and those of your customers lie. In general, you should stock enough brands in any category to give customers a selection in terms of both price and taste. You may decide, for example, not to carry many single malt Scotches, but concentrate instead on cognacs. Offer a selection at several different price points. If you have a few at one price point, make sure they are distinct enough that servers have a way of helping customers choose one over another, based on their tastes.
“I will carry some things because the quality is such that I have to have it,” Lancaster said. “I carry things at different price points to offer our customers value and give people an option, and I choose things based on seasonality.”
Last summer, for example, the restaurant pushed its selection of specialty rums with rum-inspired drinks from Brazil. This fall and winter, it will feature warm drinks made with other high end spirits.
“Everything in our restaurant is chosen for a reason,” said Avenue One’s Millan. “We select products that offer good quality and good value. There’s a lot of passion that goes into selecting product.”
“There are so many Scotches to choose from, for example, that we only have a few,” said Michelle Mace, Avenue One’s bar manager. “What we look for is lack of availability, something unique, something that will advance people’s palates. Then we try to make sure we have a representative selection–Highland, Lowland, sherry woods, port woods, and so forth.”
Inventory can be small or large based on the operation. Grove, a small bistro in New York, has a relatively small inventory of ultra-premiums. “It makes more sense for a neighborhood place like ours to have only a few ultra-premiums to choose from instead of lots like a really expensive bar,” said Gabrielle Lowe, Grove’s manager.
Other operations offer an inventory that differentiates them from the competition. Maya, a Mexican restaurant in New York, specializes in tequilas. Herradura Gold is the house tequila, there are a dozen margaritas on the menu, and some of the restaurant’s boutique tequilas command as much as $100 a drink.
Heartland Brewery, New York, stocks a broad selection of ultra- premium spirits just to compete. “In New York we have no choice but to remain competitive in spirits, not just beer,” said Manny Manno, general manager. “The emphasis is always on beer, but we have all the convenience of a regular bar. It’s well worth it to have 25 vodkas.” The brewpub also carries 45 single malt Scotches.
Mano A Mano
Like any other form of selling, hand-selling is really a matter of giving customers what they want. The key is providing them with enough information to make a decision.
“Anybody who comes in wants to be told what to have,” said Manno. “You just have to find a way to tell them.”
“Every customer you have is an opportunity to hand-sell a product,” agreed Mace, “an opportunity to find out what they have a taste for and what you have to match.”
Seek opportunities. Use any opening you can find to talk about your high-end spirits. The inventory you carry should reflect your operation, so you should be as proud of your selection of high-end spirits as you are of your food. Many operations have a daily sheet of special menu items. When servers approach a table for a cocktail order, encourage them to present a few specials featuring ultra- premium spirits.
Any time you bring something new into the bar, have your servers tell customers about it. “We have from seven to nine wines by the glass and wines on the chalkboard that change at least monthly, so of course we hand-sell those,” said Hemme. “Spirits are no different; there are a million new vodkas out, and we just got a new cognac. It’s a matter of letting people know it’s available.”
Old Bay Restaurant, New Brunswick, NJ, is known for its boutique specialty beers. It has 22 on tap, several on hand pumps, and its list changes two to three times a week. Servers are used to hand-selling what’s new, so when new spirits come in, they know how to promote them.
Be alert for customers who are celebrating a special occasion. Have servers ask as a matter of course whether anyone at the table is celebrating a birthday, anniversary or promotion. Special occasions give customers a reason to order something out of the ordinary, and give servers another opportunity to talk about ultra- premiums.
Match spirits with items on the menu. Boulevard often offers house-infused vodkas, for example — fruit flavors in summer, or a ginger-infused vodka to go with tuna tartare.
Many customers splurge on after-dinner drinks to cap off a good meal. Use that as an opportunity to present liqueurs, cognacs and other spirits. Have servers observe what people drink before a meal, then recommend after-dinner drinks based on their customers’ tastes and what they might like.
“We do a lot of hand-selling, especially with spirits, toward the end of a meal,” Lancaster said. “Things like dessert wines or more obscure liqueurs to go with dessert, like a Calvados with an apple tart.”
Create opportunities. Make your own opportunities to feature and talk about spirits. Sales of single malt scotch really took off at Heartland Brewery after the brewpub started hosting tastings. Bring in a distiller’s rep or other expert to present, talk about and taste a category of spirits. Consider offering your own samplers or flights to let customers experience the differences among spirits from different producers.
Pair spirits with foods, just as you would wine or beer. Old Bay Restaurant has organized beer dinners for years, pairing a multi-course meal with beers from a single country or brewer. Recently, it hosted a bourbon cocktail and beer dinner, featuring a Manhattan, Old Fashioned and mint julep made with different bourbons. There are plans to branch out in other directions in the future. The special dinners are promoted with signs in the bar and a mailing to a 4,000-customer list. Servers are offered incentives to sell tickets.
Use beverage menus or spirits lists to pique customer interest in your selection. More and more operations use a bar list in addition to a wine list to let customers know what they have. Add a one- or two-sentence description to each selection instead of just listing products. Descriptions give customers an idea of what to expect, make spirits sound more interesting and give both customers and servers a starting point for discussion.
“We use a beverage menu to break down what’s interesting and different about our selection,” said Stacey Dempsey, food and beverage controller at Maya. “We find interesting stories about tequila companies and fun things about the families that produce tequila.”
“We have a couple of waiters who can sell almost anything,” said Lowe. “They could sell you the Brooklyn Bridge to eat. But we try hard not to be too pushy.”
Hand-selling, again, is a matter of giving your customers an opportunity to buy. What you say depends on the situation, but first and foremost, your job is to find out what your guests want.
“We feel out customers for what taste they’re looking for,” said Stefanie Gerken, general manager of Hudson Club. “We cater to each individual. Our list tends to be intimidating; it’s the staff’s job to make it fun and understandable.”
Finding out what customers have a taste for is a matter of asking the right questions. “When a customer asks about tequila, the staff is trained to ask how they’re drinking it, how they like it, what taste they’re looking for,” said Dempsey. “When people are paying up to $100 a drink, we ask what flavors they like, whether they’ll be smoking or eating to make sure they get something we think they’ll enjoy.”
The second job is to educate guests. Customers look to you and your servers as experts on what you sell, and they depend on your knowledge to make their choices.
“You always have to hand-sell something like a $25 shot of old bourbon because people are more likely to be unfamiliar with it,” said Millan. “Guests appreciate that we have the knowledge to recommend what to drink and what goes well with food.”
Servers need to tell customers not only what different spirits taste like, but how they’re produced, what makes them special, where they come from and why they’re different from other brands or spirits. Dempsey and Millan talk about a