Olympic athletes spend years getting in shape, readying themselves for a single event. Pro ball players pump iron and hone their skills in the off-season. Practice may make perfect, but it’s repeated training that refines the techniques needed to master any endeavor.
At the Denver Chophouse, one of Old Chicago’s operations, servers are encouraged to sell what they like.
Selling beer is no different. Even though servers have a “game” nearly every night, training can help them refresh their techniques and improve their skills. Focused beer training can help servers sell more beer and more profitable kinds of beer, putting more money into the pockets of the house and servers.
The three key ingredients of good beer training, according to most restaurateurs, are knowledge, technique and motivation. Armed with the right combination of the three, servers can win every night.
Know Your Brew
The more you know about beer, the easier it is to sell. Beer training involves two types of information–industry knowledge and product knowledge. Industry knowledge includes information on beer’s history, how it’s made, and beer styles, origins and ingredients. Product knowledge focuses more specifically on the brands available, what they taste like, what foods they go well with and how to serve them.
“Training is a huge focal point for us,” says Robert White, owner of the BrewHouse Pub, Helena, MT. “It’s important in brewpubs because guests often are trying these beers for the first time. Montana is still a domestic premium beer state. We’re still far behind in terms of exposure to micros, so our guests can be intimidated by our beer list. The staff needs to be able to make them feel comfortable.”
BrewHouse servers go through two weeks of initial training, with beer playing a big part of each day’s session. They tour the brewery, study schematics of the brewing operation, and learn the smells and tastes of hops and malt, in addition to gathering general beer knowledge.
Some restaurateurs want their staff to focus on product knowledge. Beer training at the 19 units of Champps American, Wayzata, MN, concentrates on the chain’s eight draft and 20 bottled beers. The staff attends formalized training sessions that teach information on characteristics of the draft beers, serving sizes, price points and other specifics. Servers are tested on their knowledge before being allowed on the floor.
“In a new store environment, especially, distributors and vendors are eager to showcase their products,” says Scott Dyke, director of beverage operations. “They’ll come out and help with training and talk about the comparative nature of different beers.”
To help servers memorize the range of 110 beers sold, Old Chicago Restaurants in Englewood, CO, provide flash cards with the name of each beer, its brewery and country of origin, and specific style. The chain also distributes training booklets with information describing the proper head, how to pour beer and other specifics.
“Servers need to understand the basics of how beer is made,” agreed Larry Dwyer, general manager of the Hudson Club in Chicago. Known more for its 100+ wines sold by the glass, restaurant management takes beer just as seriously. With 20 draft beers and 70 more in bottles, the Hudson Club tries to represent every beer style with a couple of excellent examples.
“It’s a real challenge, but what we’re really about is educating our customers,” says Dwyer. To do that, he says, servers need to be properly educated about the basics. “I say, ‘I’m going to pay you to go to school, and you’re going to learn more than 95% of the people out there will ever know about beer, wine, spirits and food.’ I look for people whose eyes light up when I tell them that. If you don’t have a passion for beverage alcohol, you won’t be able to make it here,” Dwyer says. “I’m not sure it’s something you can teach. It’s obvious if it comes from the heart or not.”
The Hudson Club holds general training sessions every Saturday, with additional beer training sessions scheduled whenever the beer list changes every six to eight weeks. At each beer session, Dwyer offers a general beer refresher, and then concentrates on tasting products, discussing production methods, pairing beers with menu items, and discussing serving and sales techniques. Servers are quizzed the following Thursday about the information.
Pike Pub in Seattle also carries a comprehensive list of beers, including several in-house brews and the entire Merchant du Vin portfolio (brands such as Ayinger, Samuel Smith and Lindemann’s). Periodically, the Pub’s general manager and the Merchant du Vin sales and brewery staff conduct “Ale University” for servers. The two-hour course talks about beer history and styles, and all servers take a test on general beer knowledge.
“Training at Pike Pub happens on a daily basis,” says Alan Shapiro, national sales manager at Merchant du Vin. “Servers try all the specials and get suggestions on beers that go well with them. They also talk about how beer is used as an ingredient in food, too.”
Pike Pub also conducts specific product knowledge refresher courses every month that include tastings, food pairings, serving suggestions and sales techniques.
Practice Good Technique
Good sales technique is part of many operators’ beer training programs. Once servers understand the beers you serve, they can answer almost any questions guests might ask, a big first step towards successful selling.
Legal Seafoods, a 17-unit chain based in Boston, educates servers when they’re first hired and every time a new product is brought in. Most units feature about 14 different beers, and servers are well-versed in the style and flavor of each. That training pays off.
“We encourage servers to tell a story about beer,” says David Alphonse, director of beverage operations. “We have Harpoon IPA here in Boston. We sell a ton of it because servers have a story to tell about it.”
The first thing beer knowledge does is give servers the ability to help customers find a beer they’ll like.
“In an environment like this most people are expected to drink beer,” White says, “so it’s not so much a question of selling beer as which beer to sell. Price-wise, our beers are pretty much the same. The difference between a good beer and a great beer, or even swamp water, is really only 50 cents to a dollar or two. So the key is to put guests into a beer they’ll enjoy.”
White and other operators encourage their servers to be familiar with all the beers on the list, and to sample at least one every day to remind them of what it tastes like. Then servers can ask what style of beer customers normally drink and find a comparable beer on the list.
“We tell servers to sell that they like,” says Tracy Finklang, beverage director at Old Chicago Restaurants. “We empower them to take initiative, know all the styles and be able to describe them and hope they take it from there.”
Beer knowledge also helps servers with suggestive selling that can lead to higher check averages.
“We don’t sell on price so much as we try to get Bud drinkers to try something a little different,” Finklang says. “When someone comes in and orders Coors, I tell servers to ask if they order vanilla at Baskin-Robbins.”
“We talk a lot about suggestive selling and upselling,” Dyke says. “We believe our guests are educated, so we focus more on accompaniments. We like to see employees expose guests to what we have to let them know we have a great selection.”
Servers who use suggestive selling techniques can encourage customers to buy a higher priced beer, a pitcher or larger size, or menu items to go with beer.
“When we do tastings, we typically do role-playing and stress suggestive selling,” Dwyer says. “We ask servers what beers they think would go well with our specials, and suggest that customers try something like a lambic with dessert.”
A good time to plant the seeds for suggestive selling is at a pre-shift meeting. Champps uses their 15-minute pre-shift meetings to talk about special programs, operational issues like anticipating a rush after a local sporting event, and recognizing employee performance. Product training and suggestive selling also usually plays a part.
Restaurants such as the Pike Pub, Hudson Club and Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurants use glassware as an element of suggestive selling. “Glassware makes beer fun for servers,” Dwyer says. “When they serve lambic in champagne glasses and Belgian ales in goblets, guests ask questions. We have servers make a big show of serving beers.”
Samples can allow servers to encourage customers to order a beer they might not otherwise have tried. Pike Pub sells a special Pike Pub sampler of eight beers in 3-ounce portions. The BrewHouse Pub lets servers give customers a taste before they order and offers sampler trays.
“Beer is fun,” says Dean Biersch, co-founder of Gordon Biersch Brewery. “Our servers will put five or six beers in front of you and let you taste them. We like to engage people in tasting and trying the beer. Beer tends to bring people together.”
Gordon Biersch has two full-time training teams in Seattle and San Diego to handle server training. New employees even spend several hours of training actually working in the restaurants’ breweries.
Make It Worthwhile
Beer training has obvious benefits. Servers who sell more beer, or persuade customers to trade up or try a menu item as a result of suggestive selling make more money for the house and usually a bigger tip. Servers who help customers find the right beer or the right menu item to go with it are providing the kind of service that brings customers back. That’s another win for both the restaurant and the server.
Denver Chophouse servers are taught about all styles of beer and how to describe them to customers.
Another way to motivate the troops and make beer training stick is through incentives. The Hudson Club gives prizes, such as a magnum of Spaten Oktoberfest, to those who score highest on the Thursday quizzes.
At Old Chicago Restaurants, servers play “Beer Jeopardy” for “staff cash,” money that can be spent in the restaurants on food and merchandise. During special promotions, servers are given incentives, usually cash, tied to sales of certain brands.
Champps relies heavily on suppliers for incentives, particularly for promotions tied to their brands. Recently, servers in the Denver unit of Old Chicago had the chance to win a Sam Adams leather jacket to help improve brand sales. Other staff contest awards have included trips to California’s wine country, cash and merchandise.
“It helps to give incentives to managers and bartenders, too,” Dyke adds, “because if you don’t have them follow up, you won’t meet your objectives.”
Six Selling Strategies
Hundreds of sales technique books have been published. When it comes to selling beer or food, here are six strategies that operators rely on.
Use descriptive language
Describe how a beer is made and how it tastes. Involve customers by telling a story about where it comes from or how it originated.
Ask open-ended questions
Get customers to tell you what kind of beer they like, then guide them to one or two on your list that fit their tastes.
If two guests order the same beer, suggest a pitcher for the table.
Suggest the larger size
Many operations offer two sizes, such as a glass and a pint. When guests don’t indicate which they want, servers should confirm their order by asking, “A pint, ma’am?”
Sell your favorites
The more enthusiastic you are about an item, the more likely a customer will order it. When customers ask for recommendations, suggest what you like best.
Suggest natural complements
When a customer makes a beer selection, suggest an appetizer or entree that goes particularly well with that brand or style of beer.
If you’re not sure how to put together a beer training program, you can get help from the following.
Local distributors. Beer wholesalers often have a resident
beer guru who can help train the troops.
Brewers. Small local craft brewers, especially, are usually eager to spread the gospel about beer.
The Miller Brewing Co. offers a training video, brochure and flash cards called “Just The Beer Facts.” Call your Miller wholesaler or (800) MBC-BEER.
Pencom International offers beer training videos. “Sell More Beer” and “Heads Up! Tapping Into Craft Beer” are available by calling (800) 247-8514.
Put It Together
Beer should be a regular part of server training to get the most out of your beer sales. Like any training, repetition helps drive messages home. The more times servers hear something or practice a technique, the more their skills will improve. Here are a few tips for putting it all together.
Keep sessions short
Pre-shift staff meetings are an excellent time to impart knowledge: whether it be fun facts or sales techniques.
Conduct occasional refresher courses
Review fundamentals every quarter and test servers on their knowledge.
Encourage daily tastings
Servers should know what beers should taste like, as well as food, so they can describe it to customers.
Show servers how to suggest beers and menu items to accompany them.
Provide learning materials
Old Chicago Restaurants hangs a “Birth of Beer” poster on employee bulletin boards. Pike Pub gives servers a beer reference chart and posts it on its Web site. Use flash cards, training manuals or videos to help servers learn their stuff.
Be enthusiastic about your subject
If servers aren’t excited about beer, they won’t do a good job of selling it. Getting pumped should be as big a piece of their training as pumping up on knowledge and techniques.