PHOTOGRAPH BY DAN WAGNER
Lemon liqueurs. Vanilla rums. Organic beers. A vodka made with soy. A gin made for vodka lovers. Honey wine. And, of course, many, many “malternatives,” from hard lemonade served on draft to a malt beverage meant to taste like root beer. Just a few of the new and unusual beverage alcohol products offered to operators last year.
In 2001, the beverage industry, as it does every year, introduced a blizzard of new products: at least 130 new spirits, 46 new beers and 103 new wines, according to the Adams Beverage Group. Restaurant and bar operations of all types need to be able to spot the new products their customers are going to want, whether it’s the newest darling of the wine reviewers or the latest wild flavor being sought by the youngest cocktail consumers.
As might be expected, operators decide how to handle new products depending on the product and their own concept. Some operators pride themselves on being the first to offer the newest products; others prefer to wait and see. Some bars and restaurants simply have more space than others do and, therefore, more leeway in taking on a new item.
And, of course, the nature of an operation’s beverage business affects its approach. Taking on a new draft beer, for example, which, once that keg is tapped, must be sold within a week, is a bit riskier than taking on a new spirit brand.
WHAT TO TAKE
Deciding to take on a new product is “definitely an inexact science,” says Derek Davis, owner of three Philadelphia-area restaurants, Kansas City Prime, Arroyo Grille and Sonoma. “It’s the taste of the product, your situation and it depends a lot upon relationships.”
Taste and quality are, of course, key. “Mostly, you can tell when something’s not going to fly,” says Loren Dunsworth, owner of Lola’s, a Hollywood hotspot known for its Martinis. “I just saw some new vodkas that had been infused with wine. They were not very good.”
Ron Furman, with three operations Max’s on Broadway, Max’s Mobtown Lounge and Max’s at Camden Yards in Baltimore, says, “My guys, with all their experience, can probably call it with a new product before it’s even before the public.”
Furman, whose three locations (Mobtown Lounge is upstairs from Max’s on Broadway) boast a total of 166 draft taps, feels his situation is flexible enough that he can try nearly every new beer that comes on the market. “We give almost anything decent a chance,” he says.
Most operators, of course, keep an open mind about any new product their customers are asking for. “I want it to be, if a customer asks for it, we’ve got it,” says Davis. At Davis’s restaurants, bartenders record in a logbook any product a customer requests that the restaurant does not (yet) carry.
But relying on what customers are already asking for is not enough. “Obviously, one of the keys is popularity. Are customers asking for it?” says Lola’s Dunsworth. On the other hand, she says, “When we first started carrying Ketel One, no one knew what it was. And look at it now.”
Many operators weigh how much advertising and marketing support a brand is going to receive from its maker. Dunsworth remembers when Absolut was, by far, the most popular vodka at Lola’s. “Absolut did that huge advertising campaign,” she says. “Often, when people came in, it was the one vodka they knew to ask for. With vodkas, it’s what people get into their heads.”
Davis, whose restaurant, Sonoma, has a vodka bar, agrees. “With the super-premium vodkas,” he says, “the real success stories are the ones with the marketing behind them.”
ALL MARKETING IS LOCAL
But local marketing efforts can be more important than a national advertising campaign, many find. “The local rep needs to have a rapport with the bartenders and the customers. If they work the product, make sure we have the right POS and that our employees know their product in places like ours with 300 bottled beers and 68 on tap, something new can get kind of lost if they give our people [fact] sheets on it, if they talk it up that’s going to help tremendously,” says Max’s Furman.
This local relationship is crucial, Dunsworth finds. “It definitely matters if our bartenders and servers like the brand. Eighty to 90% of our customers will go with what our people suggest,” she says.
John Altomare, senior vice president of operations and menu development for Red Lobster, the 656-unit chain owned by Darden Restaurants, Inc., agrees wholeheartedly. The chain rolled out a revamped and expanded wine list last spring. “The crew, if they are excited, are the best way to introduce guests to something new,” he says. Altomare made certain that servers received extensive information about the restaurants’ new wines. “We started with why we need to have these wines and why do they have to learn about them,” he explains. “And one of the biggest issues was pronunciation, as funny as that sounds. We wanted them to be comfortable talking about the wines.”
Larry Varvella, beverage director for the 130+ unit Ground Round chain, owned by American Hospitality Concepts in Braintree, Massachusetts, finds that a supplier or wholesaler effort to educate consumers at the local level can also have a great impact.
“The best products are the ones whose suppliers have created a demand in the public,” he says. He cites the tremendous popularity of Southern Comfort last summer. “The Southern Comfort Hurricane was the hottest drink,” he says. “It was heavily promoted and grew in the double digits.” Likewise, he found a push for the Appletini, a cocktail made with two Fortune Brand products, Vox vodka and Apple Pucker, to be a great help. “If something like that is locally promoted in the right places, it becomes a trend,” he says.
For spirits, Varvella finds specific drink information from suppliers to be especially important. “Take Smirnoff’s Vanilla Twist, for example,” he says. “I thought to myself, ‘What am I going to do with a vanilla vodka?’ But UDV really helped with some great new recipes. I was comfortable enough to put the Vanilla Twist on special in all our restaurants this month.”
MEET THE MALTERNATIVES
Sometimes, a new product isn’t just a new product: it’s the start of a whole new category of beverages, like “malternatives” such as hard cider, hard lemonade and a range of other carbonated beverages that contain about the same amount of alcohol as beer. (Also known as RTDs, or ready-to-drink, the introductions are coming fast and furious; Anheuser Busch and Bacardi have teamed up to bring out Bacardi Silver last month, while Miller Beer has teamed with Skyy vodka to create Skyy Blue, and with Allied Domecq for creations based on Stolichnaya vodka and Sauza tequila.)
“For the last six to eight months, these products have been the hottest trend,” says John Hinz, director of marketing for Minneapolis-based Buffalo Wild Wings, a chain of 144 sports-oriented restaurants.
When it comes to creating a whole new type of beverage, operators find that suppliers usually back them with extensive marketing campaigns. In the case of malternatives, the national campaigns have been so extensive that Max’s Furman doesn’t even feel the need to do anything particular to introduce these new brands to his customers on-premise.
The promise of a whole new type of beverage holds great potential and also a few risks, too. Ground Round’s Varvella remains careful, despite the surging popularity of malternatives. “Malt beverages are big,” he says, “but I have to remain cognizant of the space behind the bar. It comes down to how heavily promoted each brand is. I think that this market will become quickly oversaturated.”
When it comes to beers, many operators simply choose to feature the new brand prominently. At Ground Round restaurants, a different draft beer, sometimes a new brand, is highlighted each quarter. At the Max’s locations in Baltimore, Ron Furman often introduces a new beer at his Tuesday night “Beer Socials,” the bars’ regular tastings. If the new brand is being promoted with logo’d beer pints, he may also offer it during “Pint Night” on Wednesdays, when customers can buy a pint of a featured brand for $5 and keep the glass.
The Buffalo Wild Wings chain does a different promotion every month. Those have featured malternative brands twice now, once last summer for Mike’s Hard Lemonade and once this January for Smirnoff Ice. Smirnoff Ice was supported by POS materials including banners and table tents and by special pricing, 50. off, in markets where legal. Mike’s Hard Lemonade was also supported by POS, including serving buckets for large groups, and by a raft that could also be used for a give-away, in markets where legal.
“Basically, we make sure customers know we’ve got [the new brand] and then let it take care of itself,” says Buffalo Wild Wing’s Hinz.
LET A THOUSAND COCKTAILS BLOOM
Once a new product is taken on, there is much the restaurant or bar can do to improve its chances, say these operators. Basically, the goal is to make sure the customers know you have the product and, in the case of spirits, give them a way to order it, i.e. a signature drink.
At Lola’s, the key to success for a new vodka brand is to be in one of the bar’s Martinis. “If it is in a Martini, it will sell,” explains Dunsworth. “Vendors will do anything beg, borrow or steal to get on our Martini list.” Dunsworth cites the success Absolut Mandarin became for Lola’s once it was featured in the Flaming Colossus, a Martini made with lime juice and Cointreau.
Before they start begging and borrowing, however, vendors usually try to provide Dunsworth with recipes, but that approach doesn’t work at Lola’s. “I don’t think we’ve ever used a recipe from a vendor,” says Dunsworth. “We have some pretty clever bartenders and they come up with our martinis.”
At Adobo Grill, a Mexican restaurant with an extensive tequila selection, located in Chicago, the newest tequila brand will soon be featured in the “El Coco Tazo” (“The Big Coconut”), a drink made with freshly made coconut milk and coconut liqueur, served in the coconut shell.
“We have a lot of frequent customers, so we try to have new specialty cocktails every month or six weeks,” says Paul LoDuca, chef and owner. The practice keeps things fresh for those repeat customers and also offers the restaurant a way to introduce new brands.
Like many restaurants, Red Lobster makes new wines available by the glass at first to encourage trial. The chain also often pairs the new wine with a new menu item, featuring it in the promotional menu. “And it goes right back to the crew and training,” says Altomare. “We want to make sure they know how to pronounce it, what its flavor profile is. We want them to be comfortable explaining it to guests.”
NO BUY? BYE, BYE
But if a new product isn’t working the way you expected, how do you know when to pull the plug?
Again, the answer varies. At Sonoma, which has featured an extensive selection of vodkas since the restaurant first opened 10 years ago, Derek Davis has only just recently done what he calls “a little liquidating.” “We had no more room on the back bar or in the storeroom,” he explains. “We took brands that didn’t move, that never moved, like vodkas from Malaysia, and put them in the well.”
At Max’s, where the product is keg beer, the situation is a little different. “If a beer is a slow seller, we will promote it to get rid of it or we return the keg. We are not going to have slow sellers,” says Furman, whose top concern is that his draft beers be fresh.
That said, he does point out that it is hard to say how long it takes for a new product to make it or not. “All products are different,” he says. Because of Max’s constantly rotating selection, Furman can be a little flexible with brands. “If it’s a good seller, but not in the top ten, we might buy it one month but then replace it with something else the next before going back to it again,” he explained.
Even if a new product does not become a sensation, does not transform how people think about beverages forever afterward, giving customers a chance to try the newest thing is still well worth the effort, operators say.
“There are always a certain percentage of our regular guests who will order whatever’s new,” says Ground Round’s Varvella. Indeed, that’s one of the reasons they keep coming back.