“I’ve eaten in restaurants where the waitstaff have sent me elsewhere for coffee and dessert, even though they have it,” laments one cafe owner on the state of after-dinner service. “What’s happening because of this attitude,” he continues, “is that most people are not buying coffee in restaurants.”
Not if some restaurateurs can help it.
“Try a piece of hot apple crumb and top it off with a cappuccino,” beckons the sign in the window of New York Pizza Factory in Ridgewood, NJ. Not one to overlook an opportunity to increase check averages at his 85-seat gourmet pizzeria, owner Steven Germano employs this suggestive device to build upon his $30 check averages. So far, the sign has served to “absolutely increase coffee sales. If you don’t tell customers what you have,” says Germano, “they’re never going to order it.”
Germano has plans to continue increasing his restaurant’s specialty coffee and dessert sales by introducing a new menu in the spring that will list coffee options. Additionally, while sweet-toothed customers already tend to crowd around his dessert display case searching for an after-dinner treat, Germano plans soon to switch to house-made desserts, which servers will carry on a tray to each table that has finished feasting upon pizza, pasta and panini. The idea is to entice customers into trying a cannoli or hot apple pie a la mode, paired, of course, with a frothy cappuccino.
Like Germano, many restaurateurs are actively embracing the after-dinner segment. By promoting coffees, desserts, spirits, cocktails and any combination thereof in their establishments, they close their meals like an epic: with a big, sweeping finish that would make Hollywood proud. And with even a simple espresso climbing near the $3 price range in some restaurants, concentrating sales efforts on specialty coffees, desserts and liqueurs can send check averages soaring.
At the six-unit New Orleans-based House of Blues, corporate chef Sam McCord realizes the potentially combined power of dessert and after-dinner drinks. “A focus on it really helps check averages and makes a restaurant more well-rounded,” he says. “We’re doing well, but we’re not as strong per cover in dessert and after-dinner drink sales as we would like to be.”
Part of the problem for this Cajun-style comfort food-focused chain, is the nature of the food itself. Customers love the restaurant for its large and filling dishes like smothered voodoo chicken with New Orleans’ Dixie Blackened Voodoo Beer, says McCord, but there’s little room left for white chocolate walnut brownies.
What helps spark after-supper sales at House of Blues is a separate menu that maps out dessert and drink options. Additionally, servers are trained to recommend one or two desserts paired with a specialty coffee or after-dinner drink when they deliver after-meal menus to customers. Running an off-menu dessert special every day also helps add dollars to the $20-per person-dinner check average, says McCord.
McCord says he is also aided by knowing what works well in each of the chain’s locations, and says he varies drinks menus by locale to account for these regional taste preferences. For example, coffees sell better at House of Blues Chicago than at House of Blues Orlando, so they’re marketed differently at each location to reach each specific customer base.
Meanwhile, at Brennan’s, a New Orleans favorite with decades of after-dinner practice, the post-entree experience nearly always includes an order of the house-special, Bananas Foster–a tableside-flamed dessert served over French vanilla ice cream–likely paired with a cup of the restaurant’s New Orleans blend coffee (made with chicory root, a traditional Creole addition). “You’ll definitely want a coffee after a few bites of Banana’s Foster,” says manager and family member Blake Brennan. “Coffee goes so well with any dessert.”
So, too, do coffee cocktails, says Brennan, like Brennan’s Irish Coffee, by tradition made here by pouring Irish whiskey over a sugar cube in a glass and topping it with coffee and whipped cream. Another popular after dinner drink at Brennan’s is the Cafe Brennan, often
prepared tableside. To do so, servers squeeze an orange on the rim of a glass, then dip the juice-coated rim in crystallized sugar, which is then lit. Once the sugar encrusts the rim of the glass, servers add Irish whiskey, white creme de menthe, Grand Marnier and coffee, and top the drink with whipped cream, a cinnamon stick and a few shakes of powdered cinnamon. “These can be desserts themselves,” says Brennan, “but of course we recommend Banana’s Foster with any beverage after dinner.”
At $7.97 and $8.95, respectively, these coffee-based beverages do much to increase check averages, which already enter the $40-per-person realm (not including wine) at the 550-seat restaurant. And with Brennan’s customers diving into the growing port trend after dinner, according to Brennan, averages are not likely to diminish anytime soon. In fact, beverage sales have been substantially aided by Brennan’s separate menu that servers present after the meal, says Brennan. The menu includes brandies, cognacs, armagnacs, liquors, cordials, single malt Scotches and ports in addition to the above-mentioned cocktails.
MAKE THE SALE
Restaurant industry veterans agree: menus and suggestive selling are crucial to after-dinner success. “The first thing guests have to know is what’s available,” says Bill Edwards, director of beverage marketing at the Orlando-based Olive Garden chain. “Part of our training is to tell servers that the dessert section isn’t always cheesecake or tiramisu. Dessert time should be an expanded category.” Which means Olive Garden servers are taught to suggest that customers pair coffee with a slice of cake or even to offer just a cappuccino at the end of a large meal in lieu of a heavier dessert.
In fact, as Eddie Marotta, owner of Caffe Biondo in New York’s Little Italy, explains, a coffee served with alcohol after a meal can effectively replace a dessert. While a biscotti is the perfect accompaniment to a crema-capped espresso, in his cafe when coffee is tinged with alcohol, “I wouldn’t eat any dessert,” says Marotta. “It’s a dessert unto itself.”
At Caffe Biondo, traditional Italian tastes reign supreme, as reflected in the coffee-cordial combinations. For espresso, the two most popular additions are Sambuca and Anisette: traditional coffee add-ons in European cafes. “The tastes just work together,” says Marotta. If cappuccino is the cup of choice, Marotta most often suggests accessorizing with hazelnut-hinted Frangelico. And when customers crave the classic Italian experience but don’t want to consume alcohol, Marotta replaces the liqueurs with flavored syrups (like those made by Monin, Torani and others) which mimic the tastes of his recommended cordials, such as vanilla, hazelnut and anise.
In contrast, at some restaurants, customers seem to shy away from the predictable coffee additions and tend toward something bit more potent. Take the seven-unit California-based Left At Albuquerque chain, where coffee cocktails often find themselves infused with the house-specialty liquor: tequila.
Left At Albuquerque lays claim to having the largest selection of tequilas in the country, including many that cannot be served due to Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms restrictions.
“We have a separate menu for desserts and cocktails, that tends to be tequila related, which people
are really warming up to,” says Jamie Collette, director of marketing.
One popular tequila-and-coffee offering at the chain is the Godfather, which blends Patron tequila with coffee. Another combines Sauza Hornitos, espresso and Bailey’s in a shot glass. (Most coffee cocktails here range in price from $5 to $6.)
When it comes to alcohol-imbued coffees after dinner, Left At Albuquerque customers are generally “looking for something yummy,” says Collette, most likely as a replacement for dessert. But when it comes to straight tequila, customers are generally looking for a more pure experience, like sipping one of Left At Albuquerque’s a