Bennigan’s: Getting the Spirit
by Rona Gindin
Left to right:
John F. Beck, VP Marketing
John Small, General Manager,
Bennigan’s Lewisville, TX
George Pena, Brand Manager
Beverage, Bennigan’s Lewisville, TX
John F. Beck, VP Marketing
Lea Mendoza, Senior Manager, Bennigan’s Lewisville
Top-shelf spirits and name-brand wines, together with an extensive beer list, bring new energy to this national chain of local taverns.
Three years after introducing an aggressive beer program aimed at making Bennigan’s the place to experience a variety of brews, the 248-unit chain has turned its substantial beverage marketing finesse toward wine and spirits. If they do as well with wine and spirits as they have with beer, that could mean something, considering that the overall concept sales of the privately-owned Bennigan’s in 1998 were about $477 million. Even with only about 4% reported as alcohol sales, that’s still more than $19 million annually.
“We have three tenets for the vision of where we’re moving,” explains John Beck, vice president of marketing for the Plano, Texas-based chain. Under the banner of “world-class people, world-class brands and world-class drinks,” the casual dinnerhouse contender has revved up the quality of its offerings and tuned up its merchandising materials to increase sales of beverage alcohol of all types.
Its slogan refers to three areas: “World class people” means employees, or, as Beck says, “The quality, training and education of our bartenders, cocktails and servers. That includes responsibility training so we can provide alcoholic beverages to our guests in a responsible way.”
By “world-class brands” he means serving premium beer, wine and spirits brands, and marketing them in cross-promotional efforts developed jointly with vendors. By “world class drinks,” Bennigan’s refers to the entire drinking environment. “We define drinks as the experience, energy and enthusiasm that comes along with a relaxed social environment.”
“In 1996 and 1997, we focused our energies and resources and promotional efforts solely on beer. Now we have evolved to the point where we will include spirits, wine and beer in our promotional efforts so that we can meet the needs and taste preferences of all our guests.”
NEW WINE, NEW BOTTLES
What’s new with wines and spirits? The wine list is far more upscale, for one. Nodding to what he calls “mother-in-law research”–Beck’s wife, a wine drinker, pointed out that she had trouble finding a decent pour at Bennigan’s–the marketing and beverage gurus came up with a better list for the casual chain. On a three-by-eleven-inch card placed smack in the center of every dinner menu, customers find the likes of Woodbridge Cabernet Sauvignon by Robert Mondavi, Turning Leaf Merlot and Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay “Vinters Reserve,” among others, all available by the glass or bottle.
“Since June 1, we have had a full line of varietals, including reds, whites, blush and sparkling wine,” Beck notes. “We really went all out and partnered with some of the finest wine marketers and vendors–Gallo, Seagram and Kendall-Jackson, for example. We offer brands that consumers want, so they can make their decisions based on quality and name recognition.”
Mazimizing its promotional power with popular brands, Bennigan’s looks to build incremental sales.
With the expanded wine list, its visibility as a prominently placed menu insert (as opposed to one page included in a drink menu) and the name brands, wine sales have risen as much as 9%.
House wines, all Copperidge products, are sold for $3.25 a glass. The others are priced from $3.75 for a Sutter Home White Zinfandel ($15 a bottle) to $6 for the Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay ($21 a bottle).
In terms of spirits, the Bennigan’s folks have teamed up with what Beck calls “major suppliers”–Seagrams, Brown-Forman, and the like–to promote white and brown goods. “These vendors really helped us look at what our guests were purchasing, and talk to the guests to find out what they wanted. Then we were able to establish a brand selection process within the Bennigan’s system that hasn’t been there prior,” Beck explains. Today, all units carry the same core stock of premium brands.
What the researchers found is that Bennigan’s drinkers want premium brands. “We see people trading up from well drinks to premium,” Beck says. “Instead of ordering a vodka tonic, now they’ll order an Absolut and tonic.”
Each also carries brands that makes sense for that unit. “We see our general managers as business owners, and they have to sell items popular in their areas,” Beck adds. “There is a vodka that is hot in Texas right now, and that is starting to get strong distribution in our Texas units.”
Aiming to increase check averages even more, Bennigan’s has added to its Margarita line. The Emerald Isle Margarita, which sells for about $5, has long been a top seller, and Bennigan’s added a Millennium Margarita, made with top-shelf Jose Cuervo 1800, Grand Marnier, Cointreau, a proprietary Margarita mix) and Millenium Martinis (Absolut and Midori). for customers seeking slightly higher-end products, selling for about $6.
Following a national trend, a Martini menu was introduced last year and have moved well, beck says. In mid-November, a new Millennium Martini–tinted green with Midori to celebrate the holiday season–will be added to the menu.
All of Bennigan’s signature beverages, including such seasonal items as lemonade-based drinks during the summer, are heavily merchandised. Customers at the bar and at tables find mixed drinks and beers merchandised on table tents and in shamrock-shaped holders via colorful laminated cardboard flyers. When the Martinis were introduced last November, for example, point-of-purchase flyers recommended indulging in a Martini “along with your Bennigan’s Tavern T-bone.” During the hot summer months, another merchandising piece suggested customers order BBQ wings with Sam Adams Summer Ale.
The merchandising materials have a tremendous impact on customers’ choices. When Corona and Corona Light were featured along with food on POP materials last April, sales of those brands rose by 43 percent, Beck reports.
Despite all this emphasis on wine and spirits, Bennigan’s is still serious about its award-winning Copper Clover beer program, for which the company won the 1998 Cheers Award for Beverage Excellence. More than 80% of the chain’s restaurants have 20 taps or more, and bottled beers are available in tremendous variety, as well. The beers include the whole range: domestics, imports, regionals, microbrews and craft beers. Sixty-five percent of draft tabs are mandated to be nationally distributed products, and 35% are chosen locally.
With all these beers, freshness is important, and Bennigan’s has in place a process to make sure the beer is good. In new units especially, the draft technology is located directly behind the bar, meaning beer is poured no farther than five to 12 feet. “That keeps the line cleaner and the beer fresher,” Beck points out, noting that cylinder glasses are oversized so customers receive a true pint of brew with each serving. Customers can see the vividly marked beer taps of each brew lined up neatly along the bar’s back wall. And no beer is kept in stock long enough to get old. “If a beer doesn’t turn over a fresh keg every 30 days, that beer will probably not make the cut the next time around,” Beck says.
“We use a very fact-based evaluation to determine if a brand stays or moves on.” Bottled beers–which in newer units are displayed prominently in convenience store-style coolers directly behind the bar in full customer view–must turn by the case every 30 days “Otherwise that brand is probably not a necessity within our restaurant,” Beck says.
SALES BY DESIGN
In newer units, Bennigan’s bars have been placed to the side of the restaurant. Briefly a few years ago, the new company design called for bars to be placed prominently in the middle of the space, dominating the restaurant. But customers balked at the old tavern set-up, and executives found that neither bar nor restaurant patrons were happy.
Now, the bar is off to the side, often directly behind the hostess stand, partially blocked from view by an etched glass partition, with the remainder of the restaurant to the left.
One reason for this change is smoking ordinances: it is easier to keep smoke away from non-smoking tables if the bar is on one side of the restaurant. Also, many of Bennigan’s customers are 40-something empty nesters, who prefer a quiet dinner place; keeping the sometimes raucous early-20s bar crowd to the side of the unit allows Bennigan’s to simultaneously serve two of its core customer bases.
Bennigan’s is looking to enhance the restaurants in other ways. Some new units have outdoor patios. Still, remnants of the chain’s “fern bar” heritage remain: dark wood tones and dark green hues dominate, knick-knacks like old bicycles, with antique signs and life preservers still hung from walls. Beams are exposed in the ceilings, and floor tiles are the warm colors of brick and stone. In addition, the chain is testing new music systems. “We think customers would prefer different energy levels at lunch versus, say, 10 at night, and we want to be able to provide that within our restaurants.” Traditional Irish music plays in the restrooms.
Of course, all of Bennigan’s efforts at offering premium beverage products ties in with its food. The chain’s hamburger has been improved, and all steaks have been upgraded to USDA Choice. “When Bennigan’s was introduced in 1976 in Atlanta, Georgia,” Beck explains, “we were perceived as a great bar with very good appetizers. In the 1990s, and as we prepare for the new millennium, our focus has been to heavily invest in full variety menus with high quality food so that we can get equal credit for food and beverage. We are, fifty-fifty, a friendly neighborhood tavern and a place for good food and a variety of food.”