READING TEA LEAVES
“The more things change, the more they stay the same,” goes a much-quoted epigram of 19th century French novelist Alphonse Karr. These days most would dismiss this choice piece of Karr’s wit as nothing more than an overworn bromide. Not so fast, we say. I’ve recently become convinced that M. Karr’s famous utterance is nothing less than a cardinal rule of restaurant marketing.
Actually, that’s not a suprising conclusion. One of the best ways to make money in a food and beverage operation has always been the topping of low food or
beverage cost with a generous dollop of merchandising, especially when the sweetener is clever showmanship. That paradigm takes us smoothly from the coffee carafe left on the table at the family restaurant to the iconic use of the Martini glass in today’s bars and clubs. It also takes us from the musty era of Cherries Jubilee to today’s era of dominance by spaghetti chains. (I’m sure the idea is a formula in some hospitality text book I haven’t read: Margins x Merchandising = Moola.)
So it would seem that we can still take Karr’s “plus ca change ….” at face value. What did sort of surprise me once I realized how truly prescient was Jean Baptiste Alphonse (that’s what his mother called him), is how many industry’s suppliers are up to this same game. You do it to your customers. Your suppliers try to do it to you. I guess the question for us business majors (meaning those trying to do whatever to whomever profitably) is when does the traditional restaurant formula actually make sense for vendors? The answers, I suspect, can be surprising.
At the National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago in late May, I was invited to The Republic of Tea booth to learn about the company’s campaign to position (gently suggest might be a fairer word) restaurant service of their line of unsweetened bottled iced teas in ways similar to wine service. What I took away is that they have a very good rap and, if my tone is gently teasing, it shouldn’t color anyone’s view of the common sense of the approach–for The Republic of Tea, at any rate.
These marketers stress the organic, unsweetened nature of the product; target moderately upscale establishments, particularly what might be termed bistros; speak softly and knowingly of green, black, red and white tea “varietals,” and linger through a long finish to a clear emphasis on the idea of sipping rather than gulping. No need to be subtle on that last. They describe the teas in terms of light, medium, and full body as well as in terms of taste. They suggest that product be “presented” at the table. They offer detailed menu pairings; these probably also help qualify their end-users. Finally, they’ve gotten testimonials from a handsome handful of Chicagoland chefs, including Jean Joho of Brasserie Jo (and Everest).
Dammit, you see, that’s the formula! Alphonse Karr be praised.
One more thing. Back from Chicago, reading an industry journal, I saw an ad for “A Water That Belongs On The Wine List.” I suspect that’s because it costs so much. Thumbs down on that one. Some get it, I thought. Some don’t.