Perhaps the most intuitive way of uniting beverages and food—seemingly a no-brainer—is simply to hook them up on the menu.
“It’s becoming a smart business move,” asserts Glenn Schmitt, president of MarkeTeam Inc., a sales promotion and marketing agency in Mission Viejo, Calif. “A great way to keep your average check high and perhaps even get a second beverage order is by pairing up food and beverage together [on the menu]. Or, operators can provide a great selection of small plates at the bar that might go with the cocktail, beer or wine selection and promote them on a menu. It’s very simple, whether a menu combination or a suggested sell by the server, and the guest is very quick to try it.”
“It’s shocking how rare [pairing food and drink on a menu] is,” says Jonathan Fox, chef and owner of La Madia in Chicago. The upscale-casual spot is known for creative thin-crust pizzas, each presented on the menu with a suggested wine accompaniment. For example, Cusumano Benuara 2006 Nero d’Avola/Syrah from Sicily—$7 for a four-ounce pour, $12 for a seven-ounce glass and $38 by the bottle—is suggested with House-Made Fennel Sausage, Tomato Sauce and Mozzarella Cheese pizza, $13.50.
“It’s not common to find a wine pouring list with the depth that allows broad pairings,” says Fox, who pours 65 of his 264 wines by the glass. “That said, I think it could be partially a lack of focus. We’ve crafted our wine program with food-friendly wines. It’s really quite simple to pick a dozen that work well with pizzas.”
Moreover, promoting wine and pizza together on the menu requires a considerable staff time commitment and money to develop the pairings, stock the wines and train the staff, Fox relates. But it’s worthwhile, he says.
“From just a business point of view, we want to differentiate ourselves and speak to the strategy of the brand, which is wine and pizza,” says Fox. “It also allows us to engineer items that we really want to sell and that really represent profitability.”
Adds Fox, “We can say to our vendors, ‘Listen, we’re going to feature this wine not only by the glass and the bottle but also on our food menu, so help us with pricing.’ Negotiating hard with our vendors also is a way to add greater value for customers.”
One outfit that’s proudly promoting food and beverage on the menu is O’Charley’s, the 240-unit, Nashville, Tenn.-based casual dining chain. It launched a visually appealing new bar menu in late January. In addition to placing strong emphasis on the aesthetics of the beverages, the menu features drinks to accompany creative bar food such as Pretzel Crunch Chicken, Caribbean Coconut Shrimp and Three-Cheese Shrimp Dip, all in plain view on the new bar menu’s first right-facing page.
Servers are coached first to get the buy on beverage—perhaps pointing to the summertime Bacardi rum-based Strawberry Mojito or the Tangerine Grapefruit Margarita with Cuervo Especial tequila and double-barreled fruit flavors—then go straight to the appetizer page.
Stuart Melia, corporate director of beverage operations at O’Charley’s, reports that the new menu is succeeding in raising overall revenues and bar tabs in particular, although he’s unable to disclose specific numbers. But there clearly is a shared creative synergy between O’Charley’s food and beverage staff.
“Our menu team is really taking some unique and different approaches,” he says. “So, my creative license to go that way with the beverage has been extended even more. We probably would not have been able to do a drink like the Tangerine Grapefruit Margarita and feel confident about it if our culinary team wasn’t going out of the box.”
On Melia’s drawing board is the Cotton Candy Cosmopolitan. Shaken tableside and poured over cotton candy in the Martini glass, it will roll out in August. Right now, the Summertime Celebration and a limited-time menu that includes several food-and-beverage pairings, such as the Classic Bacardi Mojito and Classic Cuban Sandwich, is featured.
At The Palm, the Washington, D.C.-based group of 28 upscale steakhouses, a new bar menu featuring handcrafted cocktails and “Bar Bites” is creating additional usage occasions for guests.
“Say you have an hour before the theater and you want something to eat but not a whole meal,” says executive vice president Bruce Bozzi, Jr. “Now you have these Bar Bites that give you a taste of The Palm.”
The Bar Bites, light dishes patterned after The Palm’s menu stalwarts, include Steak Tartare, $16, Broiled Jumbo Lump Crab Cake Sliders, $12, and Parmesan Truffle Fries, $8. They’re offered with the likes of The Gentle Palm, $14, made with muddled blackberry and strawberry, Gentleman Jack Rare Tennessee Whiskey, pomegranate juice and black tea, and All That Razz, $12, made with Patrón Silver tequila, Chambord and Grand Marnier.
Reaction has been “very positive” since the menu debuted in April, says Bozzi. “The percentage of sales for the cocktails has been great and people are enjoying the food piece, too,” he says.
Also leveraging attractive visuals and creative pairings was the successful 10-week Spice promotion that ran in 105 Hyatt Hotels and Resorts last fall. The promotion’s inventive pairings included Moroccan Lamb Cigars with Sesame and Cilantro Dip with the Zen & Zang cocktail, made with Skyy Vodka, Zen Green Tea Liqueur, Midori, cucumber, sriracha hot chile sauce and Sprite. Spiced Goat Cheese with Dried Fruits and Lavender Honey was paired with 2005 Ravenswood Vintners Blend California Zinfandel while Orange-infused Shrimp with Spiced Sea Salt and Arugula kept time with Blue Moon Belgian White Ale.
During the Spice promo, revenues at participating hotels increased by roughly $10,000 per month. Although the total number of drinks sold was about the same as usual, the take was higher because they were priced accordingly for premium ingredients, Prescott says. Still, the most significant revenue increase came from the food that Hyatt guests purchased along with their beverages.
Make the Connection
Bin 38 Wine Bar & Restaurant in San Francisco puts beverage suggestions on the menu for both wine and beer. For example, a typical dish, Seared Dayboat Scallops, is presented with a suggestion of South Africa’s Ken Forrester 2007 Chenin Blanc and New Zealand’s Moa lager. “I can’t believe there aren’t more places doing pairings [on the menu],” says owner and chief wine officer Don Davis. “People think it’s cool that we have them.”
Bin 38 already stands apart by having 23 beers, “an astronomical number for a wine bar,” Davis says, noting that together with his 53 wines by the glass, the brews add to his pairing flexibility.
The suggested pairings benefit overall sales, Davis points out. “It’s hard to quantify, but I do think it encourages people to explore more and to come back more often.”
At Meritage in the Boston Harbor Hotel, executive chef Daniel Bruce takes what he calls a “connect the dots” approach to wine-and-food matching. He groups his à la carte menu items under six stylistic wine categories, including Sparklers, Full-Bodied Whites and Fruity Reds; a similarly named list offers appropriate wine matches. Under each heading are several dishes well-suited for that style of wine. For example, Pan-Roasted Scottish Salmon, found under Fruity Reds, has four recommendations: French Beaujolais, California Gamay, Italian Valpolicella and Oregon Pinot Noir.
This has been a boon to wine sales and profitability. “In most restaurants, the food-to-beverage ratio is 2.5 to one or even three to one,” says Bruce. “But about 50 percent of my sales are wine and 95 percent of all beverage sold is wine.”
The Late Night Bites menu, served until 2 a.m. in the 19 Sherlock’s Pub Co. casual dining units, jolted an important segment of business. “We noticed that our dinner sales were dropping off after 8 p.m,” says Edgar Carlson, a principal of parent company Hospitality USA Investment Group, based in Houston. “But now our business actually grows at those hours.”
Customers gravitate to downsized versions of popular menu items like Crispy Cod Strips, $5.99, and Baker St. Mini Burgers, $6.99. Beverage choices such as the Perfect Patrón Margarita featuring Patrón Silver tequila and Patrón Citronge liqueur, $7.75, and the Summer Frozen Cosmo, $5.75, entice guests to select a libation to accompany their late-night snacks.
An upgraded beverage menu at Zola, part of the Star Restaurant Group in Washington, D.C., has brought new excitement to the bar recently. A section of items dubbed “I Feel Like Sharing” offers small plates including Shrimp and Lobster Sliders and Skewered Lamb Tacos, most priced between $8 and $14. Patrons pass them around while sipping specialty drinks such as the Zojito, $9.50, made from fresh kumquats, platinum rum, kaffir lime syrup, mint and club soda.
“In most high-level restaurants, there is either no bar menu or a very limited selection,” says executive chef Bryan Moscatello. “But this gives customers some of the same creativity and imagination in one or two bites that they get would get in the dining room.” The sharing menu also highlights the synergies between food and drinks, which always are more profitable when paired. l
James Scarpa is a Chicago-based freelance writer who frequently covers food and beverage topics.
The Classic Mojito and the Classic Cuban Sandwich is a hot limited-time food-and-beverage pairing at O’Charley’s locations this summer.
Specialty cocktails such as (top, from left) Shogun, Blue Sting and Passion, served at Zola in Washington, D.C. are presented as the perfect accompaniments to the restaurant’s cuisine. The inventive bar menu also suggests pairing tempting plates such as the retro TV Dinner of Cherry-Glazed Duck Confit with appropriate wines (bottom).
The “Spice” promotion that ran in 105 Hyatt properties last fall put specialty cocktails and wines on par with small plates on lounge menus, prompting a significant increase in food and beverage revenues.