Despite the dismal economy, it is possible to sell Cognacs, brandy and after-dinner drinks, say some restaurant operators who have adjusted their game plans. The keys to success are as basic as offering outstanding value, marketing them effectively and building awareness of the after-dinner beverage opportunity.
There’s no denying that it is a challenging marketplace. Sales of after-dinner stalwarts brandy and Cognac collectively were down 0.8 percent last year, according to Cheers parent The Beverage Information Group, albeit from a large base with E&J, Paul Masson and Christian Brothers leading the brandy charge and Hennessy, Rémy Martin and Courvoisier holding up the Cognac front. Dessert and fortified wine consumption declined by 2.6 percent. Vermouth and aperitifs faired even worse as a whole, sliding by 3.4 percent. A notable exception is sake, where guests are discovering the rice wine and brands such as Ty Ku. All three leading U.S. sake brands, Takara, Gekkeikan and Ozeki, grew in sales by more than two percent last year despite the recessionary economy.
“People were averaging three or four cocktails with dinner, but they’re down to one or two now, and cocktails and dessert have become luxury items,” says Lynn House, mixologist at casually upscale Graham Elliot in Chicago.
Selling a luxury item during a time when dining out has become less common but more of an event doesn’t sound so bad to Bobby Stuckey, master sommelier and co-owner of Frasca Food and Wine in Boulder, Colo., which specializes in the cuisine of Italy’s Friuli region.
“I think there is more opportunity to sell after-dinner spirits now than before,” he says. He notes that although cover counts are down slightly this year, checks are about the same, which means customers aren’t skimping. Often the evening includes an Italian dessert wine like La Spinetta 2008 Moscato d’Asti Biancospino, $12, Stefano Inama 2004 “Apres Vulcaia” from Italy’s Veneto region, $13, or perhaps an amaro or Austrian herbal liqueur such as Lauria Alpensahne Alpine Cream Liqueur, $5.
“Dining out is more of a special occasion now,” says Stuckey, and that means there’s an opportunity to sell affordable luxuries such as after-dinner drinks. At Frasca, the range of choices includes seven brandies, Armagnacs and Cognacs, 13 grappas and six amaros.
Even with that opportunity, though, after-dinner drinks don’t sell themselves. Operators should keep in mind five common-sense pointers by beverage pros that have a knack for moving after-dinner beverages.
1. Pop the question
“Asking one little question to every table before you drop the check is everything that needs to happen,” says Stuckey. “‘Would you like to enjoy a classic Italian digestivo?’ If they say, ‘Oh, I love grappa, I love amaro,’ you’ve started a conversation. If the answer is no, that’s the closer of the evening.”
2. Pair desserts and beverages
Signature dessert and after-dinner beverage duos are potent tools. Chef-owner Daniel Orr of FarmBloomington in Bloomington, Ind. has a menu of eight desserts such as Espresso Granite Parfait, $6.50, matched with Bourbons like Woodford Reserve, $7.50. Sales of Bourbon have shot up. “We get people coming in especially for dessert and Bourbon,” says Orr.
3. Price for value
Even diners at luxury venues are searching for value. At McCrady’s Restaurant in Charleston, S.C., a couple of less-heralded but worthy French dessert wines—not the big-name Sauternes and vintage Ports in its cellar—star with sweets in the six-course, $75 per-person Chef’s Tasting Menu. Domaine l’Elephant 2007 Rivesaltes Grenat, a Port-like blend of late-harvest grenache, carignan and syrah, is matched with Soft Chocolate with Mint Chocolate Chip Ice Cream and Hazelnuts, and Château Soucherie 2005 Chaume, a late-harvest chenin blanc from the Loire, is paired with Banana Puddin’. Some guests may just opt for one of the restaurant’s handful of Cognacs, which range from the reasonably priced Courvoisier VS or Hennessey VSOP to a more expensive Rémy Martin XO, topping out pricewise with Louis XII. “We’re definitely a fine-dining restaurant, but we’re reaching out to people who don’t usually eat in a place like this,” says Clint Sloan, sommelier and beverage director.
4. Put it in black and white
Write a brief description of the various beverage categories on your after-dinner list. Bristol Bar & Grille in Louisville, Ky. tells you that Port is a sweet, red dessert wine fortified with pure grape brandy and named for the town of Oporto, Portugal. “A sentence or two makes patrons feel more comfortable ordering them,” says corporate wine and beverage director W. Scott Harper, M.S. It also helps the staff learn, too.
5. Get them salivating
Even a single, well-chosen word can boost the sales effort. Each of the 18 cordials at McCrady’s, priced from $7 to $11 each, have a one-word descriptor. Cointreau is described as “orange,” Goldschlager is “cinnamon” and Frangelico is “hazelnut,” etc. “That gets people thinking flavors,” says Sloan.
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