If you haven’t been to one of Ruby Tuesday’s 896 locations lately, you may be surprised at what you see. The 37-year-old chain has traded in its bar-and-grill roots to become an upscale dining destination complete with a sophisticated menu of drinks to match.
In 2007, the company rolled out a remodeling program nationwide that transformed the interior and exterior of the restaurant buildings. The food and beverage changes quickly followed suit.
“We focused on enhancing the quality of every aspect of the dining experience, from the plateware and the glassware to the ingredients in our recipes,” says Andy Scoggins, Maryville, Tennessee-based vice president of food and beverage. “Ruby Tuesday has made it a priority to use fresh ingredients—from our fresh, never-frozen burgers and all-natural chicken to the fresh mint and juices used in our high quality cocktails. Our updated look, feel and menu are all important parts of our commitment to providing our guests quality, freshness and value.”
The beverage refresh was straightforward: “We literally took everything we do with spirits and made it fresher,” says Ken Lennox, beverage director. “It’s an extension of our commitment to offering fresh, high quality food.” The chain also rolled out a wider selection of higher-end wine and beer.
With an eye on luring customers searching for a nice night on the town at an affordable price, Ruby Tuesday’s revamp has created a beverage program that goes above and beyond the norm for the casual dining scene.
With the restaurant serving more products like jumbo lump crabmeat, lobster and ripe avocados, the beverages were stepped up a notch. “It’s important that [the meals] are paired with high quality premium wines,” says Lennox. “Our latest wine list includes specialty selections including Layer Cake Malbec, Sonoma-Cutrer Russian River Ranches Chardonnay, Estancia Reserve Meritage and MacMurray Ranch Pinot Gris. We are proud to offer these premium wines at a great value to our guest.” The company also ran an innovative, highly successful $10 a bottle wine program with Franzia and other producers during the New Year’s and Valentine’s Day holidays. The offer featured Lost Angel Red Blend, Coastal Vines Chardonnay and Beringer White Zinfandel, each $10 on the menu for a full bottle. “Our goal was to provide a memorable experience at a great value, and guests responded favorably to the offer.”
In addition to a newly updated wine list, more than 55 craft beers have been approved for service in the chain’s restaurants. It also features a draft beer size that is a true 16 ounce pint.
“We encourage management to carry local favorites and those that sell the best in each market,” explains Lennox. “We are proud to offer a variety of specialty, hard-to-find craft beers that are not common in other casual dining restaurants, such as Abita Turbodog, Dogfish 60 Minute IPA, Fat Tire Amber Ale and Brooklyn Brown Ale, and we offer them at great, everyday prices.”
While Ruby Tuesday’s wine list is consistent across the country with very few exceptions, the beer list is much more flexible. It contains more than 80 approved beers that restaurant managers can choose from. “We work hard to stay on top of emerging trends, and [we] are always searching for new and unique selections to our list of beers,” says Lennox.
The chain’s commitment to freshness includes using more all-natural juices and fresh garnishes in the cocktails and alcohol-free beverages. It also is incorporating more premium spirits into the cocktails. The Ultimate Patrón Margarita, for example, is made with Patrón Silver, Patrón Citrónge and the chain’s house-made sour mix that is prepared using fresh, all-natural lemon and lime juices. “Another example is our gin and tonic, which is made using Tanqueray and garnished with a hint of fresh cilantro,” says Lennox. “This fresh accent takes this classic drink to a new level. We believe that our guests deserve the best, and we strive to go the extra step to ensure that Ruby Tuesday’s drinks are of the highest quality.”
Although it doesn’t disclose exact figures, the chain has successfully increased beverage sales by incorporating cocktails, wine and beer on the food menu inserts. Suggested pairings of wine and beers saw a continued increase in sales—anywhere from 11 to 16 percent, depending on the promotion—for the featured brands. They also have featured cocktails like the Ruby Relaxer, $5, made with Smirnoff, DeKuyper Peach Schnapps, Malibu Coconut Rum and pineapple and cranberry juices, and Cîroc Grape Martini, menued at $7 and made with Cîroc Vodka, white grape juice and frozen grapes.
Ruby Tuesday management saw that if they were going to be successful with their beverage program, they needed to ensure the people serving the drinks on a day-to-day basis were well prepared to serve the freshest beverages possible.
“Our philosophy is that we start at the top with the general managers and vice presidents of operations,” notes Scoggins. “We bring them into our support center to train them, so we can have a top-down training program.”
In fact, senior leadership is brought in and taught about the drinks. “This ensures that when they go back to the restaurant, they are able to make the drinks—including muddling, jigger pouring, et cetera,” says Scoggins. “In addition, 90 percent of our bartenders get regional training at corporate centers, which includes step-by-step directions on making the drinks.”
The top-down approach and re-enforced training creates an energy in the bars. The bartenders feel “self-propelled to excel,” says Lennox, and the response has been great. He notes that they feel more comfortable selling drinks, and sell more of them as a result.
“Literally the classes start with the vice president of operations to talk about the big picture of what we want to get out of the bar, then the regional managers come in and most of the bartenders,” he says. “We also have trainers and support center staff to go through the technical aspects of the drink.”
All of the bars are covered with relevant training materials, and online training is delivered through the MICROS systems at every location. This comprehensive training includes all drink recipes and specifications, how to build a bar business, menu knowledge, bar environment and atmosphere along with beer, wine and spirits knowledge. All materials and assessments for the MICROS system are designed in-house by Ruby Tuesday’s training department using e-learning development software. Team members and managers complete module training and testing using the chain’s learning system, which is accessible at the restaurant-level via the POS systems.
With its eye on excellence, the chain continues to focus on offering customers a value they can’t find elsewhere. Throughout 2009, Ruby Tuesday launched three new Drinks & Desserts beverage menus that featured “$3, $4 and $5” sections. The title refers to the $3 draft beer of the day, the $4 signature Sangrias and the $5 cocktail of the day, which change daily.
“We had a huge success with the campaign early on,” says Lennox. “So we are building upon it to offer any drink with premium well ingredients for $5. We will also feature some signature drinks, made with Absolut and Jack Daniel’s, at the same value.”
The $5 cocktail program, rolled out in November of 2009, “is really the next step in being known for having a great beverage program,” notes Scoggins. The promotion is as simple, Lennox says: Any cocktail a customer wants made with premium well spirits is $5. “The thing to note about this is that we didn’t change our pours or reduce our glassware,” he explains. “We are going out there with a great $5 cocktail.” He adds that, “since we did not reduce liquor pours, beverage portions or product quality, we absolutely reduced margins. Our goal is not to sell more drinks to the same guests; it is to sell a first or second drink to either a new guest or a guest that has never tried one of our great cocktails.”
The chain also is offering their 17 signature cocktails, some of which are made with premium spirits, with a $5 price tag. Almost all locations—with the exception of four or five—will be rolling out the new menu.
Also on the beverage menus are sections touting the chain’s “Craft Beers,” “Margaritas & Mojitos,” “Martinis & More,” “Premium Wine” and “Zero Proof,” which is a collection of hand-crafted, alcohol-free cocktails.
Changing the customer’s opinion and behavior is going to take time. For example, Ruby Tuesday has had difficulty alerting guests to the existence of their new Sunday brunch. “We’ve found some pretty strong success and intent to visit,” say Scoggins. He admits, though, that “word isn’t out yet. People don’t know that we serve Sunday brunch. This is not something you normally find in casual dining restaurants.”
The chain is dedicated to giving brunch customers the true special Sunday feel. Food items include steak and eggs and crepes, and the beverages really capitalize on the fresh juices they carry. The latest drink is the Pyrat Hurricane, priced at $7 and made with a mix of pineapple and mixed berry juices, Pyrat XO Reserve Rum, Patrón Citronage, fresh lime and splash of Sprite. “It’s a flavor profile you’ll only find at Ruby Tuesday.”
Alcohol-free offerings include teas and hand-crafted lemonades, which are made to order with fresh, never-frozen lemon juice. All are offered with free refills—another first for the company.“Virtually everything we’ve done the guest has responded to very well,” says Lennox. “We are increasing traffic and gaining momentum. The key is that we differentiate ourselves by being a high quality casual dining chain. We offer great quality at a great price.”