Cheers’ January/February issue presented a snapshot of some of the key topics addressed in the promotions-focused roundtable held at Legal Sea Foods in Boston in October. Attendees included Marc Sachs, corporate beverage manager of Uno Chicago Grill; Sandy Block, master of wine and vice president of beverage operations from Legal Sea Foods; Barry Prescott, corporate beverage director from Hyatt Hotels & Resorts; Jennifer Cooke, corporate trainer and beverage director of Phillips Seafood; Tom Schlesinger-Guidelli, beverage manager from Cambridge’s Cragie on Main; and Richard Brackett, general manager from Scampo, part of Lydia Shire’s restaurant group.
The six attendees run very different types of restaurants and bars, ranging from huge empires like Hyatt and Uno to single-unit entities such as Italian-influenced Scampo in Boston’s Liberty Hotel and innovative cocktail bar and restaurant, Cragie. Topics addressed in the intense and focused hour and a half roundtable included promotions that work in the current economy, how to better focus on guest needs, revitalizing drinks offering and how to successfully use social media.
Cooke featured a “Chicktails for Hope” program in the fourth quarter of 2009. The promotion was geared toward breast cancer awareness, and a portion of the proceeds were slated go to breast cancer research. It also was tied into repeat business by offering customers a card for a free crab and spinach dip when they buy another Chicktail.
At Hyatt, Prescott launched a dozen new, interactive promotions, and he let his different bars and properties choose among them. One particularly successful one was called “Sip and Dip,” which featured photos of foods like shrimp, calamari and satay being dipped and paired with wine and cocktails. He also brought back “Bubbles and Fizz,” an interactive sparkling wine, Champagne and sparkling wine-based cocktail promotion the property does every Thanksgiving to Valentine’s Day. Guests write down what they would like, as they do with “Sip and Dip,” and Prescott says the interactive angle is an important one for his guests.
A variety of different wine promotions have also had success at the operators’ different restaurants over the past months. At Scampo, Brackett notes that special deals often drive purchases, so he changed the wine list so that consumer cost dropped 40 percent. The result was that average bottle purchases increased 24 percent. He also has seen a 14 percent increase in total bottle sales, something he attributes to his guests having more options in the lower price range. He adds that these types of promotions are moving people away from by-the-glass sales and into more bottle purchases, and says that his average bottle sale hovers around $60 a bottle at Scampo.
Not all operations have had as much success with bottle sales. Sachs said that wine sales at Uno are 70 percent by-the-glass, which often is the norm in casual dining. He adds that no matter how aggressively he may try to promote wine by the bottle, much of his sales will remain in by-the-glass offerings. At Phillips, Cooke does 60 percent of her wine sales wines by the glass and has started making any wine offered by the glass available in a flight as well. As a result, the operation has increased by-the-glass wine sales by 27 percent. The restaurant also has lowered its price point, and has seen as much as a 75 percent increase in wine sales in some locations as a result.
Making Customers Top Priority
Focusing on the guest experience and tailoring it to customers’ needs has become more important than ever in this economy. Sachs notes that operators can sometimes spend too much time talking about the three-tier system and should be more focused on the services they provide their customers. Prescott adds that it’s about giving customers what they want instead what operators might think they want. He notes that customer approval will be immediately apparent by virtue of sales. Sachs agreed that guests will continually let operators know what is working and which promotions are true to the concept.
One of the top trends many in the group were seeing is a desire for greater interaction in the restaurant experience. Guests want to talk to the bartenders and know where drinks come from and how they were created. As a result, Schlesinger-Guidelli at Cragie recently launched a four-cocktail sampling program called a “Cocktail Whim,” which was inspired by a food program his chef had piloted. He says it has been quite successful in increasing both late-night sales and general interest in the restaurant’s cocktail program.
At Uno, Sachs is training his bartenders to say “What brings you here tonight?” and “What can I make for you tonight?” to foster interactivity, even though both statements are rarely heard in a casual dining context. His goal is to get guests involved in the drink-making process with a skilled bartender. He adds that having greater insight on the guest experience also is a boon for bartenders, as learning who has the six o’clock train and who has the night helps them truly deliver that quality customer experience.
Staff training is essential to managing the customer experience at large operations like Phillips. Cooke notes that the restaurant seasonally trains up to 200 servers each spring, many of whom have no restaurant experience. She encourages them to go to their favorite local pub or restaurant to experience the warm welcome that comes from servers knowing your name. She says that the guest experience needs to be about much more than just a crab cake and beer, so the bartender needs to interact with guests and get them involved in the drink-making and serving process.
Evolving Drinks Offerings
Guests want to know more about their drink selections than ever before, and lists and promotions are reflecting that. At Scampo, Brackett has launched a new cocktail list that is much more experimental than classic. The idea came from the idea that in a restaurant where food takes center stage, guests are looking for something a little more creative and want to know the story behind the drink.
In terms of being innovative, Schlesinger-Guidelli is able to change the restaurant’s cocktail menu daily, and he says that those changes are important to his core cocktail customers. He also says that his customers want to know the story behind the cocktail and how he created it. He notes that his restaurant tries to tell stories in the context of the menu, and that has helped translate cocktails beyond the bar and into the dining room.
He adds that he is seeing the revitalizing of a lot of defunct cocktail ingredients, such as crème Yvette, a violet liqueur, and St-Germain, which everyone thinks is an old-school ingredient. These new spirits embody the trends, according to Schlesinger-Guidelli, and it’s the operator’s responsibility to figure out what’s out there and sort through it for the guest. He adds that mezcal and rye also currently are hot commodities.
The vibe and products of the bar often extend into the restaurant in more ways than one these days. The Lounge has become the chef’s table of 2009, as it gives customers another choice and another atmosphere in which to spend time in, says Sachs. He adds that he often eats in the dining room with his children and in the lounge with his wife, as he likes the “adultness” of the atmosphere. Uno’s number one lounge program is snack hour, where a tapas assortment of food, priced from $1.99 to $2.99, is offered. The goal is to invite guests to graze, lounge and enjoy a cocktail with their food.
Precision and Beer
Exact measurements also are an essential ingredient of the new cocktail culture that many operators are rolling out. Legal’s Block says his restaurants are going back to jiggering because they want a precise measurement. He notes that Legal also is doing a lot of bartender summits and videos that explain the drinks the restaurant serves. He notes that these training sessions are important, as many of his bartenders aren’t yet chefs and mixologists but are aspiring to become them one day.
At Uno, Sachs has almost no printed manuals; almost everything is visual and combines YouTube and Facebook; he finds them to be places his bartenders get information. The restaurant also does a live webcast to every location, a conference call and a live web feed since peer recognition is hugely important to his bar staff.
Precision and training also come to bear on many operators’ beer programs. At Legal, Block noted that his beer selection always had been very safe, in part because it ranked a solid third among his beverage alcohol categories. He says he never wanted it to be too exotic because he didn’t want to serve stale draft beer. He has since made significant changes to the program to accommodate the new generation that is passionate about beer. He says he tasted though 100 different craft brews with his team to let the locations that would like to promote unique beers, such as Chimay and Ommegang, have them on their lists. He says these new selections are primarily promoted by enthusiastic bartenders, and they are part of the lineup in a dozen restaurants.
At Uno, beer—draft beer specifically—is the number one revenue generator among his beverage alcohol offerings. As a result, Sachs has launched two new programs. The first is a regional tap handle that features local beers, such as Goose Island in the Midwest, on a rotating national beer handle. To create the second option he asked national beer vendors what they would put on tap in different locations to give the restaurants a local feel and let distributors participate in the decision-making process. Both beer programs give various Unos locations a regional feel, and the second has been a success for Sachs because it also helps his vendor partners while allowing them to grow with the restaurant.