Operators have a greater choice of beers to serve than ever before. However as selection grows, so do the challenges of choosing from so many great brews and finding solid ways to uniquely promote them. From rolling out a constantly changing lineup of beers to offering a range of sizes and a new focus on server training, operators are using all kinds of new and old techniques to spice up their lists.
Chains, like the close to 100-location Old Chicago, part of the Louisville, Co.-based, 33-location Rock Bottom Restaurant & Brewery chain, and the Irvine, Ca.-based, 27-location Yard House Restaurant are home to some pretty dynamic beer lineups. Old Chicago features 110 beers, a minimum of thirty of which are on draught, at each of its hundred locations across the country. Twelve of the taps are chosen by Tracy Finklang, Old Chicago’s corporate beverage manager, as part of the national core list. Eight more are picked by the locations within each state together and each individual location then chooses four beers based on customer requests and local preferences. This leaves six rotating beers that the individual stores can use to slot in any kegs that they want, rotating them out as they are sold.
This changing beer lineup not only provides variety to the stores’ beer menus but customers are constantly able to sample new beers on tap with local appeal. This kind of excitement helps to bring loyal customers back to see what new beers are on tap. With at least half a dozen beers in constant flux, Old Chicago promotes their rotators with chalk boards scattered through the stores and menu inserts that are continuously updated as the beers change.
“The idea behind [the rotators] is two-fold. One is to bring in new, exciting product all the time that may or may not be available nationwide or on a regular basis,” Finklang explains. “We use those as a testing ground. So, whatever sells really well can potentially end up on a menu.” With some regional variation, a pint of Budweiser costs around $3.49; a bottle about $3.99.
Operators who are not always known for their huge beer lineups can also benefit from offering a wide range of beers in a wide range of sizes.
The six unit ESPN Zone chain, based in Anaheim, Ca., recently upgraded their beer menu and it has been well received. Draught beer is sold in 16-ounce servings, the 25 ounce “Big Daddy” size and pitchers. Prices vary by region and 14 tap handles are broken down as nine national selections, four regional or local favorites and one rotating brand, chosen on a local basis. The operation’s regular beer menu lists the 13 core beers and the rotator goes by the moniker of the “Number One Draft Pick.”
“There are the beer drinkers that come in and do want something new,” explains Weston Spiegl, manager of standards and beverage, of the changing selection and diversity of serving sizes. He adds that keeping the lineup fluid is especially interesting to “our regulars; they love to come in and find out what’s new on the draft pick. It definitely keeps the beer experience fresh for them.”
Server Education and Accessibility
With restaurants small and large now serving hundreds of beer styles from all over the world, there’s a greater need for training than ever before. Properly educating front of the house about how to accurately describe and sell a range of beers is more indispensible than ever before.
Kip Snider, director of beverage at the Yard House Restaurants, explains that consumer education can often start with the menu. His is broken into multiple sections and laid out in progressive format like a wine list. He adds that this structure “helps the guest interested in stepping into new styles.”
But the servers remain his customers’ ultimate guide so Snider makes sure to continually focus on training. He routinely takes his staff though tastings highlighting different styles, that like his beer menu, are often structured progressively. He frequently highlights unique beers and often has his team taste them in reverse order as well so they can learn to make accurate comparisons.
School in New Formats
Beer classes can present themselves in many guises that help to effectively educate customers and sell beer. Old Chicago features a “World Beer Tour,” which highlights all the beers the chain serves. Customers advance through the class by buying beer at the regular price until they complete the tour by purchasing a total of one hundred ten beers. The Tour, according to Finklang, encourages customers to try new beers while helping to drive her bottom line. The chain thus far has a million Tour club members and markets to them electronically. “We get a lot of feedback from these highly engaged, highly vocal, very interested patrons,” she adds.
The concept behind the Tour is to keep beer education fun, lively and interactive. “I bet you that if you walk into most restaurants and say, ‘What’s the ABV of Dogfish Head?’ nobody’s going to know. It’s like when wine sommeliers start to talk about the terroir. You have to keep it funny and light and pertinent to people,” she adds about appeal of the program.
Some restaurants structure their educational opportunities in more class-like format. For instance Karen McVicker, general manager of Cicero’s, a single-location, casual dining restaurant in St. Louis, Mo., holds a variety of annual beer classes.
She follows the school year and using a semester-style structure. “There are twelve classes in that semester then we have graduation. It’s on Wednesdays from 5:30 to 6:30.” She brings in experts every week and “most often, they’re the brew masters or the owners of the brewery. We leave about the last ten minutes when the ‘professor’ asks the class review questions where they can win prizes like t-shirts, pins [and] glassware.”
Students who attend about 80 percent of the classes usually graduate. Besides gaining bragging rights, they can get $1 off any beer an unlimited number of times during the following semester with their graduation card. Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of this is that the classes are free. But the return in customer loyalty certainly makes up for the effort and resources that go into it. For example, McVicker says that in 2009 the beer school graduate discount was used more than 4,000 times.
Beer dinners have also been used to great success as an educational vehicle at many restaurants. Greg Engert, beer director for Birch & Barley, a single-location fine dining restaurant in Washington D.C., and ChurchKey, the beer bar upstairs, offer monthly five-course beer dinners for $76 plus tax and gratuity.
Engert’s beers dinners are elegant, he reports, not just because of the wide selection the restaurant features, but also because of his staff’s focus on service. His beer menu features four-ounce samples priced from between $1.50 to about $4.50 and full servings priced from $5 to $9. His menu is not focused on packaging, region or even beer style. Instead he breaks his beer selection into basic flavor categories and features seven that “all beers fit into and each category has subcategories.”
This means that the beer menu starts with the “crisp” category that is broken out into “delicate fruit,” “malt-accented” and “subtle hoppiness” subcategories. This is followed by the “hops” category with “earthy and dry,” “malty backbone” and “bold, herbal and citric” subcategories and so on through all seven basic flavors. This menu is more accessible as it describes the beers by easy-to-understand flavor groups.
Selection alone these days hardly constitutes a dynamic beer menu. So restaurateurs continue to come up with a bevy of new ways to sell beer and their customers are rewarding them with both loyalty and enthusiasm.