When it comes to pairings, Hollywood icon Mae West had it right. “One and one is two,” West said, “and two and two is four, and five will get you ten if you know how to work it.” The on-premise industry has reached a point where its comprehension of Mae’s mantra has never been more fully understood. Drink and food pairings are the trend of the moment, one that continues to prove profitable for operators in an uncertain economy.
Suggested pairings offer a host of advantages, says Matt Gunderson, bar manager at the single-location Thirsty Bear Brewery in San Francisco. “It’s a great way to attract new business and to showcase your place. You can draw people in who might not otherwise come in.” At the Thirsty Bear, Gunderson couples his drinks with more than food; he often also offers them in flights that cross reference beer and spirits.
Newcomers are treated, he says, to “artisan spirits paired with our handcrafted ales and lagers.” For instance, Gunderson recently served up a “winter warmer” by pairing a holiday-spiced ale containing cinnamon, clove and nutmeg with a Bas Armagnac Reserve. It is priced at $8 and changes every week.
Leigh Lupinacci, director of food and beverage at the seven-location Baja Sharkeez, based in Hermosa Beach, Calif., says pairings of spirits and beer are cleverly suited to a seafood chain. She calls them the latest “hook,” saying, “They’re what we use to lure the customer in,” she says. “They stay, they eat, they socialize.” A prominent pairing would be “Taco Tuesday,” with aggressively priced Margaritas and tequila shots on offer. “A taco and a Margarita is the perfect pairing,” she says, citing a Cazadores Cadillac Margarita that Sharkeez couples with its house specialty, Mahi Fish Tacos. She also features a $14 bucket of four Corona beers on ice, “which go really well with those tacos.”
Over the past few economically challenging years operators have had to take a serious look at new ways of attracting business, adding value and keeping menu offerings exciting for their customers. Well-selected, and priced, pairings often do the trick.
For Lupinacci at Baja Sharkeez, drink pairings have been one of the best antidotes for upping the bottom line since economic blues that hit the industry hard, beginning in 2008. “People right now are looking for the best bang for their buck,” she says. “I think they’ve always been apt to do that, but especially now.” She says they shoot for an 18 percent pour cost, “and pairings definitely help us reach that figure.”
The good news for Sharkeez is that largely because of pairings, she says, “our sales haven’t really gone down at all during the economic downturn.” The chain focuses heavily, she says, on daily promotions, Monday through Thursday “to drive food and drink business sales.”
Its drinks and food “offered at a more aggressive price point than they would be at 10 p.m.,” she says, citing Monday’s “effective pairing lineup” of “Flaming Fajitas on a Sizzling Skillet,” coupled with a “South of the Border pitcher party.” The Fajitas start at $4.25, but they’re normally $7.49, which she says is “about a 50 percent discount.” Pitchers of double-sized cocktails run about $5.25, but normally, they would be close to double that.
The traditional Mexican fajitas, Lupinacci says, are “served with 22-ounce personal pitchers of Sangria, Margaritas and Cabo Lemonades,” made with Stoli Blueberi, Triple Sec, cranberry juice and sprite. “They’re drinks that are a little bigger served in a personal pitcher with a Mexican flair.” In addition, Sharkeez also offers “all the Mexican beers,” Lupinacci says, and sells Tecate, Dos Equis, Pacifico and Negra Modelo on tap. The beers are paired with the fajitas and cost about $3.99.
On Tuesday, Sharkeez pairs tacos “at heavily discounted prices” with a house Margarita for $3.25 and a Don Julio Margarita for $6.50. The tacos that come in pairings start at $3.25, but typically run about $3.99. “Normally, that would cost $9 or $10,” Lupinacci says. “We also do tequila shots with a taco pairing. The cheapest is $2, with the Casa Dorada $3.50 and the Don Julio for $5. And, if you like, we have buckets of Corona to go with tacos.” Ninety-five percent of guests opt for the deal and get them together.
At the Thirsty Bear, Gunderson enjoys the more conventional route of pairing “certain wines with certain foods,” but also does beer pairings. For instance he might use a light, Belgian-style beer such as Valencia Wheat, to accompany a dish that would also work with a crisp sauvignon blanc. The Valencia Wheat is steeped in orange peel with coriander. It costs $6 for a 20-ounce serving. “It sells itself,” Gunderson says. “People love Belgian beers. The beer community really understands Belgian beers, because of their crisp flavors. And the flavors of the beer go well with the flavors of food.”
Gunderson likes to start his guests off with an aperitif, such as sparkling wine. “Then we might move to a vodka drink that’s lighter in flavor,” he says. “We clear the palate by moving into rum and then finish with a whiskey or Scotch. …. It’s always a progression.
Making Specials More Special and Training the Staff
Even the most practical union of dishes and drinks seems more alluring when promoted as an ideal match and is made ever more appealing by being offered at a discount. Owner Kevin Settles of three-location, Boise-based distillery and restaurant Bardenay says his company uses “pairings to match our specials and the specials change constantly. Wine is usually suggested, but we will suggest a beer if we think it is more appropriate. We do not discount for the pairing because we like to think that we are already offering a great deal on the special.” Settles adds that Bardenay often relies on its suppliers to suggest pairings for special dinners, such as a steak entrée paired with a wine. “We’re looking all the time for great value,” he says, and pairings rotate constantly based on individual items that suppliers suggest and on what they can deliver at the time.
Training servers in the synergies of selling pairings is key to making such programs sell profitably. When it comes to training for pairings, Settles says his staff has to be given “the opportunity to try all new items. In addition, we try to hire a staff with the experience and maturity to have a fairly good knowledge base and inclination to food and beverage.”
Part of the success of pairings, Settles says, comes in the hiring process. His company wants a staff that already has at least three years experience working in other establishments. That way, “when they come on board, they’ve already got a pretty good handle on what wine works best with what food and so forth.”
In San Francisco, Gunderson holds pre-shift meetings to go over the specials he’s offering to “walk the staff through what I’m thinking. So that when they talk to our guests for the evening, they’ll know what we’re offering, and we’re all on the same page.”
At Sharkeez, Lupinacci says the staff and the customers revel in the creativity that pairings allows. “We do our best,” she says, “to suggest five to six drinks to work with [different food] promotions during the week. But once they catch on, people really go with it.”
Suggested pairings continue to up operators’ bottom lines by offering their customer base an ever-changing, and well-priced, lineup of food and drink options.