The raging resurgence of classic cocktails, often updated with handcrafted artisanal ingredients comes with the challenge of getting these labor-intensive libations to thirsty customers in a timely fashion. To avoid risking losing waiting customers to the competitor down the block, some savvy establishments are offering guests free samples, or welcome cocktails, to ease the wait and make them feel at home.
Typically, this alcoholic take on an a gift from the chef is something that can be made ahead of time while staying true to the restaurant’s concept. The spirit used also generally fits the place’s image, without breaking the bank.
For instance, Mercat a la Planxa in Chicago, owned by Sage Restaurant Group of Denver, pours tasting portions of their choice of Cava or the house-made seasonal sangria for people not seated within 15 minutes of their reservation. “This symbolizes that they are welcome in our home, says Steven Serdar, general manager. “This is done as a gesture of appreciation, and it helps them to start engaging our brand and enjoying the hospitality of Spain.”
Inspired by Spain’s Catalan region, Mercat and its tapas menu created by famed chef Jose Garces continues to enjoy good crowds three years after opening on Chicago’s celebrated Michigan Avenue. Selections from a full bar accompany small plates of cured meats, cheeses or grilled items.
One of several cocktails at Mercat, which are priced from $8 to $12, sangria always is available in a red, white and a seasonal flavor. The red contains Torres brandy, Triple Sec and wine, plus fresh fruits. Contents of the white include peach schnapps, orgeat syrup, lemon juice and wine.
Fruits including lemons, oranges, grapefruit or blackberries flavor the Italian liqueur, cello, at two of six Denver metro area restaurants owned by Bonanno Concepts. The company’s Italian restaurants, Osteria and Luca d’Italia offer complimentary cello mini-cocktails to about half of an evening’s diners for reasons ranging from welcoming first timers to celebrating a guest’s special occasion, says Frank Bonanno, owner and executive chef.
Regarding the cost of giving away drinks, Bonnano says the practice is his preferred way to advertise, rather than buying actual ads, and often pays off in the long run by building a regular clientele. The restaurants are not likely to pour a free cocktail for anyone who just asks for one, he adds.
Bourbon and Branch, a speakeasy-themed bar in San Francisco that is part of the Future Bars group, has been promoting cocktail ingredients from local markets since it opened, says Ian Scalzo, general manager. Offering customers an amuse bouche “market cocktail” showcases bartenders’ creativity and encourages customers to try new things, he says.
Most of the bar’s regular 60 to 70 cocktails are priced between $11 and $13, with some high-end whiskeys running as high as about $50. The 160-seat Bourbon and Branch stays true to its speakeasy inspiration by limiting entrance to its rooms by password. Future Bars also operates three additional bars and a high-end liquor store.
The Southern, a year-old bar and comfort food restaurant in Chicago’s hot Bucktown/Wicker Park entertainment district, offers a twist on the South’s punch bowl tradition with mini punch glasses given to guests on busy evenings. With half-hour waits not uncommon, guests can chill out with a nightly sample of, say, Stonewall punch, made with Jim Beam and apple cider or the Brandy Buck, prepared with Christian Brothers brandy, Grand Marnier, lemon juice and ginger ale. When buying a punch bowl, which comprises between 10 and 15 servings, guests pay $56.
Noting that the neighborhood boasts at least two restaurants in every block, Evan Traub, general manager, says the punch samples keep guests from walking out when there’s a wait. “The first few minutes are crucial. It tells people this is the place to be and thanks them,” he adds.
In addition to punch, The Southern’s bar menu includes many Southern beers, 25 Bourbons ranging from eight-year-old Old Charter for $6 to 18-year-old Elijah Craig for $16 and $8 cocktails such as a Honeysuckle made with Bacardi Superior, clover honey and lemon. At a time when consumers are on the lookout for bargains and free samples in everything they buy, complimentary welcome cocktails are a clever marketing tool likely to succeed in all kinds of economies.