To those of us who think of beer as food, it’s no surprise that comfort foods—home-style cooking with generous portions—draw beer drinkers to the dining table. So many styles of beer go well with staples such as burgers, mac’n’cheese and all kinds of grilled and fried foods. Caramel malts in beer offer a seamless match with bready, grilled and browned steaks, meat loaf, pot roast and other baked, broiled and fried foods. And the typically generous portions of comfort food, and high satiety, let customers relax and savor the pairings without fuss.
At the Rock Bottom in Milwaukee, WI, comfort foods are mainstays of the menu at the polished casual dining and craft brewing operation. CraftWorks Restaurants & Breweries, Inc.,
through its three principal operating units, Old Chicago, Gordon Biersch and Rock Bottom, is reported to be the nation’s leading operator and franchisor of craft beer-focused casual dining and brewery restaurants with nearly 200 owned and franchised locations across the United States. CraftWorks also operates regional brands, including ChopHouse and Big River and maintains intellectual property rights to the Boulder Beer, Inc. microbrewery. The company maintains dual headquarters in Chattanooga, TN and Louisville, CO.
Ryan Hartman, general manager of the Milwaukee Rock Bottom unit for the last 10 years, has seen the 14-year-old restaurant evolve over time. To offer good value, several comfort food appetizers are now offered in dual portion sizes: smaller tasting plates are offered for $3.95 to $5.95, and full portions priced at $7.95 to $10.95. Comfort foods also get new presentations beyond portion size. “Our Green-Chili Fried Mac’n’Cheese Bundles are served with tomatillo dip,” explains Hartman, a pairing that blends the appeal of basic mac’n’cheese amped up with Mexican seasonings and salsa. The appetizer is priced at $3.95 for the tasting plate and $7.95 for the full portion.
Why is comfort food so popular now? “These are not the trendiest items on the menu,” says Hartman, “So there’s some safety because the food is basically familiar and we typically serve large portions, so there’s a bang for your buck.” Rock Bottom’s mac’n’cheese is very creamy, but also uses a blend of Wisconsin Asiago, Havarti and Cheddar cheeses to make it stand apart from home-style cooking.
Comfort food sales volume depends on the season, explains Hartman, “Because we definitely sell a lot more comfort foods during the winter.” Dishes will be tweaked for seasonal variety, with more small plates, seafood and salads highlighted during the summer months. “This summer, we’ve added a variation of mac’n’cheese with grilled chicken, and also one made with lobster, at $18.95 for the entrée portion,” says Hartman
The large size of the Rock Bottom in downtown Milwaukee draws many convention and meeting groups, as the 20,000-square-foot establishment can seat 475 guests including the riverside patio, three different bars and two main restaurant rooms.
Although the unit does not divulge overall sale figures, 67 percent of sales are from food and 33 percent from bar and beverage sales, with beer accounting for half of the beverage sales. Rock Bottom’s beers are priced from $4.79 to $5 per Imperial pint (20 ounces) with smaller 12-ounce glasses priced from $3.25, and other brands, such as Miller Lite, at $4.79. Regular customers appreciate the consistent pricing and generous portions. “If we take the Chicken-Fried Chicken off the menu, we definitely hear about it from our regulars,” adds Hartman, describing the hand-battered chicken breasts served over White Cheddar cheese mashed potatoes with country gravy.
Beer in the Mix
Beer is not only being paired with classic comfort foods it is also sometimes being used to prepare them. Some chains are pursuing beer-enhanced cuisine for customers interested in value and flavor innovation—case in point, the “Better with Brew” menu at T.G.I. Friday’s. Carlson Inc. of Minneapolis, MN, operates more than 900 T.G.I. Friday’s in 60 countries, with plan to add at least 160 more restaurants in operation by 2015, bringing the portfolio to nearly 1,100 restaurants in key destinations across the globe.
According to Ricky Richardson, chief concept officer for T.G.I. Friday’s, “Our overall percentage of sales from all beverages is higher than most casual dining restaurants due to Friday’s unique heritage with mixology and beverage innovation.” The typical unit averages 7,000 square feet, with capacity for 250 to 300 patrons, and bar seating varying by configuration, but typically from 24 to 30 seats.
Richardson says, “Based on our research, we saw that 34 percent of consumers consider summer as their favorite time of year for beer drinking. In addition, 40 percent of consumers like to have a beer that pairs well with dishes with bold flavor, like barbequed ribs in the summer. This insight certainly indicates that our ‘Better with Brew Menu’ is well timed for the summer and will meet consumer demand.”
“T.G.I. Friday’s has a strong history and knowledge of beverage trends, constantly staying at the forefront of the ‘next big thing’” says Richardson. “Understanding the beverage industry—and hearing feedback from our guests—led us to this fresh, new menu for summer.” The chain now offers craft brews from Abita, Alaskan Brewing, Goose Island Brewery, Harpoon, Magic Hat, New Belgium Brewing Co. and more in the lineup of beers, priced from $3.50 to $4 per draft. Richardson says, “We also developed menu items that included these same brews in the recipes, providing a truly unique and robust tasting experience for our guests.”
Affordably priced options include Ale House Shrimp & Chips, a crispy mix of beer-battered and breaded broccoli, sliced red peppers and Cajun-spiced shrimp served on home-style potato chips with cucumber-wasabi ranch and a Stout beer remoulade sauce ($9.49); Parmesan-Crusted Crab Flounder: flounder fillets splashed with craft beer, crowned with deviled crabmeat and crispy Parmesan breadcrumbs ($11.99); Dijon-Crusted Beer Chicken, chicken fillets marinated in craft beer, flavored with Dijon, then lightly breaded with seasoned bread crumbs and seared ($8.49); and Black Angus Brew House Steak marinated in a homemade brine of amber and citrus and grilled to order with a beer-based pan sauce ($12.59).
Potato Pairings and Other Tasty Fare
In Baltimore, MD, the independent Ale Mary’s has built its reputation for comfort food atop the tater tot. “We sell about 500 pounds of baked tater tots each week, either as an appetizer or entrée, loaded with toppings such as cheese, bacon, pulled pork BBQ or even crab meat, with ranch dressing for dipping,” says partner Tom Rivers, who runs the Fell’s Point bar with his wife Mary, who designs the menu, and his brother Bill Rivers. Comfort food offerings range from standards such as burgers and burritos to more elaborate vegetarian lasagna and pot pies. “We try to keep it as affordable as possible for our regulars, says Rivers, “our half-pound burger and Boh combo [Natty Boh, the nickname for the local brew, National Bohemian] sells for $7 and craft beer such as the Flying Dog Pale Ale [brewed in nearby Frederick, MD] is always on draft.”
Currently, Ale Mary’s has six draft lines, with plans to add six more fonts, and 55 brands available in bottles. “Bottles range from $2.50 for a Natty Boh to $6.25 for the Belgian import Gouden Carolus from Het Anker,” says Rivers. A huge draw are the desserts such as the infamous Krispy Kreme Bread Pudding, a platter of glazed doughnuts baked into a caramelized calorie bomb, serving four to six people at $8.50. “It was voted Baltimore’s ‘Best Way to Die Happy’ by a local entertainment magazine,” adds Rivers.
With seating for 35 in the restaurant, and an additional 20 seats at the bar and high top tables, Ale Mary’s qualifies as cozy in a down-home way. The staff is trained to know about the beers and menu selection, but Rivers also looks for irreverent wit to keep with the setting and name. “We have lots of church memorabilia to decorate the restaurant, including an antique holy water fount by the door that doubles as a serving dish for the star mints. Amazingly, we have never had complaints,” Rivers says, even from the priests at nearby parishes who enjoy the tongue-in-cheek menu, featuring sandwiches with names like “The Crabby Nun,” crab cake sandwich ($11.95) or the Thankful Turkey ($7.95).
At Santa Ana’s gastropub Chapter One, partners Jeff Hall, Jeffrey Jensen and Tim O’Connor generate success by the book. Modeled after a library and lined with shelves full of old books, the pub suits the local university crowd, with gastropub fare that Hall describes as “gourmet comfort food.”
Hall says, “Our chef is not too complicated in terms of cooking, so we have simple flavors that pair well with beer. We don’t try to sell peach cobbler 365 days a year; we keep it seasonal and that keeps it affordable.”
The bar gets into the business of comfort flavors, with infusions of fresh fruits and spirits to make drinks and the kitchen is also experimenting with house-made pickles. “It’s approachable food, but we do offer interesting twists on the standards,” adds Hall. “Our Mac’n’Cheese ($10) starts with a blend of Cheddar, Fontina and Gruyère cheeses, topped with buttery panko bread crumbs and baked until crunchy on top, and served with a Nueske Bacon and onion relish. People love it, but it took us a long time wrestling with the recipe to get it just right.”
“When I look at the gastropub, I think we have both a bar kitchen and a food kitchen, and it’s fun to mix it up, so that a guest can have a lamb burger ($12) with a beer for dinner and a glass of Port with soft chocolate and salted caramel dessert.” The bar has 12 taps with rotating seasonals such as Craftsman Brewing Co.’s Poppyfields Pale Ale and Lost Abbey’s Carnevale, with most drafts priced at $6 to $8 for pints and large format bottles such as 750-ml. from $14 to $22; beer flights of four samples are priced at $8. “One of the best sellers is The Bruery’s strong ale Mischief, which can really stand in for a bottle of wine at a table for two, because it’s nine percent ABV and 22-ounce bottle.”
Styles change by season, with Hall seeking lighter styles for the summer months, “I try not to have four double IPAs on draft at the same time,” Hall adds.
Food and beverage sales are split about 50-50 at the 4,000 square-foot gastropub, with seating for 24 guests at the outdoor patio, 105 guests at the restaurant indoors and 20 seats at the bar. “We’re adding a banquet space to hold private parties of up to 50 people,” says Hall. “It’s great to be able to expand in your first year.”
Good home-style food, presented with fresh beer make a comfortable profit and excellent recipe for success.