The 2012 Beverage Excellence Award Winners

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Chain operators are spotlighted in a dozen different categories.


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Best Chain Overall Beverage Program: P.F. Chang’s China Bistro

Having it All

In the hotly contested casual segment, many chains excel in one aspect and many do it well. P.F. Chang’s China Bistro innovates in every beverage arena, with unique and comprehensive programs not just wine, cocktails and beer but also sake, tea, coffee and its nonalcoholic offerings. Their well-merchandised promotions have shown solid results even in this economy with beverages, including non-alcoholic, accounting for 17 to 20 percent of total sales. 

The chain’s offerings touch on trends such as locavore, hand-crafted and environmentally friendly. Just as the Scottsdale, Az.-based, 204-location chain seamlessly combines classic Asian with contemporary bistro elements, so too does its drinks program, from fine full-leaf teas to sake cocktails. Although China Bistro’s beverage program is national in scope, it is flexible and market driven, allowing operating partners the leeway to be creative. Those are the outstanding aspects that have won P.F. Chang’s China Bistro the Cheers’ Award for Best Chain Overall Beverage Program.

The wine program at P.F. Chang’s China Bistro is characterized by innovation in presentation and selection. Thirty-plus wines are available by the half glass (3.5 ounce), glass (7 ounce) or bottle. The chain’s director of beverage Mary Melton works with all the operating partners to customize the cellar (optional) wines that complement their lists based on regional trends, including limited production and local wineries. This individualistic and tailored system was inspired by Melton’s early experience as a wine director trying to manage a large portfolio. She found that allowing the chain’s operator-partners to customize their selections also provides a good deal of flexibility to respond to local market preferences.

Every list features a wide range of styles, growing regions and varietals. But rather than arranging selections by region or varietal, the lists are broken down by flavor and body, with headings such as “Lush,” “Soft & Tangy,” and “Powerful” for red wines and “Fruity,” “Floral,” and “Creamy” for white wines. “It’s like a cheat sheet,” says Melton, who got the idea at her first job as a wine steward, when it helped her keep track of a large inventory. At P.F. Chang’s, the arrangement assists servers in guiding customers’ choices. Additional descriptors like “Green Apples & Lemons” and “Black Cherries & Currants” prompt the guest if that’s what they’re in the mood for. “Customers love it,” says Melton.

An Eye to Value

Many of Chang’s drinks offerings offer a range of solid deals in a tough economy. For instance, guests also love the wine pricing, calculated with much lower markups than is usual in the industry. Glasses start as low as $4 up to around $15; bottle prices range from $13 topping out at about $100. Building on that reputation for value was a 33 percent off promotion on bottles of wine run chain wide on Mondays and Tuesdays during July, August and September. That increased bottled wine sales a whopping 85 percent on those days. “We would even have people come in for lunch and order a bottle of wine,” recalls the beverage director. “It was a chance for our customers to be adventurous.”

Also adventurous is the chain’s pioneering foray into bag-in-box wine. Melton got the idea while attending a conference on green wine. “I realized how many bottles we go through selling so much wine by the glass,” she recalls. Research convinced her it was a good idea: Not only is the technology environmentally friendly, but it’s also less expensive to package, a savings that is passed along to guests. Available by the glass and half carafe ($7 and $14, respectively), the private-label Vineyard 518 white and red wines are produced from sustainably grown and harvested grapes. The boxes, made from recycled and recyclable materials, were custom-designed one-bottle wide and four deep to fit neatly in the bistros’ wine coolers. “It’s quality wine at a better price—and we’re helping save the environment, what could be better?” exclaims Melton. 

P.F. Chang’s has offered guests premium value well spirits for some time and now puts a modern twist on classic cocktails, like Bert’s Gin & Tonic that adds an Asian accent with star anise and comes with a bottle of premium Fever Tree Tonic. There are over a dozen cocktails on the list, priced $8 to $12.

Fresh and Varied

A focus on fresh products and fine-tuned lists also defines the chain. “We got excited by the whole fresh movement, started juicing our lemons and limes, and moving from there,” notes Melton. “We’re doing as much fresh and in-house as we can and we tap into the chefs for inspiration.” Last year, chefs began to concoct a mix of fresh ginger, lemon and simple syrup. The mix is used in the non-alcoholic Ginger Beer ($3) and is also the component of several specialty cocktails, such as the Yuzu Ginger Mojito. That drink is made with the fresh ginger mix, Ty-Ku Liqueur and Living Jewel sake. “The drink is ‘skinny,’ under 200 calories, gluten-free and Mojitos are very trendy. We feel like it’s a home run.”

Many of the cocktails, as well as selected wines, and beer are promoted during Triple Happiness Happy Hours, which has generated increased business. Running daily from 3 to 6 p.m., the happy hour features Asian street fare. Rolled out last summer, Triple Happiness is now the most successful day part for the chain as a whole. “The promotion does really well,” comments Melton. “People like small bites, they love street food.”

Although every China Bistro carries Asian brews Tsingtao and Kirin, the rest of the beer list is unique to every location to reflect local preferences. “We want the market to drive which beers they serve their guests,” points out the beverage director. Some P.F. Chang’s restaurants are located in craft-beer hotbeds and those lists are dominated by artisanal brews. “Those restaurants may change their beer lists every couple of weeks because they are always finding something new,” reports Melton. Other locations are having success with imported beer, and are adding more premium selections. Lists also include large-format bottles.

The company is seeing a shift to higher-priced and quality items due to the value involved. The result of these changes is an increase of over one percent in dollars spent per guest dining in the restaurant.

In keeping with its Asian heritage, warm sake is served according to tradition in a ceramic jar and cup. “We sell a ton of warm sake, it is among our top 10 best-selling beverages,” says Melton.

P.F. Chang’s offers a wide range of premium sakes served chilled, including Junmai (a variety made from rice that is polished at least 30 percent, an indicator of sake quality); Junmai Ginjo, Daignjo and unfiltered Junmai Nigori. Sake is available by the glass, starting at $7 and by the bottle at various price points. The chain also offers a $7 flight of three one-ounce pours. “To introduce more people to sake, we’ve started using it in cocktails, to keep sake top of mind and to keep the product fresh,” explains Melton. The Yuzu Ginger Mojito, for example, employs Living Jewel Junmai. “Our guests are more open to trying sake in a cocktail.”

Inventive Non-Alcoholic Offerings

Another custom in Asian restaurants is hot tea service. Here P.F. Chang’s upscales quality with premium full-leaf teas elegantly served in an individual-sized iron kettle ($3.25). “Tea is very important to our whole meal period,” says Melton. “People love those pots, which keep the tea nice and warm.” The selections, all from Revolution Tea company, include White Tangerine (white tea, light and fragrant with a hint of tangerine); and Dragon Eye Oolong (robust with safflower, peach and apricot. Iced Teas ($2.50) like Jasmine Blackberry Green and the signature Ginger Beer amp up the non-alcoholic selections.

To create its own specialty coffee, Bistro Blend, P.F. Chang’s teamed up with Coffee Reserve Brands. “We tasted a lot of coffees before we found the blend that fits the experience at our restaurants,” exclaims the beverage director. It is Rainforest Alliance certified, with strict guidelines to protect the environment, wildlife, workers and local communities.

That awareness of social responsibility and ensuring economic sustainability are important to P.F. Chang’s. “Servers talk up the Rainforest angle at the table. It appeals to the same guests who are drinking the Vineyard 518 box wine.”

Of course, the best beverage program in the world won’t succeed without training and execution. Here again, the chain has its bases covered, with instruction on wine, spirits, beer, sake and teas required for all servers, managers and bartenders. The centerpiece of their program is the “Liquid Forum,” when the groups of operating partners are invited to the home office for an intensive and intense two-day session. Led by Melton and Doug Frost, Master Sommelier and Master of Wine, the interactive gatherings cover all aspects of the beverage program. That’s bolstered by focused in-store, 30 minute classes conducted by Melton or Frost on an as-needed basis. Currently, a flying team of bartenders is being developed to train their peers on-site.

“With some 200 locations, and eight to 12 bartenders in each one, the most challenging part of my job these days is keeping people educated, excited and consistent,” concludes Melton.

—By Thomas Henry Strenk



Best Chain Spirits Program: Fairmont Hotels

Tailor Made for Each Market

For chain programs, consistency is often the key to success. But the Fairmont has taken a different approach, proving that individuality can be layered on top of consistency.

“We do not want a cookie cutter approach,” insists Mariano Stellner, corporate director of food and beverage, the Americas. “We have high service guidelines. We have certain standards that must be met so guests will have a great stay. But we want guests to know when they are in Singapore, Mexico, or the Plaza in New York.”

In 2006, Fairmont put into place a rigorous training program called the Fairmont Artistic Mixology Experience (FAME). Created and led by Seattle-based bar consultant Kathy Casey, the course is designed to teach all the fundamentals: information on spirits, historical cocktail lore and broad principles and techniques for serving great cocktails. Starting in 2010, the program also became available in an online course format. According to Stellner, the FAME program has been put in place over 95 percent of the Fairmont’s 45 North American hotels and resorts, as well as many of its properties outside of North America.

But if the FAME training ensures that Fairmont’s bartenders will be good, it’s also the freedom to individualize that makes the bar programs shine. There is no mandated core cocktail menu for Fairmont properties. Although the hotels are encouraged to select from approximately 100 cocktails, they are encouraged to create and showcase their own drinks.

“We want the beverage teams to select lists that speak to their locale,” Stellner explains. For example, at the Fairmont’s Middle East properties, look for regional ingredients such as curry syrup and coconut powder in the hotel’s signature cocktails. The signature “Luxury Margarita,” made with 1800 Silver Tequila, Cointreau and fresh lime juice; appears on most Fairmont drink menus, but at the Fairmont Kona, it gets a Hawaiian upgrade with the addition of passion fruit puree and sweet-sour local Li Hing Mui (dried plum) powder to rim the glass.

At the Fairmont Olympic in Seattle, one of five honeybee hives on the roof of the hotel provides a key ingredient for the “Luxurious Honey Lemon Foam” that tops the Hennessy Velvet Side Car. Further, hotels are encouraged to change cocktail offerings a few times a year, to help entice repeat customers.

A premium is placed on the luxury experience and there’s no sense to nickel-and-diming guests, he says: a rare attitude in the current challenging economic climate. To reach revenue goals, he explains, make guests happy and they will happily spend. “It’s less about the extra dollar. It’s about the experience. If I can have a great program, merely by offering this we will execute toward the goal.”

Since the 2006 launch of the FAME program, liquor revenue as a percentage of total beverage revenue increased by 1.25 percent, and by year-end was forecast to be 36.25 percent. That translates into an additional $1.3 million to $1.5 million in additional liquor sales. Average prices for Fairmont cocktails have increased as well.

“If you are a discerning guest and you go into an environment like this, and the experience is exceptional, they won’t care if the price of the drink is $12 or $17,” Stellner insists. “They will drag friends to this place that makes incredible cocktails, and they will order another one.”

—By Kara Newman



Best Chain Wine Program: Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar

Wine at Centerstage

The ongoing commitment to the grape demonstrated by Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar is undeniably impressive. The 64-unit upscale steakhouse chain owned by the Tampa, Florida-based OSI Restaurant Partners, LLC, boasts a compelling wine program designed to engage guests, drive sales and create repeat visits. As a direct result of their wine initiatives, the company has seen a consistent increase in wine sales and guest traffic.

In 1998, the chain launched the “Fleming’s 100”—one hundred wines available by the glass and in two-ounce pours. Offerings are listed varietally and progressively, and a new menu is released annually. About 70 percent of the Fleming’s 100 is comprised of domestic offerings and eighty national selections that change annually, twenty local selections change continually and twenty-five wines cost $10 or less a glass.

“It’s really fun, and over five consecutive weeks, our guests can literally taste all 100 wines,” notes Maeve Pesquera, director of wine. “It’s exciting for me to watch a guest discover a new varietal or a new wine for the first time!” Guests can create their own flights from selections on the Fleming’s 100—a trio of two-ounce pours.

Their Icon Wine Series includes highly allocated wines that are exclusively available to Fleming’s, giving guests the opportunity to order well-known wines from wineries like Joseph Phelps Insignia and Merryvale Profile for almost retail prices. The Icon Wine Series runs for six weeks on and then six weeks off, adding to its exclusive appeal.

Five years ago, Fleming’s also started the “Forty-Six Diamonds” program, in which a different wine is released each October 1 available exclusively at Fleming’s in the $60 to $80 price range. “Each year, we collaborate with a top winery and winemaker to create a one-of-a-kind boutique, private label wine,” explains Pesquera. Their partner for the current vintage is Salvatore Ferragamo from Italy’s Il Borro, and in the past has included such renowned wineries as Robert Mondavi and Schug.

Each evening, Fleming’s also features a happy hour-inspired promotion called “5 for 6 til 7,’ in which five wines by the glass, five cocktails and five appetizers are available for $6 each until 7 p.m. “We wanted to create a whole new energy in our restaurants from the moment we open, and to introduce a new guests to Fleming’s,” says Pesquera.

For guests attracted to prix-fixe meals paired with wine, Fleming’s “Memorable Meals” are three-course meals for two, designed each season by executive chef Russell Skall and paired with Pesquera’s selections from the Fleming’s 100. The duo of meals is $99, not including wine, whose price changes depending on the selection.

Of course, a wine program as extensive and ambitious as this one could not exist without expansive wine education. “Every Fleming’s has a wine manager whose main focus is to make wine approachable and fun for our guests, train and educate our associates and servers, and create a compelling and engaging local wine program,” touts Pesquera. Wine managers receive a three-year, proprietary wine education program that encompasses wine knowledge, teaching and testing. They conduct weekly Fleming’s 100 wine tastings and educational seminars for the staff, create local wine dinners and events and provide suggestions for future Fleming’s 100 lists.

No matter if a patron orders a two-ounce tasting sample or a cult bottle from the Icon list, wine is poured into one size and shape of hand-blown, proprietary, American-made crystal stemware. The “simple and democratic” approach to glassware as described by Pesquera speaks to the restaurant’s overall approach to wine: though the wine program is comprehensive, and includes its share of high-end options, Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar strives to make wine fun and accessible for all guests.

—By Kelly A. Magyarics



Best Chain Beer Program: Rusty Bucket Restaurant & Tavern

Beer at the Heart of the Drinks Program

With 13 locations in Ohio, Michigan and Indiana and at least two more planned for 2012, Rusty Bucket has created a chain that manages to feel like part of the community almost everywhere it’s located. “We are an upscale, casual dining restaurant that caters to affluent suburbia,” says Gary Callicoat, president and operating partner. “It’s a comfortable place. It’s got a family atmosphere. Everybody knows who you are.” From the start, beer has been part of the equation that draws people back to “their” Rusty Bucket.

The original Columbus location, which opened in 2002, featured eight taps handles and an extensive bottle list. “The beer program,” adds Callicoat, “has just progressed from there.” Now each store boasts a dozen or more tap handles, with drafts priced from $3.25 to $6, and more than 80 bottles, ranging in price from $2.95 up to $12.75 for 22-ounce bombers.

Beverages make up 24 percent of Rusty Bucket’s overall sales, and beer accounts for an impressive approximately 60 percent of that figure. Add in careful attention to how beer is stored and poured along with an extensive education program aimed at both employees and customers, and it’s easy to see why Rusty Bucket won Cheers’ Best Chain Beer Program Award.

Callicoat and the chain, which is part of Cameron Mitchell Restaurants, have also benefited from good timing. As consumers became more interested in American craft beer, Rusty Bucket was well positioned to meet the demand for these higher margin beverages. “We were ahead of the game,” says Callicoat. “It used be that the beer list was more import driven. Now the majority is local driven and regional craft beer.”

General managers at each store can also tailor the draft list by adding three local or regional offerings. And the menu was redesigned to focus on the draft program, highlighting pairing options like pilsner with pan seared salmon, pale ale with a Philly Cheese Steak Sandwich, or brown ale with the Short Rib Sloppy Joe.

Rusty Bucket knows that stocking good beer isn’t enough. The chain’s “Perfect Draft” program ensures that at every restaurant the beer remains pristine “from the barrel to the glass.” Kegs are stored at 36 to 38 degrees. Newer locations have separate walk-ins for beer. The draft system allows each line to be calibrated for the particular type of beer. Seven to eight different types of glassware are used to highlight that various styles of beer. All glasses pass through a custom rinser that also chills them just before the beer is poured. And the staff is provided with a checklist of 13 “Draft Beer Absolutes,” which addresses everything from checking “born on” dates and rotating kegs to rinsing glasses from “heal to toe” and the proper angle for a prefect pour.

The menu explicitly tells customers about the many steps Rusty Bucket takes to provide top quality beer. “So people know,” said Callicoat, “that we take pride in what we do.”

Education has always been part of Rusty Bucket’s operation. “We’re a tavern,” says Callicoat. “From day one, we’ve always tasted in training every single beer on our menu.”

Now all Rusty Bucket bartenders must also complete the online Beer Connoisseur program, which has been bolstered by supporting print material developed by the chain. Nearly a quarter of the waitstaff have also completed the training program. “The more they know,” says Callicoat, “the more they sell.”

It must be working. Rusty Bucket is poised to rack up $30 million in sales this year. Craft beer has become a growing percentage of the chain’s bottom line. “Customers are screaming for it,” notes Callicoat, “and they’re buying it.”

—By Todd A. Price



Best Chain Drink Program: Ruby Tuesday

Ruby Tuesday’s Big Touchdown

What would you do if you wanted to make your casual dining chain more energetic? Add flat screen TVs and plan a killer promotion during the football season. At least that’s how Ruby Tuesday found success.

“We wanted a promotion to kick off our athletic program,” says Andy Scoggins, vice president of food and beverage of the approximately 800-location chain. Ruby Tuesday partnered with Direct TV, the NFL Ticket and MillerCoors for the promotion, which started in August 2010 with fantasy football draft parties in locations across the country. “We ended up having around four to ten draft parties per location,” says Scoggins. “We offered free Wi-Fi, so they could share their drafts online together.”

Guests were given draft day packs and specials around food and drink. “It gave us a lot of energy to start the season,” he notes.

Food and drink specials included $2 Miller Lite, $3 Blue Moon and $2 off Select Bar Bites during game times. Adding to the fun, guests entered for their chance to win some prizes, including iPads, big screen LCD TVs and more.

Guests weren’t the only ones to benefit. In order to gain participation, Ruby Tuesday incentivized staff by making it a contest for staff as well. “One of the things that started gathering excitement was that we gave the staff Flip cameras to film the excitement at their locations,” says Ken Lennox, director of quality beverage. “We then pick the restaurant with the best atmosphere and used it as an example to set the tone for what the expectation is for a good bar. It got really competitive.” Top bars were chosen by the energy levels guests showed.

In fact, there was an internal competition that pit region against region in a sweepstakes modeled after the football season. “The objective was the drive new people in the bar area and to get them into our ‘So Connected club,’ ” says Lennox, referring to the chain’s loyalty program. The internal winner from the Georgia market won a trip to the Super Bowl.

The individual teams were then encouraged utilize some Guerilla marketing techniques. “We armed our bar staff with free appetizer cards to go out into the community and drive into the stores,” says Scoggins. “In addition, we did a lot of marketing to our ‘So Connected Club’ to tell them what we had going on to get our loyal guests excited about the promotion.”

In-restaurant marketing played a key role in creating a mood for the games and keeping the promotion top of mind for consumers. Point-of-sale materials included posters, banners, food menu inserts, window clings, bartender business cards, check inserts, flyers, table tents and bartender T-shirts. In addition, the chain placed a full-page ad in ESPN magazine as well as some online advertising on Yahoo! Sports online.

For the Super Bowl, the chain refreshed the p-o-s to increase buzz around the promotion and get more people into their locations.

The promotion was deemed a success. “On Monday nights, we saw significant double digit growth for the whole day,” notes Scoggins. “We estimated that it drove $500,000 to $1 million in incremental sales over the five month period [end of August 2010 through January 2011].” 

Since then, Ruby Tuesday has run similar programs around March Madness and World Cup Soccer. And this year marked the beginning of another NFL-related promotion.

“This year we expanded on what we learned from last year,” says Scoggins, noting that they added Thursday night games and college football to the promo that started for the 2011 season. They also added Jack Daniel’s as partner.

Scoggins adds, “I’m blown away by how much we are able to increase this year.” Another touchdown!

­­—Michelle Paolillo Lockett



Best Chain Hotel Beverage Program: The Broadmoor

From 21st Amendment to 21st Century

Walk down Bottle Alley at the venerable Broadmoor and you will see a display of the secret stash of dusty bottles discovered in tunnels hidden under the iconic hotel dating to before Prohibition. Soon after the hotel opened in 1918, prescient owner Spencer Penrose stocked up prime libations and this attention to beverage has continued with the current ownership.

“In each restaurant we respect the hotel’s history,” says Timothy Baldwin, the Broadmoor’s wine director and head of the beverage team. That’s especially true in the Tavern, the property’s oldest restaurant, where the focus is on turn-of-the-century cocktails. This Colorado Springs luxury resort property honors nearly a century of tradition, yet remains innovative and cutting edge. Those are the qualities that won the Broadmoor the Cheers 2012 Best Chain Hotel Beverage Program Award.

That custom-tailoring is especially true in the Penrose Room, Charles Court and Summit. “We went in completely different directions

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