How can restaurants attract new customers while encouraging return visits? Limited-time offerings (LTOs) can work just as well with beverages as they do with food. Seasonal, regional and other drink components create opportunities to showcase unique tastes and sell products.
“We always see a spike in guests and a spike in sales for our nonholiday LTOs,” says Tylor Field III, divisional vice president of wine and spirits for Landry’s restaurant chains Morton’s Steakhouse, Oceanaire Seafood Room and Mastro’s. “The hope is that these customers become regular guests once they have experienced us. And for our regular guests, it serves as a ‘surprise and delight’.”
Legal Sea Foods holds two month-long LTO wine promotions each year, focusing on varietals from all over the globe. “The promotions are great for a number of reasons,” says Sandy Block, vice president of the Boston-based chain’s beverage operations. “One, they definitely get our customers excited. Two, they get our teams educated about various regions around the world. And thirdly, of course, is profitability.”
LTOs enable kitchen and bar chefs to experiment with fresh flavors and styles; they also help generate promotional buzz and encourage customers to try new things.
“One thing you can do with an LTO is be adventurous and take more of a risk,” says Donna Ruch, master mixologist for the Red Robin Gourmet Burgers chain of casual dining restaurants. “You can put something on the menu that the adventurous guest might order.”
LTOs are In Season
Many operators align LTOs with the season. It helps that beverage companies often launch specialty products based on the time of year—especially in the craft-beer industry. These beverages are a popular, annual purchase for many drinkers.
“Some [promotional] windows lean naturally into the seasonal theme,” says Ruch. Fall lends itself to certain flavors like pumpkin and spices, while in spring, “I don’t necessarily think of a flavor, but just something light and fresh—something I would want to drink when the weather breaks and I’m sitting out on a patio,” she says.
That thinking inspired Red Robin to launch its first LTO wine shake, the Mango Moscato Wine Shake ($7.49) in spring 2014. “Red Robin has a strong female audience and saw a lot of its beer shakes target the male customers, so the Mango Moscato Wine Shake not only capitalized on the growing popularity of moscato wine, but also offered something different that female guests really gravitated towards,” says Ruch.
This spring’s feature adult beverage at Red Robin is the Oh My Darlin’, a mix of Svedka Clementine vodka shaken with Minute Maid lemonade and house-made sweet and sour, topped with a float of Beso del Sol sangria.
Each season is reminiscent of certain styles and flavors. They are a chance for restaurants to enhance their menus with fun, fresh items.
“We’ll do a Watermelon ’Rita in summer,” says Suzan Waldschmidt, director of beverages for Outback Steakhouse Restaurants. The chain also offers Strawberry Lemonade and Mango Peach vodka “poptails” in the summer, she says. Priced at about $5.75, these drinks are served with frozen bars of fruit juice that add flavor to the cocktails as they melt.
“I think with beverages, the whole idea of coming in for something while it’s in season helps,” Waldschmidt adds. During the winter, she says, people are celebrating during the holidays and indulging more. “That time of the year helps get people in the mood for LTOs.”
If a seasonal LTO becomes popular, and is brought back annually, customers may come to anticipate it as a tradition. For instance, Outback has been offering a Gingerbread Martini each winter for the past five years.
“People have built a sort of cult following around it,” says Waldschmidt. “It’s crazy: When it comes out, they start emailing each other.”
Some restaurants opt to run limited-time beverage programs by pairing drinks with food as part of a special offering. Outback will suggest the Sam Adams Octoberfest with its Alice Springs quesadilla appetizer, Waldschmidt says.
“Customers love to be encouraged by pairings,” she notes. “It takes away some of the guesswork for customers. They may not be sure what pairs well with a steak, and it’s right there on the menu for them.”
Ruch works closely with Red Robin’s marketing and culinary teams to make sure that the food and the beverage go well together. One example is the Beam-N-Bacon Boozy Shake pairing Red Robin offered last fall.
“We were offering our Southern Charm Burger, which has candied bacon,” Ruch says. “That inspired me to think about what would make for a good adult milkshake.”
She recalled that Jim Beam has a maple bourbon, so Red Robin ended up using that spirit in the LTO. Priced at $4.79 in most locations, the shake captured the rich flavors of the fall season, “as well as the growing popularity of bourbon-infused menu items,” Ruch says.
Developing your LTO
Different decisions go into selecting an LTO. Sometimes it is simply a matter of featuring an exotic drink that is exciting and delicious.
“We choose LTOs based on what we think a guest would be the most interested in and then we negotiate it with the supplier, and not vice-versa,” says Field. “Half of the time, when they’re not seasonal, our LTOs are specifically driven to pick up sales during historically slow times.”
For example Mortons recently did a drink called The Kiss for Valentine’s Day, which was priced at $14. “I worked with a master mixologist to come up with four drinks according to the profile specs that I asked for,” Field says. “Once we found one we thought was best, we engineered the ingredients to the supplier community and executed the drink nationally.”
Legal Sea Foods looks at the new wines in the market and what’s hot at the moment for its LTOs. “We don’t like to repeat the same region in back-to-back years,” says Block.
“For example, last year, we did wines from South Africa, and it generated a lot of excitement,” he says. The South African promotion was priced and structured similarly with other Legal Sea Foods LTO wine programs.
It included six different wines by the glass, ranging in price from $8.50 to $12.50; nine total bottles, priced from $28 to $49; and a flight of three wines, in 2-oz. pours, for $9.75.
“When the recession happened, we started to do Chilean wines. We thought that people would be looking for a good value,” says Block. “It was the right time for it, and it was highly popular.”
In general, Legal Sea Foods finds that the wine selected for an LTO “has to do with what we think will get our objectives met, and it has to be exciting, but not too obscure,” Block says. “Plus, we consider what varietals go well with seafood, and would make for a learning experience for the team.”
Educating employees is a core component of the Legal Sea Foods LTO programs. The company rewards waitstaff who can build buzz among customers about the wines.
“We want them to learn about the wines and then want to compete in the in-restaurant contests,” says Block. “The managers at each restaurant pick different goals and prizes to get the wait staff excited.”
Of course, you have to balance that with hospitality, he adds. “If someone orders a steak, we don’t want the waitstaff recommending a white wine. It has to be all about pleasing the guest.”
Promoting the LTOs
Social media is huge in promoting LTOs. The special, limited-time nature of these menu items align naturally with the type of experiences people typically post about on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and so on.
Advertisements in and outside the restaurants also help sell limited-time promotions. From feature menus to table tents to inserts to banners, there are many methods to reach customers once they’ve arrived.
“Anything that helps subliminally helps to sell the items,” says Waldschmidt. “The photography on the menu is huge. Server suggestions help, too.”
Outback also makes sure that the presentation of LTO drinks stands out from the other beverages, she says. “When the server brings the drink through the dining room, people look at it and go, ‘Wow, I want one of those’.”
For instance, Waldschmidt adds, “when we did the Watermelon Margarita, instead of normal white salt we put Hawaiian black lava salt around the glass’s rim. People would notice it and talk about it.”
Research, prepare and test
As with many aspects of the business, much time and effort go into evaluating potential LTOs long before they become available to customers.
“We’re usually testing LTOs six to 12 months out,” says Waldschmidt. “We like to test a seasonal beverage in the season that they’d eventually be featured in, to get a better idea about how customers feel about them.”
So Outback test-drove the winter 2015 seasonals in 2014. “For LTOs that aren’t so seasonally based, we have a shorter turnaround, usually six to eight months or so,” she says.
This leaves plenty of time for beverage managers to determine whether an LTO is attractive in flavor, but logistically unfeasible.
“We looked at blood orange for our Margaritas,” says Waldschmidt. “But we realized how difficult they would be to get, with pretty much just a four-week window to get them, and realized that we couldn’t do that.”
Legal Sea Foods is careful when picking parts of the globe to feature for its wine program. “It can’t be too limiting in one style or region,” says Block. “We looked into German wines, but that region didn’t have enough reds, at least among what I tasted.”
You also need to plan ahead to avoid the worst-case scenario: running out of a specialty item before its advertised window of availability closes.
To ensure that it can deliver on its LTOs, Red Robin works hard to make sure that it is forecasting appropriately, says Ruch. “And we also work with our suppliers to make sure there’s no issue on their end. They do a really good job of holding onto product and making sure Red Robin is taken care of.”
And if it does well, the LTO can later be put on the core menu, Ruch says. “Some of our beer shakes have made it onto the core menu because they exceeded their forecasts.”
Despite the best-laid plans and projections, operators can sometimes be caught off guard at the demand for LTOs.
“We ran out of Leinenkugel’s Summer Shandy two summers ago, and had no replacement,” remembers Waldschmidt. “But I think people are more willing to forgive you of that when it’s a seasonal item. They know that things go out of season.”
What does Outback do when this happens? “We have the next seasonal ready to go on the back of our special menu, and we can flip it around when necessary,” says Waldschmidt.
Kyle Swartz is associate editor for Cheers Magazine. Contact him at email@example.com