As casual-dining brands struggle to improve sales and traffic, many have looked to enhance their bar and beverage programs as a way to stand out and boost profitability. Nashville-based chain O’Charley’s is taking steps to improve the energy level and service experience in its bars through a new bartender certification program and a concept-wide cocktail competition.
Liquor, beer and wine for us has not been as prominent as it should be,” says Craig Barber, president of O’Charley’s and CEO of its parent company American Blue Ribbon Holdings. As a percentage of O’Charley’s sales, liquor, beer and wine has dropped from 9.5% in 2000 to 7.5% in 2017.
The percentage of sales from beverage alcohol had been even higher in O’Charley’s early inception. “But different leaders and strategies created a situation where it wasn’t given the prominence it deserved,” says Barber, who joined the company as president of O’Charley’s in November 2017 and was named CEO of American Blue Ribbon Holdings this past September.
Founded by Charley Watkins in 1971, O’Charley’s has been part of American Blue Ribbon Holdings since 2012. A majority-owned subsidiary of Cannae Holdings, Nashville-based American Blue Ribbon has 564 restaurants, including Ninety-Nine Restaurant & Pub, Village Inn, Baker’s Square and Legendary Baking.
O’Charley’s, which operates just over 200 restaurants in 17 states in the Southeast and Midwest, has made bringing back alcohol a strategic focus. The bar/beverage program has to be a draw so that “you want to come to O’Charley’s, and you want to have a drink,” Barber says.
Amping up the bar energy
The amount of beverage alcohol a bar or restaurant sells depends on the team members—their energy, commitment and passion to serve customers. “Bartenders do create that relationship with those regular customers,” Barber notes.
“How do we bring energy and pride back to the bar? It starts with team members believing in that component of your brands.”
The Cocktail Cup, launched in 2017, “is a way to celebrate that aspect of our brand and our team members,” Barber explains. “Also, it’s creating some fun competition among the bar team.”
And as O’Charley’s bartenders raise their game, it helps the chain show that “whatever customers would like in terms of alcoholic beverages, we can do,” Barber says.
“The Cocktail Cup was a way for us to say, yes, we do have high capacity to do great things in bar and beverage. It enables the team to focus on things we can do to raise sales and profitability.”
Evaluating the bar experience
The Cocktail Cup competition kicks off with a certification workshop, in which the bartenders are tested on their roles and responsibilities, standards and procedures and knowledge about O’Charley’s beverage program.
“We go into each store and make sure we know what they’re doing,” by evaluating how the drinks are made, what glasses they’re served in and so on, Barber says. All employees must pass to work as bartenders, and they have to be recertified annually as part of the Cocktail Cup.
Each O’Charley’s restaurant decides which bartender will compete in the Cocktail Cup. The first round involves five to six stores in a market, Barber says. Then O’Charley’s holds three regional cocktail competitions to narrow down the field further. The three finalists, one from each region, then go to Nashville in late August for the finals.
What does the final round entail? Three O’Charley’s employees pose as customers visiting the bar, and working from a script, they ask the finalist bartender questions and order different items on the menu.
The judges watch the interactions closely, Barber says, taking notes on everything from how the bartenders greet the “guests” to the timing of the service and what they offer customers for specials. The finalists don’t get to see what they others did for the final round.
“It’s about the entire service experience, including the food,” Barber says. “We tried to create an authentic experience to judge.”
The Cocktail Cup was a big deal for the competing bartenders, Barber notes. Finalist Monica Schoen even had a few family members drive up to Nashville from Foley, AL—a six- to seven-hour trip—to watch her compete.
In additional to recognition and bragging rights, each Cocktail Cup finalist received a custom crystal decanter and glasses and wooden coasters, as well as $1,000. The 2018 winner, Jody Skeen from Richmond, KY, also won an all-expense trip worth $4,000.
Craft Cocktail inspiration
During their visit to Nashville for the Cocktail Cup competition, the finalists visited The Patterson House, one of the city’s hot craft cocktail bars. This provided them an opportunity to see what others are doing behind the bar, Barber says.
Most craft cocktail innovations “are probably not things we could do at O’Charley’s,” he admits. But the chain’s best bartenders can get inspiration and ideas for the beverage program.
For instance, many cocktail bars now serve on-the-rocks drinks over one large, round ice cube, Barber notes. “Could we do that?”
Garnishes are another way O’Charley’s might distinguish itself. For instance, the chain’s new Pain Chiller Punch, made with Blue Chair Bay coconut rum, pineapple juice, orange juice coconut cream and bitters, is garnished with a slice of fresh pineapple and pineapple leaves. “You see that going through the dining room, and you want to order one too,” Barber notes.
Affordable, craveable fare
O’Charley’s specializes in generous portions of all-American classic, craveable food. While the cuisine emphasizes its Nashville roots, the chain has updated its menu to reflect current tastes. New items include a Grilled Salmon Bowl served over orzo pasta sautéed with chopped kale, quinoa, carrots, onion and garlic in a roasted-red-pepper sauce, topped with feta cheese, and Peach Chutney Chicken, served with mashed sweet potatoes and broccoli.
“You have to look for the momentum and interest and listen to what customers say they want—and not get caught up in fads,” Barber notes.
For instance, prime rib is a core component of the O’Charley’s brand. Slow-roasted and hand-carved to order, the prime rib is served au jus with a choice of two side items. Prices range from $15.99 for 8-oz.; $19.99 for 12-oz.; and $22.99 for a 16-oz. prime rib.
The prime rib was always on the menu all the time until the chain began offering it only on weekends. Customers weren’t happy, so O’Charley’s recently went back to offering prime rib seven days a week, Barber says.
The company announced the return in September with a limited-time, buy one, get one (BOGO) free offer on the 8-oz, prime rib dinner that was well received. “Affordability is a big thing” with O’Charley’s core customers, Barber says.
“We have 20 items under $10 on our menu,” from Low Country Shrimp to Santa Fe Tilapia to Honey Drizzled Southern-Fried Chicken, he adds. “We’re emphasizing that point of value.”
The chain is also emphasizing quality and innovation for the employees preparing the food, Barber says. It’s starting a “Kitchen Games” training and contest, similar to the Cocktail Cup, for the O’Charley’s cooks, which will include area, regional and final competitions.
O’Charley’s works with suppliers to stay up on beverage trends, Barber notes. The chain also looks for opportunities with seasonal products, he says. For instance, “We sell a lot of Margaritas—how do we leverage that and give an option with broader appeal?”
This past summer O’Charley’s offered a Grapefruit Jalepeño Margarita. Recent additions to the drink menu include an Island Margarita, made with El Jimador silver tequila, Malibu coconut rum, pineapple juice, made-from-scratch Margarita mix and basil; and the Mango Heat Margarita, with Milagro tequila, Ancho Reyes chile liqueur, mango and Margarita mix.
In addition to the tropical-themed cocktails and Margaritas, O’Charley’s offers classics and trending beverages, such as a Woodford Reserve Old Fashioned and a Red Sangria. Drink prices average $7.
Balancing your beverage program, Barber says, is about listening to customers “and making sure that we have the thing that they have to have or want to try.”