BevX 2020: Houlihan’s Leans Into Its Bar Heritage

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In addition to its 47-year-old namesake casual-dining brand, Houlihan’s operates the fine-dining specialty concepts J. Gilbert’s Wood-Fired Steaks (six units), Bristol Seafood Grill and Devon Seafood Grill, each with three locations. The company also includes Make Room for Truman, a single restaurant concept that opened last year.

So Houlihan’s must develop beverage programs for a diverse selection of brands. That’s why it’s the 2020 BevX winner for Best Multi-Concept Restaurant Beverage Program.

Though it operates more than 20 Houlihan’s locations, the beverage programs are tailored by store and market, with enough consistency to maintain the brand markers and operational efficiencies. The chain has strategically adjusted the menu during the past year, to lean into its bar heritage and re-establish Houlihan’s as the go-to place for a great social scene, according to beverage director Mitchie Kanda. 

Houlihan’s breaks stores into three tiers, based on sales data and guest analytics. Each location fits into one of these tiers and their menus vary to reflect it. The craft-forward tier cocktails, for example, include an Oak Aged Manhattan that uses Time & Oak staves for 72-hour natural aging; the Bleeding Rose, with an Aperol-hibiscus ice cube; and She Sells Sea Shells, a layered drink with RumChata and blue Curaçao.

The chain also added back guest favorites, including the Chocolate Ding Dong ’Tini (shown atop), a Chocolate Martini garnished with an entire Hostess Ding Dong, Mini Martini Flights and Strawberry Basil Lemonade. Houlihan’s has also been using its red and white sangrias as an outlet for wine. These efforts have resulted in cocktail comparable sales increasing by 13% from November 2018 to August 2019. 

As for Houlihan’s specialty concepts, Bristol, Devon and J. Gilbert’s may vary in both brand and offerings, but they all offer a fine-dining experience at an approachable value. With elevated brands, check and guest makeup, the company aims to offer an innovative, craft cocktail experience, without requiring too much heavy lifting from the bartenders. For instance, the core list includes the Smoked Old Fashioned, which is batched so bartenders just have to pour, smoke and serve the cocktail. 

The company has been taking steps to appeal to a younger audience by having fun with cocktail names (such as You Yuzu Call Me On My Cell Phone and Every Tequila Has Its Rosé), flavors and glassware. J. Gilbert’s saw a cocktail comp sale increase of 35% (November 2018 through August 2019), while the seafood concepts increased cocktail comp sales 3%, netting in an overall 39% comp sale increase in all of the specialty concepts year over year.

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