Cheers On-Premise Inisghts: 2013 Top 10 Trends
I recently attended the Beverage Information Group’s Cheers Conference in Dallas, an annual gathering of on-premise chain restaurant buyers and other beverage industry types. As the writer and editor of the 2012 Cheers On-premise BARometer Handbook, I presented a synopsis of on-premise trends across the beer, wine and spirits categories with Adam Rogers, Senior Analyst for the Beverage Information Group. One of the most popular parts of the presentation was my review of the Top 10 Trends. Below is an excerpt from the Handbook that explores these trends in more detail, along with examples of where they are being practiced.
It can be tough to keep up with the pace of “what’s hot” from month to month. Depending on where you live, what may be revolutionary to your operation is old hat in New York City. Like most trends, iterations continue to manifest as more and more people adopt them. Trends are personalized, challenged and morphed in to “sub-trends” or catapulted in to “mega trends.” Often, by the time a trend makes its way to a chain operator, its status has been reduced to simply smart business practice.
After copious research and conversations with countless on-premise operators, we’ve uncovered the most active trends in the market today. Some of these may not seem new, but they have staying power as evidenced by more widespread adoption and attention. Here’s our list of 10 solid trends to focus on for the future of your on-premise business:
1. Get Local & Authentic
- Craft beer, wine and spirits are showing up everywhere. Brand recognition across state lines is still a challenge for many of these small distillers, whose loyal customers are often local. Mimicking the early stages of the emerging craft beer scene, small batch spirits are at a higher price point and require more of a hand sell by bartenders. Larger suppliers are seeing their menu share erode slightly more as bars and restaurants integrate a few craft brand offerings.
- Not Your Average Joe’s, with 15 locations across Massachusetts, as well as in Maryland and Virginia, runs a late summer “Local Fest” with the goal of highlighting local spirits, beer, wine and produce. Special menu features promote producers while encouraging guests to try lesser known brands.
- Brand recognition is still the biggest challenge from craft brands, as seen by our OnTrac study. Many bartenders had a hard time identifying which brands were truly craft.
- The concept of authenticity is what prompts many consumers to try a craft beer, wine or spirit. As with the farm-to-table movement, people want to hear the story behind what they put in their mouth. This further supports the need for the bartender to become an educated advocate and storyteller, knowing what’s in every bottle.
2. Personalized Service (aka the Speakeasy is Dead)
- The most successful establishments are lauded not for just for their creative cocktails or award-winning wine lists, but for service. Today’s consumers want to feel special, catered to, surprised even with an exceptional experience.
- The term “bartender’s choice” became common during the height of the craft cocktail craze as a way to defer drink decisions to the skilled folks behind the bar. It also signaled a new era of trust, and the ability for bartenders to offer one-on-one service. This concept was buried beneath the speakeasy concept, when finding and gaining entry in to a host of quality bars became anything but egalitarian. Many of the bartenders behind these speakeasies have evolved, refocusing on a more laid-back, unfussy vibe. For example, New York’s infamous Milk and Honey moved uptown. And calling oneself a “mixologist” has become a hot debate with bartenders arguing “Our job is to serve people drinks.” And Dan Sabo from Five Leaves in New York said it’s time for bartenders to stop being so “precious” about drinks and focus on the service.
- Pouring Ribbons, a recently opened project from Alchemy Consulting, created a unique menu to evoke the intended experience of the cocktail – Refreshing, Comforting, Spirituous and Adventurous. Each drink is rated accordingly to help customers connect with the cocktail. Proprietor Joaquín Simó said the goal of Pouring Ribbons is to put guests on a “pedestal of equal importance as the cocktails.”
- Seattle’s Vessel doesn’t even have a set cocktail menu, instead relying on 25 monthly rotating bartenders to bring their own flair to the bar. Midnight Cowboy Modeling in Austin caters to group drinking by offering tableside cocktails prepared to ordered; bartenders mix on a trolley.
- Your customers have access to much more information at their fingertips and are thirsty for knowledge. They are typically more open to trying to new things, and as we know, they look to staff to make recommendations a majority of the time. This simple equation adds up to a huge opportunity to personalize service, or the “one bartender fits all” theory. From appetizer selection to after dinner whiskey options, the bartender has become more than just someone who makes drinks. As more people dine at the bar, and as seats at the bar increase, the bartender’s role is bigger and should be one of the most savvy, well-trained hires of any restaurant.
3. Kitchen Cocktails
- Culinary cocktails, defined as drinks made using fresh ingredients or infused with herbs or fruit, are an offshoot of the locavore movement. “Bar chefs” as some are known, cultivate their own gardens or source from local purveyors to make an array of seasonal spirits and cocktails.
- Napa Valley’s Goose & Gander restaurant uses 10 to 15 different fresh fruits, herbs and edible flowers in 40 cocktails. And at Rains Law Room in New York City, they actually make the drinks right in the kitchen.
- Even cooking techniques are being utilized to make cocktails in the movement known as “molecular mixology.” From a rotary evaporator to vacuum sealers, bartenders are reverse engineering cocktails and infusing spirits in unique ways. A scientist behind the bar, Todd Maul at Boston’s Clio restaurant commiserates with students from MIT’s chemistry lab to concoct some of his creations: blue cheese infused vodka spun in a centrifuge and hand-drilled square ice cubes filled with dried Middle Eastern black lime. Todd consults with the restaurant’s pastry chef, Chris Cordeiro often.
- Vessel in Seattle actually has a dedicated section called The Lab for bartenders, where ingredients like foams and syrups are made for bartenders. The Lab contains a variety of tools, including a Clinebell Ice Block Maker.
- Promoting a house made item can be an effective way to distinguish your bar program. At Sassafras Salon in Hollywood, they make their own ginger beer and sarsaparilla. Customers can “Build Your Buck” by choosing a base spirit to mix with.
- Collaboration between the kitchen and bar not only show consistency to your customers, it’s a cost effective way to use every bit of seasonal produce and match flavors across menus.
4. Global Flavor
- South American spirits cachaça and pisco, as well Indian and Japanese whiskies are on the rise. Many global local brands like soju are also making small inroads to the U.S. market as adventurous consumer palates crave more ethnic cuisine and beverages.
- The NRA reported that 66% of adults say their favorite restaurant foods “provide flavor and taste sensations which cannot easily be duplicated in their home kitchen.”
- Case in point: the Aviary in Portland, Oregon offers a cocktail called the Broadway & Myrtle made with squid ink and roasted black sesame paste and the Barely Mary, made with tomato leaf-infused gin and Japanese pickles.
- Florida-based fast-casual chain Hurricane Grill and Wings launched a “Legendary Cocktail Menu” with island-inspired handcrafted (big buzz word signifying quality) drinks in five categories based on the consumer’s preferred flavor. Example: a Volcano Mojito made with a five spice salted rim and a dash of hot sauce.
- A bevy of pisco brands are in the market: Chilean brand Kappa, Peru’s BarSol Pisco and the fast-growing Peruvian Pisco Portón, which is expected to sell 15,000 9-liter cases in 2012. On-premise placements across Asian fusion chain SushiSamba and Richard Sandoval Group’s Maya, Zengo, Pampano and Raymi are exposing more consumers to the pisco category.
5. Single-Concept Bars/Menus
- While the idea of rum or Tiki or wine bars isn’t groundbreaking, the evolution toward more esoteric concepts is testament to the need for differentiation among the on-premise establishments. Consumers are looking for intensely curated lists of beers, wines and spirits for a conceptual drinking experience.
- Bars with a specific focus, not just brewpubs or wine bars, but by type or category have been popping up across the country: Mayahuel, the tequila and mezcal temple in New York City, Dolce Cubano Rum Bar in Stamford, Connecticut, and whiskey, wine and beer bars too numerous to mention coast to coast.
- Taking it a step further, Adrian Demarest’s opened Neat in Glendale, California in late 2011. The concept? Any spirit you would like, neat, no cocktails. Chasers or mixers on the side.
- Sherry is hip again; soon after London opened its first dedicated sherry joint, Bar Pepito in March of 2010. Word has traveled across the pond, and slowly but surely, sherry has found its way in to cocktails and now a few bars are dedicated to spreading the word: Vera Wine Bar in Chicago, 15 Romolo and Nopa in San Francisco and a new venture (yet to be announced formally by publication) by the team behind Washington, D.C.’s Passenger and Columbia Room.
6. Bitter & Savory
- Despite the proliferation of candy flavored vodkas, there’s a growing movement toward bitter and savory. The two have become the salt and pepper of the bar chef. Led by the resurgence of Campari, the common usage of bitters as a cocktail ingredient is widespread. Brands like Aperol and Fernet Branca have even become the main focus of drinks. No matter the size of the bar, you’ll find staple cocktail bitters like Angostura and Peychaud’s, as well as variety of potables (some made in-house) in flavors like wormwood, celery and chocolate. Bitter IPA beers are also the most popular style out there.
- Shrubs, 18th century syrups made from macerated fruit, sugar and vinegar, have been rediscovered by bartenders looking for a tart, complex layer to cocktails. Utilizing seasonal fruits and different types of vinegars can yield dozens of combinations. The Spare Room in Los Angeles served a tiki-inspired shrub made with coconut vinegar while Farmhouse in Kansas City has used strawberry-lime and rhubarb-orange versions in cocktails. Chef Andy Ricker (Pok Pok, Whiskey Soda Lounge) even created and bottled a brand of “drinking vinegars” called Som after usage across his restaurants grew. Shrubs are simple to make (tapping in to the kitchen cocktail trend) and add an element of savoriness to both alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks.
- Beyond the rim of a margarita glass, salt is also being used in cocktails as a way to bring out the flavors (just like with food). From smoked salts to citrus-infused, bartenders are adding a dash to drinks. At 1022 South in Tacoma, Washington, salt is added to a cocktail containing mezcal and vanilla-tinged rum, and at Grand Prize in Houston, a salted watermelon, pineapple and fennel cocktail was a popular summer treat.
7. Keep it Classic
- Yes, classic cocktails are once again, classic, found on menus at nearly every type of establishment these days. However a pitfall lurks when bartenders try too hard to reinvent basic drinks, catapulting them right out of classic to catastrophic. Be cautious of how you interpret classic cocktails on your menus and keep them as close to the original; don’t refit a brand in to a recipe where it doesn’t make sense. Remember, they’re called “classic” for a reason.
- Author and cocktail historian David Wondrich was part of the movement to revive classic cocktails, and he has found some places have gone too far, become too fussy in their preparation. He says the purpose behind his efforts was simply to make better cocktails available, not at the expense of timely service. (See our Personalized Service trend point above.)
8. Tap It , Age It, Bottle It
- It’s all about barrels and kegs on-premise, and not just for beer. From straight spirits and wines on tap, to complete cocktails, the idea of offering customers something they can’t get anywhere else is appealing to operators.
- Aging cocktails was an idea born in 2009 by London bartender Tony Conigliaro. He was visited by Portland bartender Jeffery Morgenthaler, who took the concept stateside with one distinct difference – instead of Conigliaro’s glass jars, Morgenthaler began experimenting with barrels. In all but a few years time, bartenders from coast to coast began aging everything from off-the-shelf spirits to Negronis. The science is relatively simple and easy to execute for most bars, but requires consistency – and a bit of trial and error.
- Evolving from aged cocktails has come the newest trend of bottling cocktails, some aged concoctions that have reached their peak time in wood. Only allowed to be served on-site, bottled cocktails are a dream for busy bartenders who want the ability to serve a handcrafted drink in the time it take to slip off a cap. Garces Trading Company in Philadelphia recently debuted three seasonally-changing varieties of “Hand-Bottled Carbonated Cocktails” for $12 each. And Morgenthaler has been are the forefront of bottling cocktails as Clyde Common, where he focuses on lighter, bubbly mixtures of bitters, sweet wine and citrus oil.
- Chicago’s Tavernita offers 10 “kegged” cocktail choices, a concept created by beverage consulting team the Tippling Bros. as a way to handle large volume while maintaining a point of differentiation from its parent concept, Mercadito.
- The Grand Café inside Hotel Monaco in San Francisco became the first restaurant in the U.S. to serve green Chartreuse on tap, in addition to a Chartreuse cocktail also served on tap. And at famed Washington, D.C. bar the Passenger, Fernet Branca is available on tap, as well as a handful of other bars across the country. Common in Spain, vermouth on tap is also appearing – Sable Kitchen and Bar in Chicago was the first in the U.S. to offer Carpano Antica.
- Wines on tap are not necessarily new, but becoming more mainstream. A keg that is properly sealed can keep wines tasting fresh over months, versus the short shelf life of the average open bottle at a restaurant. Atlanta’s Two Urban Licks was a pioneer back in 2004 and still maintains a rotating list of 42 wines on tap. Other restaurants having success with kegged wines include Fig in Charlestown, and Prospect in San Francisco.
9. Frozen Drinks
- Corresponding with less fussy cocktail trend, many craft bartenders are reinventing a Tiki staple, the frozen drink. Long considered a vacation indulgence (not often made with quality ingredients), a whole new host of milkshakes, floats and booze pops are making their way on to menus at bars and restaurants not typically known for their blenders.
- The Tippler in New York City has a permanent rotation of “Lushies” using ingredients typically scene in craft cocktails like The Wise Cold Sage made with J.M. white rhum agricole, creole shrubb, Grapefruit, sage, sirop de canne.
- Serious craft cocktail bar The Hawthorne in Boston has “Swizzle Sundays” where they’ll put almost anything in a blender, including a Negroni and even sherry in their Fino Swizzle (fino, cognac, port, tart cherry).
- A fixture on many chain account menus, blender drinks are a big business. The Cheesecake Factory offers a selection of Spiked Milkshakes, as does Bobby Flay’s Burger Palace which gets creative flavors like Vanilla Caramel Bourbon and Mocha Kahlúa Vodka.
- Think outside of the standard frozen piña coladas and mudslides when it comes to developing blender drinks. The number of frozen cocktails on restaurant menus is up 52% since 2009 according to Reuters, driven mainly by innovative cocktails, not the status quo.
- The key to a good blender drink program is focusing on fresh ingredients, proper dilution and texture. Consumers are looking for creativity and the same attention to detail they expect with a standard cocktail. Kara Gastin, Marketing Events Supervisor at Vitamix sees more and more culinary-inspired cocktails on menus across the country, many calling for syrups and purees made with fresh fruit. “The biggest reward with blending overall is that blenders can extract flavors and create infusions at a molecular level that can’t be matched with a shaken or stirred drink,” she says.
10. Technology and Social Media Sell
- Large or small, restaurants and bars benefit from Facebook and Twitter to share new menus, specials and photos. These tools are also a great way to garner instant customer feedback and see trends go viral. T.G.I. Friday’s held a live Twitter event on mixology with well-known cocktail and spirits writer Camper English. The session resulted in over 3 million impressions per hour using the hashtag #ItsAlwaysFriday.
- Pinterest has also growing as a social media hub for sharing images or “repining” favorite photos that link to recipes or coupons. The Melting Pot has eight boards on its “The Fondue Effect” Pinterest site promoting such programs as “Skinny Sipping” with Skinnygirl and Voli vodka products.
- A recent Technomic survey on Foodservice technology found 51% of consumers “consider it important for restaurants to integrate technology into their ordering capabilities.” Whether online or via an app, offering menus on a screen can be a good for business in some situations. Chris Shackelford, Sommelier at Trelio in California says “iPads are nice as they do tend to beef up sales in undertrained establishments but also reduce the personal interaction and touch that a solidly trained sommelier can offer.”
- At Mexican restaurant Temazcal in Boston, the 300 plus tequilas required explanation even above and beyond the well-trained staff. So management opted for iPads for not only the tequila menu, but the full food and beverage menu as well.