That spend on drinks will go up over the Christmas period is a given, even during a recession, but it doesn't mean that you can rest on your laurels. This is your chance to get customers to trade up and try different drinks that they might never otherwise splash out on. Fiona Sims seeks out some expert advice.
Clare Young knows all about increasing profit through wine sales. She is the founder and managing director of Vintellect, a wine preservation and education company set up in 2004.
Previously, Young was a director of Cockburn & Campbell, a wine subsidiary of the Young & Co Brewery, where she was responsible for improving wine sales throughout the sizeable pub estate.
Her team at Vintellect is formidable, and includes master of wine Liz Robertson. They believe there is one sure way to sell more premium wine this Christmas: by the glass.
"Diners will spend much more by the glass than they will spend on a bottle," explains Young. "Whether you are out as a couple or in a large group, nobody wants to drink the same thing. And if you're all eating something different, which is often the case, there's such a great opportunity here to sell diners something different.
"Food and wine matching is one way to go. I think the majority of the hospitality industry is still missing out on this trick - everyone talks about it, but not many are doing it well. You need to find a way of engaging your staff, to show it actually works.
"Get your chef to knock up a few key dishes and get your wine supplier to offer a few samples and see how the various bottles work with each dish. And once you've worked out which wines go best, offer them on the menu alongside each dish - sales will go up, I assure you.
"But it's not enough just to stick a wine suggestion on the menu - staff need to buy into it. And before they can do that, they need to understand the key principles of food and wine matching, such as always match the sweetness of the food with the sweetness of the wine; think about the acidity in the dish - you'll need an acidic wine to stand up; and if you have a spicy dish, then you need to counteract that spice with some sweetness, or try to match the spice. Everyone gets obsessed with matching the fish or meat in the dish, but you need to look at the dominant flavour.
"With encouragement, people will try anything. If you stick a bottle of Albariño on the list without a word to the diners, they'll just ignore it. But if you talk to them about it - it could just be one little bit of information - then they'll go for it.
"And you need to think about value for money, especially now. The pound is still weak against the euro, so look at other regions where it is doing better - such as the USA and South America. Chile and Argentina are really coming up - the wines are much better these days and they offer great value for money.
"You need to add some wow factor to your list, too. It should be original to you, so go as far as you dare - don't be afraid.
"For wines by the glass to work, you need to have some kind of preservation system in place - we have eight different systems to choose from at Vintellect, but if you can't afford it then it could be as simple as a sticky label with a date dotting system, so you know which wine needs to be sold that day.
"The Christmas period is also a great time of the year to sell sweet wine. Think about offering wine pairing suggestions with the dessert menu, and if you haven't got time to hand-sell it, then print the suggestions alongside each dish. Ultimately, if you want to sell more - and better - wine, it's about training. You need to introduce working practices that work for you - for example, single out a member of staff who could recommend that dessert wine.
"And use your supplier. They can recommend wines for your list and give you the product knowledge so you can pass it on to the customer. Staff are usually reluctant to recommend wines that they can't pronounce, so think about giving them an incentive - every company has its own policy on this, but it could range from vouchers to free meals or even cash. The first time they do it, they'll have the confidence to do it again.
"To sell more premium wines, you need to create a buzz about the wine list - be it that wow factor wine, or tent cards with pairing suggestions, or just better-trained staff. In fact, you can use it as a catalyst to sell more of everything in your establishment - make wine the heart of your business and the rest will follow."
CLARE YOUNG SUGGESTS FIVE WINES WITH WOW FACTOR
â- 2007 Leyda Sauvignon Blanc, Garuma Vineyard, Leyda Valley, Chile
â- 2008 Laurenz V GrÁ¼ner Veltliner "Friendly", Kamptal, Austria
â- 2007 Tommasi Ripasso della Valpolicella, Veneto, Italy
â- 2007 Catena Malbec, Mendoza, Argentina
IN THE SPIRIT
Andy Pearson is a bar consultant and celebrity mixologist, and co-founder of the Hoxton Pony, a trendy new bar in east London. He also makes regular TV appearances, including a regular slot on BBC2's Something for the Weekend.
He works with a wide range of businesses through his company, Intoxicology. As part of his latest collaboration, with London's Guoman Hotels, he has created a collection of four cocktails, one for each hotel in the group, inspired by the buildings.
Pearson is training Guoman staff so they can execute the cocktails perfectly, and has launched mixology classes at the Carbon Bar, part of the Cumberland hotel, so guests can have a go, too - or members of the on-trade, who are keen to learn more about the art of making cocktails.
"Many establishments have signature drinks but not ones that take in the character of the building, so no, I don't think anyone has ever approached cocktails in quite this way before," Pearson explains.
"There are places that are synonymous with cocktails - such as Raffles hotel and its Singapore Sling - but they weren't invented to reflect the hotel in any way. But I think it's a great way to get people into believing in the list - for the staff at the very least. It gives them something to say to the guest, rather than ‘erm, this is a nice drink because it tastes very orangey'.
Andy Pearson cocktails
"For the cocktail I created for Guoman's Royal Horseguards hotel, for example, I looked at the famous battles and victories of the regiment, so I included Courvoisier, Napoleon's favourite Cognac.
"For the Tower cocktail, at the Tower Hotel, I wanted the drink to be quite exotic - because, let's face it, the building isn't. So I've used Beefeater Crown Jewels, and mixed it with yellow Chartreuse, and orange, pink grapefruit and lime juices, and it's priced at £11.84, as Tower Bridge originally cost £1,184,000 to build in 1886. Then we serve it in a plain box to reflect its nondescript exterior.
"I think the industry has to be a bit savvier this year - offering value for money will win out, but there are still ways to get people to trade up. Offer a cocktail of the week, or even a cocktail of the day, and if you print it on the menu, you'll sell even more.
"Use more premium spirits, and then shout about it on your drinks list. Consumers understand spirits much more these days. For example, you can charge a bit more for a cocktail that has Tanqueray Ten gin in it instead of the house pour.
"Operators should also look at offering a range of prices for their cocktails. At the Hoxton Pony, we price our cocktails as you would the wine list. They range from £6 to £14.50, depending on what we've put in it. One of our best sellers is the Booker's Bookmark, with Booker's Single Cask Bourbon, at £14.50. Restaurants don't price all their dishes the same, so why do that on your cocktail list?
"And if you're selling spirits individually, then always offer a choice. Instead of giving the customer the house pour when he asks for a gin and tonic, it won't kill you to tell them what else you've got - the easiest way to get another 50p on the sale. And if you do decide to offer a choice, start with the cheapest first, working your way through to the most expensive - it's not about separating people from their money; it's about giving them a choice.
"And why not let them try something before they buy? You do it with wine and beer, so why not spirits? I can guarantee, once they've accepted the challenge, they will go for it. At Roast, in London, where I was the bar manager, we had an after-dinner drinks trolley on display, stocked with a cross-section of drinks from Cognac to tequila and rum. That was hugely successful - mainly because we were offering people a new experience.
"The trick, of course, is actually being able to mix a good drink and create a good cocktail. Training is the key here, which your supplier - or consultants like me - can offer. If you sell it, you should know a bit more about it, ideally three things about each product on your back bar - people want to know what they are buying into."
ANDY PEARSON SUGGESTS FIVE PREMIUM SPIRITS
â- Tanqueray Ten gin
â- Chairman's Reserve rum, St Lucia Distillers
â- Grey Goose vodka
â- Don Julio Tequila
â- Courvoisier VSOP Exclusif Cognac
HOP TO IT
Rupert Ponsonby is a co-founder of the Beer Academy, an educational body dedicated to helping people understand and appreciate beer. It puts together a series of courses and training materials - to date, 4,000 students have attended the courses, which include Making Beer and Food Dance, to the introductory one-day foundation courses (£120 +VAT).
They'll also come to you - Ponsonby and co advise numerous hotels, bars and restaurants on how to sell beer, including London's one-Michelin-starred Indian restaurant Quilon, which has had huge success with its beer and food matching menu.
"Taking the wine world as a guide, I would start by saying that it would be a pity to have a list which includes only Pinot Grigio or Pinot Noir - so don't build a list that has only American lagers. Your customers have grown used to choice, so give it to them.
"The world of wine seems to fight shy of on-trade listings for wines that are obviously available in supermarkets. But sometimes beer drinkers like to order what they know. So yes, for some establishments, big brand beers give reassurance to customers and make them feel comfortable and at ease with their choice.
"But even if you are to go down the big brand route, try to give your customers a choice of countries, or styles of beer. And have a number of specials in addition to your regulars - push excitement and variety, rather than safety. Think of wheat, fruit, lambic and smoked beers.
"Your choice of beer says as much about your establishment as the curtains or the food - so think about it, and don't just go on price. With the doubling of the number of UK breweries over the past 10 years, there is a wide range of bottled ales and lagers from both here and abroad to choose from.
"For me, the 33cl size is an ideal one to offer as it allows your customers to try new beers and have a different beer with different foods, or at different moments of the evening. Why expect them to have the same beer all the way through the evening? Tempt them with a range - maybe seasonal, or maybe linked to particular dates, events or foods - the Christmas period, for example, is a great opportunity to sell seasonal beers.
"Introduce a blackboard - these are vital to help you inform and sell. My preference is for boards that mention lunchtime specials and then list the wine and the beer that best complement the food. This will open up customers' eyes and let them start to understand that when consumed alongside food, beer is wonderful. You could also consider a beer menu, with tasting notes and food matches, as at Anthony's restaurant in Leeds.
"But beers will not sell themselves. Most people are ignorant about beer and its abv, colours, styles, flavours, ingredients or potential with food - so help them with suitable materials, such as tent cards. Specials need to be served, ideally, in an ice bucket on the bar top. They need to shout excitement and should not be hidden away by the bartender's ankles.
"Think about glassware. You can either choose the theatre of branded glassware for each beer, or use red and white wine glasses, and Champagne flutes. Even brandy balloons look great with the richer-tasting ruminative beers and old ales."
RUPERT PONSONBY SUGGESTS FIVE PREMIUM BEERS
â- Fruit beer - Liefmans (Belgium)
â- Pilsner - Paulaner (Czech Republic)
â- India Pale Ale - Goose Island (USA)
â- Smoked beer - Schlenkeria Rauchbier (Germany)
â- Celebratory ale - Deus (Belgium)