Beverages follow the same consumer trends that shape food menus.
This article first appeared in the 1 January 2006 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).
R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. To find out more about R&I, visit its website www.foodservice411.com.
By Erin J. Shea, Associate Editor
Consumer interest in organic produce and meats, for example, extends to a willingness to pay more for organic coffee. Fruits and spices that flavor sauces reappear as accents or garnishes for cocktails.
The rising popularity of customized meal combinations-allowing diners to choose two or more entrées-has a beverage counterpart as well in the trend to offering beverage flights: bundled samplings of contrasting or complementary beverages.
While wine flights have been mainstays in fine-dining restaurants for some time, operators in other segments are getting in on the action by using the tactic to showcase variety, create proprietary combinations that encourage guest loyalty, and increase bar business.
Cashing in on the popularity of its wine-flight program, Leawood, Kan.-based Houlihan's casual-dining chain sees the mini-martini flights it has added as a natural evolution. For $6.29, customers choose three 3-ounce samples of Houlihan's signature martini line.
"We were looking to get back to our roots in the bar part of the business," Alan Gaylin, co-founder Houlihan's franchisee Radiant-Tampa Restaurants LLC, says of the martini flights. "We wanted to create excitement in our lounges again.
"The flights say fun and give people the chance to try out something they might not on a larger scale. We're looking to expand the concept into higher-end tequilas using the same portions," he says.
For Bourbons Bistro in Louisville, Ky., flights not only are a way to showcase its more than 100 bourbons but also a tool to educate customers about Kentucky's signature spirit.
"We developed a tiered system of bourbon flights," says Bar Manager Kerry Gardner. "It allows anyone to get acquainted with bourbon, whether they're a weekend warrior or an experienced drinker."
Gary Hemphill, managing director for the New York city-based Beverage Marketing Association (BMA), says flights address the desire for variety. "People want choices," he says. "It behooves an operator to offer a range of different types of products to some extent and flights allow them to change the menu and figure out which items are slow movers."
BIN 36 in Lincolnshire, Ill., includes nonalcoholic beverages in its flight plan, treating children to four-flavor milk or juice flights. "There are customers who come here specifically because their kids request it," says James Terlizzi, partner and general manager of the suburban Chicago restaurant. "The milk and juice flights are definitely a draw for them."
A natural fit for a concept built around its broad wine selection, the $3.50 children's flights are presented in lidded plastic cups.
Marrying the talents from the kitchen and the bar accomplished several things for Nacional 27: providing additional uses for already-inventoried product and creating signature drinks for the Latin-themed member of Chicago-based Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises restaurant group.
General Manager Adam Seger says that incorporating foods such as calabaza-a South American squash used in Nacional 27's pumpkin flan-and its house-made tres leches ice cream to create egg nog with Latin flair breathes new life into the beverage menu without adversely affecting costs. In addition, organic fruits purchased from a local farmers market are used to create weekly Market Cocktails.
"We've taken products from the kitchen and made unique house specialties," Seger says. "We've made better use of our prep while at the same time creating higher-quality drinks."
BMA's Hemphill says customers are predominately looking to purchase drinks made with products that are "better for you" across the board.
"People have an awareness of the products that go into making their food," he says. "There is a real trend toward people consuming products that they think are healthful."
Carbonated diet drinks continue to grow in popularity, but Hemphill says caffeinated "energy drinks" are the fastest-growing niche in nonalcoholic beverages.
"Energy drinks should be carried in college campuses," he says. "It's the hottest item with that age group."
That's the experience at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., according to Crista Martin, assistant director of marketing for Harvard Dining Services. "One of the things that makes energy drinks so popular with this age group is that they are part of their social circle in the same way coffee is more popular with the mid-30s crowd.
"Energy drinks are part of their lifestyle and [the trend] has staying power. I expect we'll have to move it to the graduate-school [dining] locations as this age group gets older."
Fair-trade coffee is becoming commonplace on college campuses, where promoting sustainable agriculture and living-wage issues are important.
The movement behind fair trade promotes standards for environmental, social and labor practices on an international level. Those who criticize international trade say that developing countries face unfair tariff barriers when they export to rich countries and cost them much-needed money.
Campuses that carry coffee products that carry the fair trade label-meaning that the product was exported into the United States and met Fairtrade Labeling Organizations International (FLO) standards-have seen an overwhelmingly positive response from students. The FLO is a consortium of fair-trade groups in the U.S., Japan, Canada and 17 European countries.
"We've gone to all shade-grown fair-trade coffees this year," says Doug Murray, executive chef for dining services at Washington State University in Pullman. "Our students are proud of what we're doing and they're excited that we've introduced the coffees."
With aging baby boomers the demographic behind the wine and spirits growth of the past several years, it's not surprising that those with more expendable income would raise the bar on the quality.
"Premium wine is not a fad," says Gary Hemphill of the Beverage Marketing Association. "And wine also taps the trend of drinks for health and wellness because red wine has been found to be beneficial to the heart."
Though lauded for its extensive wine selection, Bistro 45 in Pasadena, Calif., has gone a step further by introducing a private-label cabernet to its massive wine list.
"The private label helps brand the restaurant," says Robert Simon, owner of Bistro 45. "This helps to define our restaurant as having a specific goal of being a source for great wine regardless of price."
The wine is priced at $24 a bottle.
At the Clay Pit in Dallas, its wine program helps set it apart from other Indian restaurants in the area.
"Most people don't associate Indian food with wine," says Tinku Saini, executive chef and owner of the contemporary-Indian restaurant. "We have more than 80 wines to match the cuisine but we thought it was important to carry the Indian wines especially."