June 21st, 2018 | By Sherry Tseng, Datassential
Prior to the craft beer and spirits trend taking off, offering one or two craft beers or a bottle of wine from a small-batch producer was an easy way for operators to distinguish themselves from the pack. Even today, offering craft or local spirits can help build the story of an establishment – it’s a way for operators to show a connection to local businesses and boast that they’re one of the few places customers can get the product outside of retail channels.
However, with big national chains like Applebee’s, Buffalo Wild Wings and Smashburger also getting in on the trend, offering craft spirits is no longer quite as effective a differentiator as it once was. Operators are now facing a new dilemma: How can they stand out in a landscape where uniqueness seems to have become the norm, and consumers can go to any number of bars or even chain restaurants to find the same craft and specialty drinks that were once only found in select establishments?
Forward-thinking operators are getting around this problem by taking the concept of brand individuality to the next level and offering custom creations (often in collaboration with brewers and distilleries) to create exclusive drinking experiences that customers truly cannot find anywhere else.
Collaboration Is Key
It’s not uncommon for bars or restaurants to have their own signature cocktails (the Penicillin at the late Milk and Honey in New York, for example, became so popular that it’s now considered a classic cocktail recipe), but how many operators can say the wine or beer they’re offering was literally custom-brewed just for their operation? While it might be difficult to get Budweiser or Stella Artois to create a special product just for your bar or restaurant, smaller wineries or microbreweries are often much more open to collaborating with clients to create custom recipes.
The beverage team at The French Laundry, for example, has worked with Schramsberg winery in the past to create the “Cuvée French Laundry,” a sparkling white wine exclusive to the fine dining restaurant that eventually became the best-selling wine on the menu.
Similarly, Red Cow, a local burger chain in Minnesota, serves its own house beer on a rotating basis in what the restaurant calls its “Cowlaboration” series. The series kicked off in 2015 with a special tapping event featuring the Session Red IPA developed by Red Cow and Odell Brewing (note that special events like tappings can be leveraged to generate more interest in collaboration products). Since then, Red Cow has featured beers like the Red Rye IPA and Coconut Porter from Lift Bridge Brewing Co., and most recently the Wooden Soul series from Indeed Brewing Company, which features a cranberry sour that’s aged, re-fermented on fresh cranberries roasted by Red Cow, and finished with hibiscus.
The collaboration strategy is being picked up by larger chains as well. Shake Shack has partnered with both Frog’s Leap winery and Brooklyn Brewery to produce the chain’s signature Shack Red (Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc aged in French oak) and Shack White (Sauvignon Blanc aged in steel tanks) wines, as well as its ShackMeister Ale.
Even if you don’t have the resources to develop a custom product for your brand, there are still ways to partner with producers to create a unique experience for customers. Taking inspiration from Red Cow, bars and restaurants can host exclusive unveilings or tasting events for new product lines from producers, which could encourage customers to also explore the other offerings on the menu. If done right, collaborations can help bring visibility and traffic to your brand, no matter if you have one unit or a hundred. Still, it’s important to choose your partners wisely – operators should be mindful of whether the collaboration will fit with the image of their establishment and also make sure any custom-developed products pair well with other beverage and food offerings on the menu.
Exclusivity Can Drive Interest
While creating a completely new product just for your business is a great way to establish a unique identity, doing so admittedly requires extra time and resources. A less cost-intensive way of developing that same sense of product exclusivity can be to reserve a special release or barrel just for your business, as opposed to ideating a product from scratch. Operators can take a cue from Lee’s Summit, a restaurant group based in Kansas City, which collaborated with High West Distillery in Utah to bring an exclusive single-barrel Bourbon to their restaurants. Each bottle of Bourbon was privately labeled with the individual restaurant’s branding – a tactic that operators can adopt to emphasize the exclusivity of the product to their brand. Then the group celebrated the release of the barrel with a launch party at all of its restaurants, with complimentary tastings and giveaways from High West Distillery, which is another effective strategy. After all, who doesn’t like free things?
On a larger scale, earlier this year an Applebee’s franchisee brokered a deal with Akron, Ohio-based Thirsty Dog Brewing Company to gain exclusive pouring rights for its Blood Hound Orange IPA. Such partnerships are beneficial to both brewery and restaurant – smaller breweries can gain increased visibility and reach a wider audience by intertwining their brand with that of a well-known chain, while operators can attract fans of the brewery’s products who might not otherwise visit their restaurants.
Emphasize Uniqueness in All Aspects
Forward-thinking operators are also creating a custom experience in other ways, from implementing subtle visual reminders of their logo to surprising guests with creative presentations. Stamped ice presents an easy branding opportunity – some operators straight-up engrave their restaurant name and logo into the ice, while others are taking a more subtle approach by stamping their ice with simple motifs that call to mind the general theme of the establishment. The Monarch Bar in Kansas City, for example, serves a Negroni that comes with a cube of ice etched with the outline of a monarch butterfly. Chicago’s Apogee takes customized ice to the next level by serving its Spirit Animal cocktail in an Instagrammable whale carved from ice and stamped with the bar’s logo. Incorporating unique visual elements can serve as a gentle reminder of your brand to consumers while also creating a fun surprise that will make the experience more memorable.
Opportunities to customize can exist outside of the immediate drink, as well. Unique glassware or serving vessels are a way to catch customers’ attention and get them talking about your brand. Take a cue from the kitchen, where trendy operators are plating dishes on custom-crafted serving ware – commissioning unique glasses and barware from local artists can help consumers feel more connected to the business or brand. Or think completely outside the box and present your drinks in unorthodox ways that will get guests talking about the experience. At L.A.’s Westbound, the Cocktail Carry On made with Vodka, yuzu, thyme, sage and peat smoke is presented and revealed tableside in a vintage suitcase. The Aviary in Chicago also takes the custom beverage experience to the next level with their Rum-based Brand New to the Game cocktail, which involves a pine coaster being branded with “Aviary” right in front of the customer. The fire is used to smoke the inside of the glass before it’s filled and the resulting branded coaster can be taken home.
When it comes to custom creations, there are endless ways operators can make a unique experience for guests, whether it’s by serving an exclusive drink that can’t be found anywhere else, leveraging subtle branding techniques, or presenting drinks in a memorable way. In order to differentiate themselves from the pack, it’s important for operators to keep in mind that they are not just offering consumers a story, but their story.