Old Chicago might be revamping its cocktail menu, but Stuart Melia wants to make one thing clear: The focus is still on beer.
The vice president of beverage for CraftWorks Restaurants & Breweries, Old Chicago’s parent company, says the “beer-first” chain will always offer some of the most “sought-after and exclusive craft beers out there.” The shake-up throughout the rest of the beverage menu—the first in more than three years—is simply an attempt to keep pace with the quality of its beer selections.
“What we’ve focused on is upgrading all of our beverage offerings to match the quality and expertise we put into our craft beer selection,” Melia says.
VIBE caught up with Melia to discuss the strategy behind the refresh and how it will impact sales at the Old Chicago chain, which has 96 restaurants operating in 22 states.
Stuart Melia, vice president of beverage for CraftWorks Restaurants & Breweries.
VIBE: How did you go about deciding what cocktails to add to the list?
Stuart Melia: Our primary objective was to take all the research we had access to and apply it to a strategy for growing sales and guest satisfaction at Old Chicago. We looked at what craft beer drinkers drink when they’re not drinking beer, what drives beverage decisions for millennials and how we could improve the overall quality of our cocktails and wine offerings while staying true to what Old Chicago is as a brand.
That led us to a few things:
- Keep it simple: Margaritas and Mojitos are still high in demand for casual dining guests
- Go fresh: It’s not new news to anyone, but we offer a fresh housemade lemonade that we now use in a selection of spiked lemonades
- Execute consistently and quickly: We looked at a few cocktails that could’ve been a great fit from a taste profile but would take three to four minutes to make. That doesn’t work for Old Chicago.
VIBE: Did you remove some old cocktails and replace them with new ones, or simply add more offerings?
Melia: We made the decision to remove all frozen drinks from the menu. If you want a frozen Margarita, we’ll make you a great one, but we’re not going to focus on frozen drinks the way some casual dining restaurants do. Other [removals from the menu] were based on performance and contribution to margin.
VIBE: What do you expect will be some of the highest sellers on the new menu (or what have you seen already)?
Melia: It’s early, but we’re really seeing the new spiked lemonades take off—especially the Tall Lemon Drop (a high-ball version of a Lemon Drop Martini) and the Prohibition Lemonade made with a popular Canadian whisky.
VIBE: Your new menus include cocktail prices, a tactic that is not always seen in the chain beverage world. Why did you make that change, and have your customers reacted to it yet?
Melia: All the research we’ve seen points to the need to inform guests of pricing. You wouldn’t offer a wine list without prices, so why offer a cocktail menu without prices? Our cocktails range from $4.99 to $7.99, so guests can make informed decisions on what cocktail they’d like based on description and price.
I don’t think pricing a cocktail menu is going to create a reaction from the guest, but not pricing it is withholding information that many guests want access to.
VIBE: What else is new in Old Chicago’s beverage menu—anything beer-related?
Melia: While craft beer has become a new focus for a lot of restaurants over the last few years, Old Chicago has been serving craft beer since 1976. Beer is what we do, and we’re constantly bringing in pre-release and exclusive beers that you will find on one of our nine mini-tours throughout the year.
As for the menu, we’ve really taken the same focus of informing the guest to the beer list by now listing the style, origin, and ABV of each beer right there on the menu.
VIBE: You also added some wines to the menu. Why did you select the wines you did?
Melia: Our wine sales, while healthy, pale in comparison to our beer sales. But just like our cocktails, we want to offer non-beer drinking guests a glass of wine they will recognize and enjoy. We took the position of offering 10 wines and trying to achieve as much variety as we could with only 10 wines, simply because wine is not the focus at Old Chicago. We offer eight different varietals, with Moscato and Malbec being the new additions.
VIBE: And finally, what’s your favorite cocktail on the menu?
Melia: It depends on the day, the weather, who I’m with and probably even more factors. But I really enjoy the Silver Mojito. It is a twist on the traditional rum Mojito by using Milagro Silver Tequila in place of rum. It’s perfect for the indecisive person who can’t choose between a Margarita and a Mojito.