Chain Beverage Buzz: March 19, 2012

Recent findings from market research firm NPD Group show that independent restaurants have steadily lost traffic to the major restaurant Motivatechains. U.S. restaurant industry visits declined from 62.7 billion in 2008 to 60.6 billion in 2011; independent restaurants accounted for 87% (2 billion) of these traffic losses. Restaurant chains increased their share from 60% of visits in 2008 to 61% in 2011.

Additionally, NPD Group found that beverage alcohol consumption has softened at casual and fine-dining restaurants, with 36% of consumers ordering alcohol during the last three months. The majority of upscale restaurant consumers order alcohol-free beverages, and an increasing amount order free tap water. Most of the beverage alcohol servings losses came from consumers ages 21-34, while those older than 35 increased their orders of beverage alcohol. Key motivations for seeking a place that serves alcohol are atmosphere, food, location and price, among others, NPD found.

Black Box Intelligence’s Restaurant Industry Snapshot showed that while food and alcohol sales were up and positive comparable store sales were 2.53% for February, guest traffic fell 0.1% and both metrics were actually down after a strong start to the month. The company’s Restaurant Industry Willingness to Spend Index also declined in February, after reaching its highest point in eight months in January. Rising gas prices are seen as a contributing factor to the weaker numbers. Read the full report.

The board of directors at Benihana Inc. is considering a possible sale of the company, which operates 63 Benihana restaurants, 25 RA Sushi Benihanalocations and eight Haru restaurants. “While the board remains focused on the company's future and the goal of continuing the momentum in our business, it also believes that it is in the best interests of shareholders for the board to consider strategic alternatives at this time,” Chairman, President and CEO Richard C. Stockinger said. The company, headquartered in Miami, has engaged Jefferies & Co. Inc. as its financial adviser in connection with a possible sale.

It’s game on: In celebration of NCAA March Madness, Kansas City, Mo.-based Applebee’s launched its Applebee’s Fan Fanatics contest, inviting its millions of Facebook fans to trash talk, cheer online and win thousands in Applebee’s gift cards. Fan Fanatics can accumulate points by visiting the Applebee’s main Facebook fan page and the nearly 1,500 location pages; they’ll earn one point for a “Shout Out” (making a post), 10 points for a photo upload and one point for a “Twitter Share” (a tweet about their team). Top fans will win Applebee’s gift cards following each round of the tournament: $20 in the early rounds and $50, $100 or $250 in later rounds; the overall winner will receive a $500 gift card following the championship.

All 21 Seasons 52 locations will debut their spring menu March 20, including two new cocktails: Strawberry Kir Royal (fresh strawberry-infused Prairie Organic Vodka, organic agave nectar and Zardetto Prosecco) and Strawberry Basil Fusion (fresh strawberry-infused Prairie Organic Vodka, fresh basil and organic agave nectar). Additionally, Master Sommelier George Miliotes updated the Orlando-based brand’s “Drink These Before They Become Famous” list, which is a handpicked list of seasonal wines, including Aveleda Vinho Verde, Portugal ’10/’11; Lioco Indica Rosé, Mendocino ’11; Zardetto Prosecco, Treviso NV; Botani Moscatel, Sierras de Málaga ’10; and Allegrini Palazzo della Torre Corvina Veronese ’08/’09.

Strawberry kir

Orlando-based Ruth’s Chris Steak House launched its new “Sizzle, Swizzle and Swirl” Happy Hour in its 130 locations, offering brand-new bar food items as well as premium wines, select beers and handcrafted cocktails, such as the Classic Cosmo, the Pomegranate Martini and Ruth’s Manhattan.

Pom Martini

Bar Louie kicked off its St. Patrick’s Day celebration early with a private event from 7 to 10 a.m. on March 17. Guests at the Addison, Texas-based brand’s nearly 55 locations attended Kegs & Eggs, where they paid a set price for a breakfast buffet, green beer, a St. Patrick’s Day T-shirt, live entertainment and more for three hours. The locations then opened to the public, where patrons enjoyed green beer, Irish whiskey and Car Bombs as well as custom-themed festivities and live entertainment.

Bar Louie

Doherty Enterprises, the franchisee for Applebee’s in northern and central New Jersey as well as Long Island, N.Y., raised a record-breaking $322,500 this past holiday season for the U.S. Marine Corps’ Toys for Tots program. Through its annual Breakfast with Santa fundraiser, Doherty’s 61 Applebee’s restaurants have raised more than $2.7 million for the program since 1998. Each year, servers and kitchen staff volunteer their time for the Breakfast with Santa event, so 100% of the proceeds go to Toys for Tots. Doherty donates all of the money raised from the tickets, plus all monies collected during its six-week sale of fundraising paper “gift packages.”

Leadership at the 23-unit Kona Grill chain promoted Christi Hing to chief financial officer. Hing has been with Kona Grill for six years, most recently serving as vice president and controller for the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based chain. Previously, Hing, a certified public accountant, was manager of financial reporting for American Express; she also served in a variety of roles at PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Orlando-based Darden Restaurants Inc. is launching a multi-year, multimillion-dollar plan to bring all of its casual-dining concepts onto a single digital platform. The technology overhaul includes reservations systems, e-gift cards, targeted marketing programs and more. It could include loyalty programs as well. Darden operates nearly 2,000 restaurants in brands such as Red Lobster, Olive Garden, Bahama Breeze and LongHorn Steakhouse.

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