Foreign Currency aA A Look at Import Beers

Todd English PUB Beer
At Todd English P.U.B in Las Vegas import beers sell well with the help of a well-trained, knowledgeable staff, and an innovative beer menu.

Supporting local might be the current vogue, and the economy may have some folks trading down, but when it comes to beer, imports remain a healthy addition to any operator’s bottom line. Why? Because imported beer is something customers view as an affordable, interesting treat.

“I think people are a lot more adventurous,” says Jon Vetter, bar manager at Wheatfields Restaurant & Bar in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Satisfying that thirst for adventure at a reasonable cost is crucial, however. Vetter recommends keeping the prices of domestic and imported beers similar. At Wheatfields the difference is 75 cents; domestic bottles at the bar sell for $3.75, while imports run $4.50. The best-selling imports are Heineken Premium Light, Stella Artois and Peroni.

“Our clientele is very value conscious, and they’re looking for that bigger, better deal,” he says. “We have competitive pricing to keep the beers as affordable as possible, and it’s just their overall good taste, flavor and value perception. So for 75 cents you’re getting the perception of much more.”

The Corner Pub and Grill in St. Louis, Mo., doesn’t have a happy hour, which owner/operator Brant Baldanza says is key in selling imported beers. “Our target market is people who appreciate a better atmosphere and better service, so I don’t think people care about saving $1 by buying a domestic.” At Corner Pub, beer runs $3.25 for domestics and $4.50 for imports.

Corner Pub’s beer drinkers are segmented. Earlier in the evening, when the middle to upper-middle class demographic comes in, big sellers are Heineken, Newcastle Brown, Stella Artois and Guinness. Later on, when the younger set populates the bar, domestics sell better.

Even at 75 cents or $1 more, imported beer is seen as an affordable splurge during these tough economic times when consumers are mostly cutting back yet still looking for value.

“People have gotten used to spending less on food, and instead they’re getting a nice beer and a nice burger in their neighborhood joint,” Baldanza explains.

It’s not just about treating themselves; consumers are getting used to beers with more flavor and distinct characteristics. These flavors also mean the beers pair well with food, leading to healthier check averages.

To ensure servers are equipped to make an extra sale, Vetter has his servers taste everything on the menu. This way, they can easily suggest foods to pair with whichever beers the guests are ordering.

“If our staff likes something, they talk to our guests about it and that’s huge for us — the believability,” Vetter explains. “If you believe in it, you can sell it.”

Additionally, Wheatfields (pictured below) features beer and food pairings on its menu, and its daily specials sheets help push food sales to import drinkers.


The Corner Pub also uses its menu to promote imported beers, featuring the beers’ logos next to foods that pair well together. This simple addition led to a Heineken sales increase of 5 percent in the second quarter of this year, compared with the second quarter of 2009, Baldanza points out. “It’s suggestive selling,” he explains.

At Todd English P.U.B. in Las Vegas, the menu is a marketing and selling tool. Tasting notes are featured next to each beer with information on the country of origin and the alcohol by volume. The staff is also well-versed in flavor profiles and pairing the beers with food, Managing Partner Kelley Jones points out.

“For me it all comes down to staff education,” he says. “It’s really just the power of suggestion at the table and the bar. Our staff has four days of training on just product knowledge — both classroom and tasting time.”

But if you’re really lucky, sometimes the beers are attention-grabbing enough to sell themselves, says Joey Mendes, owner of Proof Bar in Santa Ana, Calif. This bar sees success with swing top bottles of Fischer Blonde from France just because they look a little different, as well as with large-format (600 ml) bottles such as Flying Horse from India.

“People like walking around with a big bottle of beer, and you don’t have to go back to the bar as much,” points out Mendes. “We’re more of a nightclub format, and we’re two or three deep at the bar, so it can be a long wait.”

Thinking about bringing in more imports? When deciding which beers to carry, Vetter recommends running a tasting with people whose opinions and tastes you value. Also, get samples (where legal) and data from your sales reps.

Pete Ferretti, owner of The Pepper Lounge and Mandarin Lounge in St. Louis, Mo., says you should start slow. Look at what your customer base will drink, and then pick two or three imports that fit your demographic best.

The challenge is to make imported beers seem a little different — to highlight them — which may mean something as simple as serving them in an unusual glass. “Use something native to the beer’s origin,” or for draft beers, an oversized glass, Ferretti suggests. “There are even some glasses designed specifically to ‘unleash’ the aroma of beers — long bodied glasses, lager (lipped) necks and tinted glasses to protect the beer.”

Since many imports have a story to tell, an operator who really makes a push to promote them winds up with a bar that’s not only a place to get great foreign beers, but also a great spot to learn about them and have an experience, too. And for that, patrons are often willing to pay a premium. NCB

Crafting Something Different

The macro import brands of Heineken, Guinness, Corona, etc. tend to sell well because they have marketing dollars and brand recognition behind them to prompt that call at the bar. But imported craft beers are also selling well these days, even though they’re more expensive than domestic brews. These unique beers deliver margins that can bring a smile to any operator’s face.

“People are figuring out that you can have a lot of fun with different beers,” says Catherine Pflueger, general manager of The Happy Gnome in St. Paul, Minn. (pictured below).

The Happy Gnome

This bar has 70 lines — 12 of which are import crafts, often from Belgium, including Delirium Tremens, Tripel Karmeliet, Kasteel Rouge, Kwak and Maredsous Blonde.

ChurchKey, the hip new beer bar in Washington D.C., also sells a number of craft imports. “They’re popular because they put flavor before anything else,” says Beer Director Greg Engert. “If it’s interesting and it tastes amazing and it’s compelling, that’s something I want to sell.”

If you are going to offer craft imports, look for something that’s above the standard, but make sure it still fits within your margins, advises Joey Mendes, owner of Proof Bar in Santa Ana, Calif. However, he actually takes a loss on one of his beers — Hitachino Nest White Ale — “because people love it so much and to show people we are in it for serving great product.”

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