Innovative Spirits Programs Earn 2012 Vista Awards

Winners of the 2012 VIBE Vista Awards were announced at the 2012 VIBE Conference, held March 13-14 in Las Vegas. Over the next few issues of VIBE, we’ll profile the leaders behind the award-winning programs in a series of VIBE Spotlights.

To kick off the series, we’ll highlight the winners for the spirits category. In the Chain Restaurant and Multi-unit Operator segment, sponsored by William Grant & Sons, the judges marked a tie: Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar and Ruby Tuesday. The Chain Hotel, Casino and Cruise Line Operator segment award, sponsored by Bacardi USA, went to Omni Hotels & Resorts.

Congratulations to all of the winners!

Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar

Although “wine” is in the restaurant’s name, there’s much more to Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar’s beverage alcohol selection than just vino. In fact, the Newport Beach, Calif.-based brand shines when it comes to spirits.

“We strive to do for our cocktail program what the Fleming’s 100 did for our wine program: namely, offer our guests an innovative menu to surprise and delight and tempt them to be adventurous, to discover,” explains Maeve Pesquera, Director of Wine. “Our goal is to lead industry trends, not follow them.”

Beyond the brand’s specially designed, extensive cocktail menu — which is divided by “guest mood” into Skinnier Cocktails (fewer than 99 calories), Retro Chic Cocktails, Modern Martinis and Couture Cocktails — Fleming’s also executes a variety of spirits initiatives throughout the year.

For example, every night at each of the restaurant’s 64 locations, guests can enjoy the “5 for 6 ’til 7” promotion: five wine, cocktail and appetizer options, each for $6 until 7 p.m.

Additionally, bartenders craft seasonal cocktails throughout the year, such as the Tickled Pink (Belvedere Vodka, orange juice, raspberry and Mionetto Prosecco) for Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day and the Button Down (Jack Daniel’s, fresh-squeezed lemon juice, maple syrup, garnished with a lemon twist) for Father’s Day. During October, bartenders crafted a special cocktail for Breast Cancer Awareness Month: the Stoli Bombshell (Stoli Vanil, fresh lime, raspberry). Fleming’s donated 100% of the Bombshell’s sales in October to Avon Breast Cancer Crusade — a total of $60,000.

Stoli Bombshell

Fleming's raised funds for breast cancer awareness through sales of the Stoli Bombshell.

Menus at the restaurants change regularly, as strong relationships with spirits vendors help locations create new cocktails, Pesquera notes. “It’s a win-win. We want the latest in spirits for our guests, and they help us design new concoctions to highlight them,” she says. “As opportunities present themselves, we jump on it. What is so great about Fleming’s is we are extremely nimble and can make it happen quickly.”

The promotions are successfully advertised through tabletop materials, beverage book inserts and outdoor posters promoting the program, plus email blasts to the guest database and social-media messaging.

Of course, server and bartender training is a major factor in any spirits program’s success. Training components at each restaurant include interactive training through a Cisco Telepresence Videoconferencing system, detailed program outline cards and recipes, pre-shift meetings, ongoing wine and spirits education and certification and server/bartender samplings.

Bartenders don’t just sell what’s currently on the menu; they are key to bringing new cocktails to the menu as well. One of the most popular cocktails throughout the brand’s locations is the Blueberi Lemon Drop, created by Newport Beach’s Mike Alvarez, while Baton Rouge bartender Mary Deas Dunn created the L’Orange Sparkler, one of the latest additions to the Couture Cocktails list.

For Pesquera, though, it’s all about the Mad Milagro Margarita. That cocktail, paired with the Jumbo Shrimp Scampi Skewers with chimichurri dipping sauce, is “a hot combination. It doesn’t get much better than that,” she says.

Ruby Tuesday

Through fresh ingredients, premium spirits and affordable prices, Ruby Tuesday aims to create “A Better Way of Drinking” for guests at its 800 locations.

One of the biggest selling points for the Marysville, Tenn., brand is its $5 “All Day Every Day” cocktail program, offering Martinis, Margaritas,Drink Fresh Mojitos and other classic cocktails made with premium spirits for just $5.

After testing $5 options on the Sauza Margarita, Long Island Tea and top-selling Ruby Relaxer, management took a bigger risk and offered all well cocktails for $5. “It was a huge success, and we have not looked back,” says Ken Lennox, Director of Quality Beverage.

Patrons can upgrade their spirit choice on any $5 cocktail for just $1-3, depending on the selection. Rather than using less-expensive well options, Ruby Tuesday’s well is filled with premium spirits, including Bacardi, Smirnoff, Beefeater, Jim Beam and more.

Additionally, the brand launched its new Drink Fresh menu, which showcases Fit & Trim Cocktails (fewer than 150 calories per drink) and $5 seasonal specialty drinks made with fresh ingredients such as peach, pear and acai. Lennox’s favorite? The Superfruit Cooler (St-Germain, Veev Acai Spirit, Absolut Acai Berry, freshly muddled cucumbers, fresh lemon juice and organic agave nectar). “It is a one of a kind cocktail,” he says.

Ruby Tuesday long has been known for its successful beer programs, Lennox notes, which is why they integrated beer cocktails onto the list, adding a new dimension to the spirits program.

Through its programs — and successful marketing efforts including posters, banners, food menu inserts, window clings, table tents and social media — spirits now make up more than 46% of total beverage sales at Ruby Tuesday, according to Lennox.

At Ruby Tuesday, though bartender skill training is, of course, critical, the brand is also committed to instilling company culture with all of its members. General managers in the company attend leadership sessions once per year, where they receive hands-on beverage training, learn bar-sales building tactics and identify the “person” and “personality” to build sales and customer bases in their bars. Additionally, they learn to build the high-energy, exciting atmosphere in each restaurant around the globe.

It all adds up to a winning combination that keeps patrons happy — and thirsty.

Omni Hotels & Resorts

As the hotel bar experiences a renaissance, Omni Hotels & Resorts is leading the resurgence by offering a little local flavor to its menu.

At each of the upscale hotel brand’s 45 locations, bartenders are trained to craft classic cocktails, of course, but they now also create drinks that Omniare popular regionally as part of the brand’s “Home Grown” menu, explains David Morgan, vice president of food and beverage for the Irving, Texas-based company.

To develop these locally inspired cocktails, Omni brought in some of the top names in mixology: Kim Hassarud, who created cocktails for Texas; Duggan McDonnell, who handled the Western region beverages; Adam Seger, who developed drinks for the Midwest and New Orleans; Christy Pope for the Northeastern region; and Freddy Diaz for the Southeast. Each mixologist created four cocktails for his or her respective region.

Cocktails include:

• Texas: Prickly Sangria Punch (Bacardi Limon rum, prickly pear puree, fresh lemon juice, Monin agave nectar and ginger ale)
• Western: Vineyard Margarita (Patron Silver tequila, Sauvignon Blanc, fresh lime juice, Monin agave nectar and a dash of brown sugar)
• Midwest/New Orleans: Crescent City Mule (cucumber-infused Absolut Citron vodka, HUM Botanical Spirit, Fever Tree ginger beer and fresh basil)
• Northeast: Au Currant Smash: Absolut vodka and cassis liqueur, muddled with mint and fresh limes
• Southeast: Southern Basil-Berry Smash (Woodford Reserve bourbon, Dry Sack sherry, Cointreau orange liqueur, fresh-squeezed lemon juice, muddled with basil and fresh strawberries

“The ability to offer regional cocktails, we believe, is a competitive advantage that provides Omni a true point of differentiation,” Morgan says. “Guests traveling around the country want to experience where they are staying, which is what we are offering.”

The new menu has been a success: In the first week of the program’s launch, specialty cocktail consumption increased 40%; overall, they’ve seen a 15% increase since the introduction of the program.

Moving forward, Omni will update its original, creative spirits offerings with brandwide menu changes every year.

To ensure sustained success, especially on the new cocktails, bartenders will continue to undergo Omni’s training, in which they study a training DVD, learn to perfect each cocktail and take a test on the drinks.

This is crucial to Omni because, while a creative menu is important, it’s the quality that counts. “The ability to execute these cocktails on a consistent basis is critical to our reputation and our success,” Morgan says.

Suggested Articles

A breakdown of the latest $1 trillion from the Senate.

The number of businesses switching from temporary to permanent closures surpasses 50%.

The coronavirus continues to threaten our industry but there are promising medical developments and still many questions on the next round of relief.