Chain restaurant beverage execs have faced tough decisions over the past four years, in many cases slowing adaptation to the sudden societal changes going on outside their doors. Some changes offer promise, as well as challenges, in 2013; here are a few.
Cocktails and more on tap. Craft cocktail bars have problems with wringing efficiency from their staff and profitability from their drinks, just like chains. One solution – punch bowl service – opened the style door for the return of pitcher drinks, which in turn has evolved into experimenting with draft systems. At first, the focus was on spirits – Fernet Branca was a notable hit in the San Francisco area – but the program at Tavernita in Chicago, in which cocktails, house-made sodas, vermouths and more are made as needed, stored under gas and served fresh on draft, has turned many heads. Adaptable to chain service? Who’s brave enough to try?
Is it non-alcohol’s time? It gets tiring banging the drum for a better selection and range of non-alcohol drinks. Just take a walk through any high end grocer, health food store, even Mom and Pop or convenience store, and gaze in wonderment on the types of drinks now routinely available to the American consumer – energy and vitamin-infused, nutraceutically-bolstered, energizing or relaxing, teas – green, black, white, herbal, rooibos, even fermented – in an unprecedented range of packages and combinations; ginger beers and ales in various spiciness and flavor combinations, savory and less sweet sodas, blood orange juice, mangosteen nectar, coconut water – the list once started is endless. It’s encouraging to see flavored lemonades and better teas available on-premise, but the category still is widely untapped.
Can a chain be locally relevant? Not since before Prohibition have consumers been able to drink so many beers and spirits, and in many cases, wines, made within 100 miles of their home. The day when a fad becomes a trend is always hard to spot, but it’s now routine for even casual independent restaurants to brag about where they source their foods. Likewise, serving locally-sourced alcohol grows, as does the supply - there were only about 70 craft distillers counted by the American Distilling Institute in 2003, but today around 400 have licenses to distill, with another 50 under construction, according to Bill Owens, president of ADI. Just two years ago, the group projected it would take until 2015 to reach that number. Big Liquor has responded to one of the craft trends with numerous unaged white whiskies. What makes more sense – another flavored spirit or something you can serve that connects with your customer’s sense of local pride? Ignore what’s going on at your peril.
What do cocktail techniques reveal? Muddling, double-straining, dry shaking, hard shaking – at the highest level, the modern bartender must employ many small skills that add up to better drinks. But none of the techniques are more complicated, once explained, than drawing a good draft beer time after time or squeezing limes or many other bar skills that were once standard operating procedure at most chain restaurants. Of course, today’s high-volume chain bartender rarely squeezes his own citrus, or displays great draft beer skills, or otherwise has many significant hands-on responsibilities that lend a pride of job or a sense of a career. When a kitchen job becomes formulaic, the result is reliable if uninspired execution; if the bartender is expected to be equally robotic, don’t be surprised if she can’t attract or keep many bar customers.