For many years, fine dining chain restaurants could let the wine they sell do all the heavy lifting, with luxury and iconic brands ringing the cash register when times were good. But in today's chain restaurant environment, restaurants had better be prepared to do more to keep their customers interested and spending.
That's the lesson at least from the VIBE Vista Award for best chain restaurant wine program, this year going to Ruth's Chris Steak House, where everything from creating a list to executing experiential marketing events to training staff on the wine program is tied together by a simple yet powerful idea - that ease of accessibility and providing guests and team members with extreme delight through personally guided “safe” experimentation can yield big results.
To get there, Ruth's Chris execs taste more than 450 wines from around the world to create balanced and representative menus featuring more than 33 wines by the glass, and up to 350 in bottle form. National pairing dinners have been increased with more than 2,000 guests participating at up to 95 units, double the previous year. A deeper focus on training and tastings with staff members has helped as well, and in some cases caught the attention of wineries that have allowed Ruth's Chris to introduce featured wines before release to the public.
Take the wine dinners: for last March's Taste of Napa, 87 units participated, with checks averaging $95 per person for more than 3,000 guests. Dinner featured five courses paired with Beringer Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc, St. Clement Napa Valley Chardonnay, Etude Carneros Pinot Noir, Stags’ Leap Winery Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and Beringer Nightingale Semillon Sauvignon-Blanc.
To drive awareness of the dinners, Ruth's Chris provided plenty of promotional and support material: welcome videos, well-trained hosts, guest giveaways, check stuffers and lobby posters, the National Wine Dinner Menu with recipes featured on the corporate website, as well as plenty of media outreach, social media posts and e-blasts to preferred guests.
Of course, staff training is key to make sure special events like the wine dinners run smoothly. To do that, the chain has developed certification programs with corporate training materials for all employees in every function to understand the goals of the beverage program, including videos prepared by senior director of menu strategy Helen Mackey. Samplings of wines by-the-glass during pre-shift meetings, tasting notes of all wines provided to staff, WSET and Bar Smarts training provided for top performers and even educational trips for the ten best to "Tales of the Cocktail," are among the many facets of the program currently.
In addition to an increase in sales, Ruth’s Chris Steak House has developed a loyal following among wine loving guests and local media. Some locations have reported “wine clubs” forming in communities who attend all of these dinners. Restaurant participation in the wine dinners doubled over last year. The five part National dinner series is expected to serve close to 12,000 diners – an average of 2,500 per event. And public relations efforts gained favorable local and national media exposure with millions of media impressions via online and print.