Anatomy of a Promotion: Pitcher Perfect

Great beverage promotions don’t just happen. To grab the guest’s attention and convince him or her to buy a featured beverage requires planning, creativity and an understanding of the guest, the venue and the service staff, not to mention good execution. Oh, and you need the numbers to work. In other words, a great promotion is more than just a pretty piece of POS.

To see just how a successful promotion comes together, Nightclub & Bar went back in time with Pete Bell, vice president of marketing at Orlando-based Smokey Bones Bar & Fire Grill, and Stafford, Texas-based beverage promotion firm Patrick Henry Creative Promotions, and retraced the development of the 69-unit chain’s 2008 Summer Pitcher program. Why this particular program? Well, any promo that moves 75,000 drinks in eight weeks and jump-starts bar sales in the process is worth examining.

“The bar is the heart of the restaurant at Smokey Bones — it’s large and centrally located — but it was underutilized,” says Bell. The chain was acquired by Sun Capital Partners in late 2007 from Darden Restaurants. “Alcohol was 8.5 percent of sales, although it had been in the teens in the concept’s early years.”

In 2008, Bell’s team set out to grow beverage alcohol to 20 percent of total sales in 24 months. “We knew we needed a summer promotion with more than a few beer specials to get things going,” he says. A specific dollar or percent sales gain goal was not established because Bell saw re-energizing the Smokey Bones bar as the true objective. “We wanted to give the guest another reason to come to Smokey Bones, to realize we had a great bar to come after their own game or to watch a game, celebrate or just socialize.”

“I’d never worked in an alcohol concept before and we were flying blind,” he recalls. “We needed something up and running quickly, so we had little time for learning curve; we needed experience.”

Bell reached out to Patrick Henry Creative Promotions (PHCP). Spearheading the effort at Smokey Bones were Bell and director of marketing Tiffany Walker, along with vice president of operations support John McLaughlin. From PHCP came president Patrick Henry, account executive Jessica Massey, drink development and training manager Jess Hix and assistant art director Holly McAllister.

Program Development
Following a successful March Madness beer promotion, Bell went into high gear to get a summer program in place. Henry visited the restaurants and met with Bell, and in April PHCP presented three drink programs. The one that sparked Bell’s interest involved a series of summery libations served in 16-ounce pitchers.

“We always like the idea of a visual presentation, and these little pitchers seemed like they’d work with the casual nature of Smokey Bones,” explains Henry.

“Based on what we knew of our guest, we felt that would be a hit,” Bell recalls. “These little vessels going across the bar and the dining room, the server pouring at the table — it created some fun and a chance for the server to interact with the guest over beverages. It just seemed like it would work for our objectives.”

The compressed timeline — it was scheduled to launch in late June — drove several elements of the program, one being drink development. PHCP’s Hicks created nine cocktails using brands already on the Smokey Bones back bar. “There really was no time to introduce new brands,” says Henry. “Also, we needed manager buy-in. If we had given them two or three new brands to put in place, some would do it, some wouldn’t be able to get them and some would complain. Then you roll a big new promotion and not everyone is ready. We wanted to remove any obstacles to manager engagement, so we went with what they already had on hand.”

Responsible service and cost control were priorities for Smokey Bones, so Hicks ensured each drink contained between 1.5 and 2 ounces of alcohol. “Our costs were 18 to 20 percent, which was excellent,” says Bell. “And our servers were comfortable selling the pitchers because while it was a 16-ounce pitcher, they knew the alcohol content was reasonable.”

Pricing was set at a modest $5.45 for lemonades and teas and $5.99 for Sangrias. “We were thrilled to see that pricing structure. If they had slapped an $11.99 price on these, they’d never sell,” Henry observes.

Sourcing the pitchers quickly proved challenging. “I was running around the NRA Show in May, taking pictures of pitchers with my cell phone and sending them off to our team at headquarters,” quips Bell. “We needed 10,000 pitchers in the stores in four weeks! I found one from Cardinal that I liked — some were in stock, others could be imported and rushed to us. The folks at our distributor, Edward Don & Co., said they would work with Cardinal and make it happen.”

POS Materials
While Bell wanted to make a big bar statement, he also wanted to keep the point-of-sale materials simple. “That was the right approach,” agrees Henry. “There’s so much visual pollution in a bars today. You really want to be clear and simple.”

The Summer Pitchers POS vehicle was a four-sided, stand-alone table tent; three sides described one of the pitcher cocktail styles, while the fourth offered a Corona bucket special. Color photography showcased the pitcher drinks.

“The stand-alone piece also allowed the server to come over to the table, reference the piece and point out the drinks to the guests and talk about them, which was a new element for us,” Bell notes.

Simplicity also was the secret to the success of the training materials. Unit managers received a program overview and pre-shift training materials; servers were given “cheat sheets” outlining drink flavor profiles, pricing and selling suggestions. Recipe rolodex cards at the bar guided servers and bartenders in preparing the cocktails.

“With any promotion, the training is crucial to ensuring execution, and these materials helped train servers and reinforce the program so it could be executed properly,” Massey says.

Training was implemented by Smokey Bones’ training team and involved a program overview and role playing to make servers comfortable with the selling techniques.

Roll-out & Results
With pitchers finally in stores, managers on board, servers and bartenders trained and POS in place, Smokey Bones launched the Summer Pitchers program on June 23, 2008. “It immediately totally blew our doors off,” Bell enthuses. Ten thousand pitchers were purchased systemwide in the first week.

Sales leveled out at 7,000 pitchers per week, spiking to 10,000 on certain weeks. All told, 75,000 pitchers were sold from June 23 to August 31; bottled beer sales also increased.

Adjustments were made based on guest behavior. “It turned out that many guests preferred to drink out of the pitchers, so we stopped bringing the 14-ounce glass with ice and just served it with straws,” explains Bell. “There was a lot of sharing going on, also, in which case we’d provide glasses.”

Smokey Bones guests were so fond of the pitchers that many made off with them in handbags or under jackets. “We should have put the Smokey Bones logo on them — great marketing value!” Bell says.

Women were the biggest fans of the program, and the Twisted Teas and Sangria sold extremely well. The interactive aspect was appealing: When Smokey Bones locations were busy, servers would stroll through the lobby with pitchers offering samples to adult guests waiting for tables. “And any time a pitcher went across the dining room, a few more were ordered almost immediately,” Bell says.

Smokey Bones made great strides toward its overall objective, according to Bell. “Managers are now engaged with the bar. We’ve given guests another reason to come to the restaurants and they realize we have a great bar. The energy level here is much higher,” he explains. “With our costs at 18 to 20 percent, Summer Pitchers was a great profit center for us.” What’s more, alcohol now generates approximately 14 percent of sales, a trend Bell says was jump-started by Summer Pitchers.

Next Steps
The South of the Border Sweet Tea and Twisted Tropical Tea were so popular that they were added to the regular drink menu after the promotion ended. The pitchers returned for summer 2009, this time with five colorful drinks involving Three Olives flavored vodkas, priced $5.99 to $6.49. “Coming into this year’s program, we reached out to suppliers and brought in some new partners. A lot of suppliers see we’re focusing on beverage and they really want to work with us,” Bell notes.

Smokey Bones is still working off existing pitcher inventory, so the pitchers for this summer’s program aren’t logoed, but Bell hopes to order vessels bearing the chain’s logo soon. Currently, he says, “about 70 percent of operations and marketing efforts are around the bar. This program really got us focused and got the guest engaged.” NCB

Great Promotions, Step by Step

Although Smokey Bones is a 69-unit chain, the process, insights and lessons learned are applicable to almost any operator looking to present an effective and efficient drink promotion.

  •    Know your guest, but be open-minded. “Think outside your four walls,” says Patrick Henry of Patrick Henry Creative Promotions, Stafford, Texas.
  •    Get buy-in from the managers, bartenders and servers through training and server incentives.
  •    Ensure proper execution: Train! Train! Train!
  •    Create realistic expectations for the program.
  •    Measure results
  •    Learn and do it better next time!

Summer Pitcher Drinks

Citrus Sun Sangria – Absolut Citron, Yellow Tail Chardonnay, fresh citrus juices

Berry Burst Sangria – Stoli Strasberi, Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi Merlot, fresh fruit juices

Blush Sangria – Absolut Mandrin, Sutter Home White Zinfandel and fresh fruit juices

South of the Border Sweet Tea – Southern Comfort, Stolichnaya, Sauza Gold Tequila, triple sec, Finest Call Sweet & Sour Mix, splash of Coke

Irish Apple – Jameson Irish Whiskey, DeKuyper Sour Apple Pucker, Finest Call Sweet & Sour Mix

Twisted Tropical Tea – Malibu Coconut, DeKuyper Banana Liqueur, Finest Call Sweet & Sour Mix, pineapple juice, splash of Coke

Cranberry Crush Lemonade – Absolut Citron, triple sec, cranberry juice, Finest Call
Cosmopolitan Mix, Finest Call Sweet & Sour Mix, topped with Sprite

Berry Wave Lemonade – Stolichnaya, DeKuyper Raspberry Rush and lemonade, topped with Sprite

Log Cabin Limeade – Absolut Citron, Hiram Walker Pomegranate, fresh lime juice, Sprite

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