Beverage specials drive business, but they can also train guests to follow the dollar. Jeff Van Dyke, managing partner and co-founder of beer specialist Brixx Wood Fired Pizza, offers tips to differentiate any beer program.
Brixx has been serving craft beer since it opened its first location in 1998 in a tiny space in Charlotte, North Carolina. Now with 25 locations, we work hard on using fun and a little education to encourage our guests to try beers that delight them and showcase our food. That way, we introduce guests to their new favorite beer—and they think of us first when they’re ready to sip it again or pair it with food.
1. Populate With Your Passions
Craft beer has been with Brixx since we opened our first location. Managing partner Eric Horsley and I were big fans of emerging craft beer brands, and that presented an opportunity.
On our personal time, we hunted for new, exciting beers to try and sampled the first wave of microbrews bubbling up around Charlotte. As we developed the concept that would become Brixx, instead of populating the beer list with known domestics, we figured a craft beer focus would help us stand out from the competition—or, at the very least, be a lot of fun. We were right.
Although many guests were unfamiliar with the names on the beer list when Brixx started, the enthusiasm with which we as well as our managers talked about these unknown beers was infectious. Guests loved feeling like they’d discovered beers their friends hadn’t. Little by little, they encouraged exploration and built the reputation of Brixx as a place to try new things, and that paired well with our spin on gourmet pizza. Without their palpable passion, it may not have worked. This goes for any restaurant: get spirited about your beverages. Our guests were excited because we were excited.
2. Empower Your Staff
We have 25 locations in North and South Carolina, Virginia, Georgia, and Tennessee, but our beer lists are not centrally controlled. While every Brixx has a few of the same breweries on tap at all times, managers have plenty of open taps to try out local and regional brews or other beers. I’ve found that freedom invigorates managers’ passion about the beverages they’re serving. And, it gives them a vehicle to continue looking for the next, great, strangely named craft beer that will blow their minds—and those of their guests.
There’s absolutely no substitute for the power of your front-of-the-house staff. No matter how great the promotional idea, managers, bartenders, and staff are often the most vital component to whether a beer keg gets kicked or languishes in the walk-in. We don’t want our employees to like their location’s beer list; we want them to love it. So, take the time to educate your staff. Let them sample new beers. More importantly, talk about which beers pair well with items on the menu. There’s no better classroom than at the bar or the table, and introducing a guest to a new beverage she’ll come back just to order is powerful.
3. Don’t Fall Prey to Commonplace Beer Specials
Interspersed with regular beer tastings and pint nights, we schedule smaller events infused with personality and surprise, and these help us distinguish ourselves in a marketplace replete with run-of-the-mill beer specials and predictable beverage events.
With special seasonal brews, for example, we try to be first—or last. If we can’t be the first one in town to carry a seasonal brew, like Highland’s Cold Mountain winter ale or Foothills’ Sexual Chocolate stout, we hold it in the cooler until word on the street is that no one in the area has the beer. This allows us to give our guests a little late-season surprise while awareness is still high
Pop culture creativity helps us stay relevant. During Girl Scout cookie season, our location in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, did a beer and cookie tasting with New Belgium that sold out in hours. Around the Breaking Bad series finale in 2013, our Woodbridge, Virginia, location created “Breakin’ Bacon,” an event pairing beers and house-made gourmet bacons. Both were huge hits because they paralleled conversations our guests were already having in their daily lives. And when Brewery Ommegang issued its Take the Black Stout brew in May to coincide with season four of “Game of Thrones,” we gave away limited edition globe glasses to those who ordered it … but only after they spoke aloud the oath of the Night’s Watch from the show.
4. Make the Beer Experience Interactive
People want to drink what their friends are drinking. We want them to see their friends drinking at Brixx.
During the launch of New Belgium’s Snapshot Wheat, we created special frame cards for social media play. Guests photographed their Snapshot brews, or themselves with the brews, using the frames we provided and posted the snapshots to Instagram. We were among the first in the country to tie in with New Belgium this way.
We also work hard to answer all Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook posts to thank and encourage guests who share their positive Brixx experiences, a simple way to make guests feel appreciated.
In a similar vein, when sending emails about our events, we take a little extra time to make each one different. Templates are nice, but they’re not very inspiring. Our guests get hundreds of emails and texts a day. For us to make the cut, we need to be clever. Sometimes the difference between a killer beer event and a failure is creating a little excitement around it.
Case in point: when planning a cask tapping for Great Lakes’ Lake Erie Monster, we created an email that looked like it was straight out of the pages of the National Enquirer. The event killed the keg in hours. We didn’t give away free swag or sell it at a low price. We just made the event look cool with an e-mail that cut through the clutter of the inbox.
Finally, the world of beer is exploding, and can be intimidating to those dipping their toes in the water (or fingers in the keg). Kölsch, dubbel, tripel, saison: if we can teach customers something that makes them more comfortable with our beverages, we’ve created a valuable connection. At Brixx, we use several methods to teach our guests about beer: our Masters of Beer Appreciation program, a wallet-sized card that has a list of beers for guests to cross off; beer dinners and tastings; pairing cards; and social media and our website. Through these, we impart little snippets of knowledge that our guests gobble up.
When a guest learns something new about a beer, a brewery, or a style of beer, they’re not only more likely to buy that beer again, but also to keep learning and try new beers. Today’s sip of a Sierra Nevada Torpedo leads to tomorrow’s 21st Amendment’s Hell or High Watermelon. It also leads from today’s $2.50 domestic order to tomorrow’s $6.50 craft beer purchase at a special cask tapping.