The BAR (Beverage Alcohol for Restaurants) section of the National Restaurant Association annual conference has become as integral to the show floor as the bar scene is in restaurant settings, and BAR 15 debuted on Sunday with a lively keynote address from Sally Smith, CEO and president of Buffalo Wild Wings.
Smith, who says she personally veers to wine or perhaps a cocktail over beer, described in detail how significant the bar operations are to the BWW experience—and in particular, how important the beer offerings are to the brand.
“BWW is the No. 1 seller of draft beer in America,” Smith notes. “And beer is the No. 3 selling item on the menu.”
Beverage represents 25 percent of overall sales at BWW, and 75 percent of that beverage total is attributed to beer, with craft beer making up 34 percent of beer sales.
The company’s focus on beer dates to its earliest days, when the founders decided to offer an extensive list of imported beers as opposed to simply offering the cheapest beers, and in the 90’s, BWW introduced a 23-ounce draft beer glass to enhance the drinking experience.
That commitment to an elevated beer experience for guests has continued through the decades. In 2013, BWW introduced its Game Changer signature beer, and the company trains its servers to be able to execute a perfect pour of draft beer as well as to be able to discuss the brewers and styles of beer on the menu at length with guests.
As important as beer is to BWW, Smith says the brand is intent on offering a full bar experience. “Our beverage team looks at all aspects of a product to make sure it aligns with all aspects of the brand,” she explains, and there are ways to encourage guests to broaden their beverage experiences. “Beer cocktails are a bridge to get beer drinkers to expand beyond beer and also to get cocktail drinkers to try beer.”
Deciding what beverages to offer across 1,100 locations can be a challenge, particularly since laws governing the sell of alcoholic beverages vary from state to state. In some cases when laws restrict promotions or messaging around alcoholic beverages, BWW may not offer the complete beverage menu in every state.
Increasingly, the company is allowing and encouraging its restaurants—both company-owned and franchised—to include a selection of regional or local craft beers.
When choosing beers to menu, Smith cites a range of considerations such as whether the beer is consistent with the BWW brand, is it easily executed, is it the right timing to add the beer, and will the beer resonate with guests.
Somewhat surprising for a wing-themed, sports-focused brand, BWW reports 45 percent of its guests are female and that the preference for beer seems to have no gender bias: That 75 percent of beverage sales attributed to beer holds true for women as well as for men.
Sales of spirits are also growing, and while beer is the unrivaled leader, at least 50 percent of BWW guests drink cocktails so the company is eager to leverage potential opportunities in that area as well.
When asked how the company is addressing an industry-wide decline in beverage sales, Smith says BWW has to make its beverage menu guest-driven, servers have to be trained to know what they are selling and what appeals to guests, and the BWW beverage team has to stay ahead of what’s next in the world of beverage trends.