How one chef and restaurant owner is using spirits, wine, and beer partners to create attention-grabbing programs and promotions.

As the state of the pandemic—and the restaurant industry—remains in flux, consumers are more cautious than ever about returning to dine-in service. From the patron’s end, there are many factors to consider. While a majority may be eager to return to their favorite restaurant, they must evaluate if it is safe to do so based on local and federal guidelines, their own comfort levels and what restaurants are doing for precautionary measures.

Customers may also be worried about the financial impact of dining out if they have sustained economic losses during the pandemic or if they are now used to cooking and eating at home, which is often a less expensive option. However, at the end of the day, people love restaurants because they offer an experience that just cannot be replicated elsewhere.

To address this, first and foremost, as operators and chefs, we must focus on the health and safety of our facilities and employees. Once safety guidelines and protocols are established and followed carefully, the creativity that this industry is known for can come back into play. Restaurants must use this creativity to stand out from their peers in order to draw in customers.

One way to do so is to use spirits, wine and beer partners to create attention-grabbing programs and promotions. Restaurants usually rely on alcohol to account for about 30 percent of revenue, but during the pandemic beverage sales can make even more of an impact to help operations stay afloat. And while many companies in the beverage industry did experience a rise in sales recently, these folks are still eager to ramp up on-premise sales, too, and leveraging them as a partner can be mutually beneficial for both parties. But in what ways can you leverage your partners successfully?

We were faced with this very challenge at my restaurant, Elvie’s, in Jackson, Mississippi. We re-opened at the end of May, and while some of our regulars returned right away, we knew we still wanted to draw in some new faces. During a pandemic, you can’t just throw a “grand re-opening” party, so it took some brainstorming. We landed on an event dubbed “Rosé-Palooza,” which would be an all-day affair centered around tasting flights of rosé. Though instead of a regular party, we hosted Rosé-Palooza like a normal dinner service, so all patrons would be socially separate and employees would have minimal, masked contact.

We offered fun branded shirts, snack pairings and deals on bottles to make it really feel like a special event. When it came to picking the rosé wines, we had plenty of good options thanks to our beverage partners. One of the crowd favorites was a dry Spanish rosé from Olé & Obrigado called Liquid Geography; the brand donates 100 percent of its profits to the TJ Martell Foundation in its search for cancer cures, World Central Kitchen which is an organization devoted to providing meals in the wake of natural disasters, and Wheeling Forward which helps people with disabilities experience life to the fullest. It only felt fitting that this celebration could help give back to others, too. If you’re considering your own “event,” be sure to pay attention to those small details which will make the customer not only comfortable, but excited to dine again.

Another way to get creative—and give back—while leveraging a beverage partner is to collaborate with a local craft brewery; according to industry trade group Brewers Association, craft brewers are one sector of the industry that also are not faring well during the pandemic. One instance of a successful restaurant-brewery collaboration comes from Nashville: a popular hot chicken restaurant called Party Fowl teamed up with local brewery Tailgate Brewery to create a special-edition beer called “Dill With It.” The dill pickle Kölsch beer was designed to pair perfectly with the restaurant’s famous hot chicken, and was available for a limited time in order to entice customers out of the house and into the restaurant.

Not only did this collaboration catch the attention of customers and the media, but it serves as a strong example for other operators as a good way to create a win-win situation for both a restaurant and a local beverage partner. With many bars and breweries still shuttered, now is the time for a fun collaboration that will help out a fellow member of the hospitality community.

Lastly, one idea for restaurants at this time could be to get involved with a barrel program to create a truly one-of-a-kind spirit for their establishment. While barrel programs themselves are nothing new, some spirits brands have stepped up their game. For example, Código 1530, a premium tequila, offers an immersive process that involves restaurateurs from the very beginning. One of the tequila’s restaurant partners, Puesto, an award-winning Mexican artisan kitchen & bar based in California, took a trip to Código’s distillery in Amatitán (before COVID-19 hit) to work with the team there to sample, handpick and even combine different barrels to create its “Puesto Private Reserve” blend with a completely custom taste and unique color—it’s pink tequila.

The restaurant even designed its own bottle labels. The bottle is sold as a part of the restaurant’s to-go offerings, and the spirit will reportedly be incorporated into a signature cocktail, too. While Puesto’s blended custom spirit is truly one-of-a-kind, many companies also offer barrel program selection via samples sent by mail, for times like today when travel is limited. Offering a unique spirit within a signature cocktail can be used to promote a reopening and will have customers eager to try something they never have before and can’t get anywhere else.

So whether you throw a safe, socially-distant event, collaborate with a local purveyor, or and offer a one-of-a-kind spirit, there are many ways to leverage beverage partners during this uncertain time. A unique, easy-to-execute idea could help sales ramp back up—and will make customers excited about the prospect of enjoying a good glass of wine, a cold beer or a fun cocktail somewhere other than their own home.

Hunter Evans is the owner and executive chef of Elvie’s in Jackson, Mississippi, which offers a modern, Southern take on classic French cuisine. Before returning home to Jackson, Evans earned his degree at Culinary Institute of America and worked at acclaimed restaurateur Danny Meyer of Union Square Hospitality’s North End Grille after graduating. When he’s not in the kitchen, Evans enjoys forming relationships with local farmers and purveyors to showcase regional ingredients and their heritage through cooking.

Expert Takes, Feature