It’s an old motto in marketing that people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. This impetus to tell your brand’s story is increasingly being told by describing where a restaurant’s food and beverages come from. When well executed, the emphasis on sourcing is not just a novelty, it’s a language through which to express both tangible and intangible aspects of what your restaurant represents, and beverage menus provide fodder to tell that story eloquently.
As you drive through the gnarled wooden gates of the Honeysuckle Tea House in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, you start to feel as though you’ve wandered into some sort of panoramic dreamscape where the breeze is always flowing and there’s always a lazy dog or two lounging by the pond. It’s hard to tell if the smells of lavender, mint, and tulsi are coming from the raised beds brimming with herbs to the right, or from the teas, smoothies, and syrups being mixed and served to the customers relaxing inside the open-air wooden structure sitting atop a handful of aging storage containers. Amidst such an interweaving of the senses, the environment of the Honeysuckle Tea House and the drinks served there cannot be separated—which is part of the point, really.
“We wanted to open a space where we could have the plants and herbs available to people not only in packaged form, but available in a tangible way so that they could walk around and smell them and interact with them,” owner Tim Toben says.
At the Honeysuckle Tea House, nearly all of the ingredients within the jars of tea lining the wall behind the register can be found on-site—from the traditional Camellia sinensis tea leaves (which are growing by the acre in plain view) to the elderberries and herbs that find their way into many of the blends. Guests can also find pastries and coffee from local purveyors.
By interacting with the ecosystem in such a transparent way, the Tea House has become something of a singular eco-system in it’s own right—a place that Toben says people visit both “as a place to get away to, and really a place to arrive at.” This is local sourcing at its most tangible extreme, and by tying the end products so strongly to its singular sense of place, the Tea House has managed to create a phenomenon that has transformed a stop for delicious and thoughtfully crafted beverages into a destination. Now in its second year of operation, the venue has already doubled its first-year profits.
“It’s far surpassed our expectations,” Toben says. “It’s really been a pretty surprising reception to these local drinks coming from local plants—basically, it’s those local elements being converted and expressed as the drinks we serve.”
Resident herbalist Rachel Zingone says she sees how the proximity of sourcing affects customers everyday. “Really it’s a sensory experience where you can just see and touch and smell the plant when it’s growing—not just when you’re having it in your beverage,” she says. “And that’s huge for people, because it makes it much more real and accessible.”
Following with this tradition of making local products more accessible and connecting people to the land, Toben says the Tea House may start providing some of its house-made syrups—for mixing into sodas or cocktails—for sale at other local vendors. “Our hope is that putting the products out there will draw people back here, and people will be curious about where it came from,” Toben says. “We just have to be sure that the ethos doesn’t change—we still want it to express our story and be authentically us.”
At Teance, which supplies tea to restaurants such as Berkeley, California’s Comal and New York City’s Eleven Madison Park, director and professional tea buyer Winnie Yu doesn’t source locally, or even within the U.S. Still, for her and for Teance’s customers, the place of origin is the single most important factor for the authenticity of the product. Yu only selects teas grown from its source region, where terroir melds with long traditions of tea production from family farmers who take pride in their finished product and have generations of experience honing their production methods.
For Yu, blends represent the enemy of what Teance seeks to provide: Single-source artisan teas that win over consumers with their rich narrative and complex flavors. By contrast, Yu says that the concept of the “tea blend” originally came about to obliterate the need for region and tradition in favor of mass production—which, she adds, has lowered the value perception of the beverage in the minds of many U.S. consumers as something that is cheaply available in machine-manufactured bags. In other words, she believes the product has become too far separated from any sort of meaningful narrative. Instead, by providing tea that is anything but reproducible and generic, Teance is able to cater to a customer base that is placing an increasing level of value on where—and who—the products they consume come from.
“You can’t grow teas in any place you want, and you certainly can’t grow quality teas from any place you want, and with the internet and the availability of information, consumers are finally starting to get a lot more knowledge about the origin of their teas and why that’s valuable,” she says, citing the exploding number of blogs devoted to seeking out authentic traditions surrounding tea.
The blends produced by some larger brands, which recreate flavors by pulling from plantations the world over, miss more than just the mark of distinction and rarity of single-source tea—Yu says that sourcing this way removes years of expertise and quality assurance that can’t be learned from anything but tradition. “Like the tradition of making anything, you have to have that experience to know how to do it, and also you have to have a tradition of value and demand for one to be motivated to do something of a higher quality,” she explains.
Bringing that level of quality to the mainstream tea market could spell victory for restaurants and consumers seeking to get more value out of their beverage, while justifying a higher price point for premium offerings. Being able to trace your beverage back to its birthplace is a draw for customers who seek supply chain transparency and want to know more not only about the place of production, but the human element therein.
“The importance of sourcing is not just with the terroir—you really need the people behind it,” Yu says. “If you’re not dealing with a place that has people who are passionate about their craft, you’re never going to come up with a premium-level tea.”
With the higher quality, higher payoff, and higher consumer perception associated with mindful sourcing, it’s worth a look to see how customers will relate to new offerings that humanize and elevate your beverage menu.
This sense of origin as a two-part connection between people and place is especially evident in the popularity of—and respect for—beer brewed in a select few Trappist monasteries around the world, where monks are using centuries-old recipes that that add high-dollar offerings to beer menus and garner high sales and appreciation from beer-savvy patrons.
To be able to display the Approved Trappist Product logo, each monastery must follow a strict set of practices and submit to a thorough audit in order to protect the authenticity and value inherent in the mark. Only 11 monasteries possess this coveted designation of origin. Trappist beers are the product of a unique combination of each abbey’s well water, proprietary yeast, and centuries of refinement.
Jérôme Goffinet is a monk at the Scourmont Abbey in Chimay, Belgium, and he’s one of the few brewers in the world working within a brewing community whose mission is “to give their economy a soul.” The resulting quality of the monastery’s sought-after Chimay ales comes from what Goffinet describes as an inseparable connection between the people and the place in question. “The monks aren’t working for themselves,” he says. “They don’t need the money. They’re maintaining the quality by using the materials that can only be found here, and they’re working for the long term, because after them, there will always be someone else.”
Anyone can buy hops, anyone can buy malt, but no one can use the Trappist yeast or the monastery’s water, which Goffinet says makes all of the difference in a product that is, of course, 90 percent water.
In contrast with Toben’s transparency at the Honeysuckle Tea House, Chimay’s Trappist ales benefit from the supposed secrecy that surrounds them.
“People’s ideas and curiosity about what it’s like within the monastery, and the fact that all of the brewing knowledge is kept inside, gives it a sense of secrecy,” Goffinet explains. “Consumers are interested because its so unique this way, and because there is so much history behind it.”
The latest monastery to be approved for the designation is right here in the U.S., in Spencer, Maryland, where the monks of St. Joseph’s Abbey brew Spencer Trappist Ale. Spencer produces a golden-hued ale with fruity accents, a dry finish, and light hop bitterness that is unfiltered, unpasteurized, and already winning more than its fair share of awards since traveling from its exclusive spot at the resident monks’ dining tables to the broader public.
While your restaurant may not use the profits of Trappist beer sales for charitable work like the monks do, your consumers will know that your business is simultaneously supporting exclusive quality and a philanthropic mission—something that can be difficult to come by in a single product, and something that is especially difficult to convey on a beer menu.
The Farmer’s Restaurant Group is also using alcohol to tell stories—and not just the type you hear around the bar. The company behind Founding Farmers and Farmers Fishers Bakers is set to open a brand new concept—Farmers & Distillers. The group grounds all of its restaurants on a foundation of seasonal ingredients sourced from American family farms. “One of our taglines is ‘true food, true drink,’ and it doesn’t get any more true than going to the source of it all,” beverage director and managing partner at the Farmers Restaurant Group, Jon Arroyo, says. Behind the bar, that always meant mixing everything in-house. “So why not take it one step further and try to go in the direction of curating spirits ourselves?”
Farmers & Distillers, which is slated to open in Mount Vernon Square in Washington, D.C., in mid-2016, will be the embodiment of this challenge: to take local principles and apply it to a new business idea. The lightbulb-moment for this latest iteration occurred during a conversation Arroyo had with one of the restaurant’s owners, who was talking about adding an extensive whiskey list to the new concept’s menu.
“My immediate retort was, ‘Well, did you realize that historically, all distillers are farmers? They made whatever they had. So if there was corn or rye, that’s what they were going to distill,” Arroyo remembers. That conversation provided the connective tissue between the in-house drink program and its locally sourced food—creating cohesion between all aspects of the menu and the company’s culture. Arroyo says he has plans to not only expand the restaurant’s whiskey offerings, but also to add some new liquor to the lineup from the in-house distillery.
Being in Mount Vernon Square, Arroyo also inevitably took some inspiration from the consummate agrarian, George Washington, whom he says took everything around him and turned it into an entrepreneurial venture. Following Washington’s lead, Arroyo and the rest of the team have been looking at the area around the restaurant to pinpoint influences they could use to provide a distinctive experience.
“That’s what it always comes down to. Of course you want to have good food and good drinks, but ultimately, you want to leave the guest with a good experience,” Arroyo says. “And experiences live in having authenticity and having a story that stems from a place that’s real.”
Though your concept’s story may stem from an idea rather than a geographical place—be it an idea of sustainable sourcing, superior quality, or just exceptionally delicious drinks—those core ideals can be expressed in a very real, tangible way by creating your beverage menu to tell that authentic story. This story might be about your restaurant’s connection to its local community, a far-away culture of craftspeople, or the inspiration of makers right in the store. Whatever it might be, customers appreciate a good story, and they’re sure to appreciate it even more after a few equally good drinks.