Inspired by their travels in Europe, brothers Mike and Brian McMenamin opened Portland, Oregon’s Barley Mill Pub in 1983. In the era of Coors and Budweiser on tap, the brothers dreamed of offering more variety, including house-brewed options. A pesky Oregon law, however, prohibited the duo from brewing and selling beer from the same site.
Rather than accept the status quo, the brothers lobbied for change. In 1985, they launched Hillsdale Brewery & Public House, the first McMenamin brothers’ restaurant to offer its own brews, and in 1990 the duo added house-made wines to their repertoire. Today, the McMenamins’ restaurant empire has 50-plus Oregon establishments serving more than 200 house-made beer recipes and dozens of house-made wines each year.
“We couldn’t imagine doing it any other way,” says McMenamins marketing director Renee Rank.
While brewing and winemaking is a laborious task, those who do it successfully say it produces an array of benefits, including heightened profitability and an artisan edge. In fact, Scott Maitland, owner of Top of the Hill restaurant and brewery in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, believes in-house brewing answers one of current society’s existential needs.
“People want novel experiences and authentic connections with their food and beverage, which means today’s restaurants have to be more hands-on,” Maitland says. “Creating our own beer and spirits allows us to do just that.”
Seth Gross, owner of Bull City Burger and Brewery, a three-year-old fast casual in downtown Durham, North Carolina, calls in-house brewing “a great adventure” and one with significant financial appeal. Selling $4.50 pints of his authentic beers, as well as offbeat concoctions such as pumpkin beer and jalapeno beer, Gross earns about $550 from each in-house keg.
“That’s far better than buying a keg and serving up beer people can get elsewhere,” says Gross, whose brewery has more than 50 beer recipes.
Operators with successful in-house brewing programs say building a following for in-house brews and wines requires strategy in marketing, promotion, and service of these house specialities. These pros share five tips to capitalize on house-made beer, wine, and spirits.
Spotlight house-made offerings.
While it might seem obvious, highlighting house-made beverages remains an elusive concept, as some restaurants promote other beers on their chalkboard or suggest other wines to complement signature entrees. Not so at Top of the Hill, where Maitland builds his spirits menu around drinks made with his award-winning, house-distilled TOPO Organic Spirits of vodka, gin, and wheat whiskey.
“I think it’s vitally important to share our in-house brewing story,” Maitland says.
Provide a reason for trial.
At the Hitching Post II, a 28-year-old, Buellton, California-based casual restaurant, owner, chef, and chief winemaker Frank Ostini reports that roughly 15 percent of his restaurant’s wine inventory—about 15 different choices—are house-made varieties. Even so, the Hitching Post labels account for more than 80 percent of the restaurant’s wine sales.
“We leverage our margins and price our wines so guests lean toward our brands,” Ostini says, adding that his restaurant also offers thoughtful food pairings and server suggestions to boost Hitching Post wine trials.
Tell and show.
At Bull City, all of Gross’ bartenders hold a Cicerone certificate, a beer sommelier credential, which allows them to inform guests and invite purchases by sharing knowledge. Bull City also hosts tours and classes, which build additional consumer interest and bring guests in direct contact with brewers.
“I want to be looked at as the local source of knowledge for beer,” says Gross, who names his beers after famous people, places, and things in Durham’s history to underscore his establishment’s local ties.
Similarly, Maitland offers tours of his distillery, located just blocks from Top of the Hill restaurant in downtown Chapel Hill.
“Playing that ambassador role and helping educate people in a personal way only drives interest in our products,” he says.
Patrons can only taste Top of the Hill’s beers at the restaurant. Maitland has six varieties on tap at all times, alongside two beers from his shop’s cask-conditioned ale program.
McMenamins’ beers and wines, meanwhile, are only available at one of the company’s 52 family-owned establishments. “That exclusivity helps,” Rank says. “When people want a McMenamins’ product, they have to come to us.”
… but recognize when branching out makes sense.
Hitching Post wines—produced at a custom crush facility where chief winemaker Ostini oversees the process from grape to bottle—are sold in restaurants throughout Southern California, as well as more than a dozen other states. Ostini says this provides his restaurant—located in a town of 5,000—invaluable name recognition.
“We can’t depend solely on our local clientele,” says Ostini, whose establishment also earned fame for its appearance in the 2004 film Sideways. “Having the Hitching Post wines available elsewhere draws people to our restaurant and makes us a destination.”
This story will run in the winter 2015 edition of RestaurantBev magazine.