Entrepreneurial restaurant groups are defined by their ability to create a portfolio of distinctive and, typically, quite diverse concepts. Moana Restaurant Group, based in San Rafael, California, certainly embraces this approach with a family of 32 restaurant properties ranging from relaxed tavern to white tablecloth. At each of these properties, the restaurant’s approach to beer service is as varied as the concepts.
Moana’s president, Jon Swanson, recalls the previous surge of interest in beer that took place back in the ’90s, particularly in terms of brewpubs. For him, the recent fascination with craft is distinctly different and ultimately threads through pretty much every segment of the restaurant industry. “It’s at a much higher level—a much bigger level than it was then,” Swanson explains. “But it’s a similar consciousness.” He notes that comparable things could be said of many other industry aspects: from wine and spirits to artisanal food products.
The restaurant group has stepped up to satisfy consumer expectations, particularly in terms of better beer selection. “We’ve embraced it greatly; it is not going to go away,” Swanson says. While some of Moana’s properties such as Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens–Liberty Station are particularly focused on beer, even the restaurants dedicated to wine, spirits, or a more balanced beverage menu are pouring craft beer. “I just think the public is way more sophisticated and knowledgeable now [about craft beer],” he adds. “That’s really where the expectation is.”
Moana, which came together as a restaurant group about 15 years ago, added nine Lark Creek properties to its portfolio in January. Some Moana restaurants have as few as four draft handles; others have more than 50. “We don’t have a corporate beer program, or a core beer list that is consistent throughout,” Swanson explains. “Every restaurant has a different beer list that is decided upon and driven by our chefs and general managers.”
For instance, at The Farmers Union, an upscale farm-to-table tavern in San Jose, the emphasis on craft beer tends to equal that of Stone. While at Paragon in San Francisco, which is located a block from AT&T Park, the beer offering is more tightly tuned to baseball season and accommodates the crowd accordingly.
The Farmers Union
Beer takes center stage at The Farmers Union for good reason: The restaurant sells nearly twice as much beer as wine or liquor, and beer accounts for 25 percent of the restaurant’s net sales. Up until the past year or so, The Farmers Union stocked its two pairs of 26-tap draft systems with selections like dual Corona kegs and dual Blue Moon kegs. Now, the restaurant no longer has two kegs of any single beer on tap.
Brian McClain, the restaurant’s bar manager, says they have also stopped carrying mainstream retail products like bottled Guinness and Amstel Light. “If there’s a commercial for it, we probably don’t want it,” McClain says. Aside from a few things he keeps off-menu for cellaring and special occasions, the restaurant’s focus is fully craft beer on tap.
Of the 52 taps, only a dozen or so remain constant year-round. Trumer Pils is always on, as sort of a middle-ground option for guests who would normally look for something light. The Farmers Union keeps about five stouts, four porters, and a few Belgian or sour beers, plus a couple of ciders, pilsners, and wheat beers. The rest are all hoppy releases ranging from session to triple IPAs.
“Right now, IPAs are going to pretty much outsell everything,” McClain explains.
As for serving the brews, one-offs from a brewery often come with their own glassware, and the restaurant is usually working with 12 to 15 different beer glasses behind its bar. Pour sizes are based on abv, price, and keg rarity. For beers with particularly limited availability, McClain will often restrict service to the restaurant’s fixed sampler flights, which are priced around $14 for four 5-ounce pours. This practice helps ensure that regular guests have a better chance to try these beers.
The beer selection tends to set The Farmers Union apart from other restaurants in the area, and customers often call to check what’s new. “We want people to get an experience that they haven’t had before,” McClain says.
Stone Brewing – Liberty Station
Inside an old naval training center in San Diego’s Point Loma area is one of the largest restaurants in the county: Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens–Liberty Station. It opened in May 2013 and can seat up to 860 people, which figures into many of the decisions the restaurant has made with its beverage program.
Unlike The Farmers Union, the restaurant uses only two types of glasses for full-size pours—an 8-ounce stemmed glass and a 15-ounce tulip—as the restaurant space is just too large to deal with additional glassware logistics. It also offers a 4-ounce taster, which is a priority according to Kyle Suckiel, the restaurant’s beverage coordination manager. As he explains, “We want people to have an opportunity to experience a wide range of beers.”
The restaurant has two bars operating independently of one another with 30 and 40 taps apiece, a private event room with another 12 taps, and a 10-barrel brewing system on-site.
While Moana Restaurant Group oversees the financial and operational aspects, Suckiel says, “Stone is more the face, the name, and the philosophy behind everything.”
Around half of the draft offerings are Stone products, including six to eight that are brewed at Liberty Station, and 75 percent of the beer list rotates. Avery’s White Rascal is the highest-seller. The bottle list consists of about 120 beers that are cellar-able and frequently barrel-aged.
Pints are generally priced at $7, while 8-ounce pours of higher abv offerings are $5. It’s a somewhat aggressive pricing strategy for the area, and Suckiel notes that both the prices and the variety of beer figure heavily into the restaurant’s success. The strategy and selection have prompted a shift away from “safety beers,” like White Rascal (a witbier) and AleSmith Nut Brown, to less-familiar styles. “People’s palates have gotten more sophisticated,” he explains.
San Francisco’s Paragon
The San Francisco location of Paragon Restaurant & Bar is less focused on the beer side of things but still has 12 offerings on draft and another 20 available in bottles. “When you’re comparing us to The Farmers Union and Stone, we’re definitely on a much smaller scale,” notes general manager Matthew Dondanville in describing the Paragon beer program.
As was the situation for The Farmers Union, Paragon previously focused on Bud Light, Coors Light, and similar macros as its standard offerings. About five years ago, the restaurant doubled its draft tower size from a half dozen to its current size. Paragon also switched over all of the taps to craft offerings. The effect, Dondanville reports, was quite lucrative. “We started selling a lot more beer.”
Paragon’s bottle selection now is about half craft beer while the other half is macros. “My bottle selection has mainly been reserved for my baseball fans who are going to want Bud Light, Coors Light, and Corona,” he explains. While drink orders are normally heavier in wine and cocktails, “the whole beverage program kind of flips during baseball season.”
Overall, about 75 percent of Paragon’s draft list rotates regularly, with Lagunitas Pils, Stone IPA, and a selection from Anchor Brewing sticking around as constants. Dondanville typically aims for non-flagship offerings from craft breweries that customers are likely to recognize. “We don’t play to the beer geek crowd,” he notes, “because that’s just not our neighborhood.” Higher-alcohol drafts are served in 10.5-ounce pours, and all draft offerings are priced at $6.25.
Dondanville has seen his guests shift away from big, higher-alcohol IPAs in favor of lighter, session styles. Fortunately, the autonomous nature of the restaurant group means Paragon’s beer program can shift course as appropriate, evolving right along with its customers.