Old Chicago Keeps Beer Fresh


With the world of beer in such a state of flux, operations that feature the beverage as a cornerstone need to be ready to reinvent whenever trends change. Old Chicago’s rewards program is just one facet of the chain does so, and part of why they took home the 2015 VIBE Vista Award for Best Chain Restaurant Beer Program at the VIBE Conference.

That rewards program supports and expands the company’s strategic goals to be a beer destination restaurant. The beer program, which features a large variety of domestic and international choices (at least 45 different bottled selections as well as 36 or more draft options with a rotational schedule of craft beers), local and regional selections as well as seasonal and exclusive brews that are introduced throughout the year for a constant rotation of beers, presents more than 20 beer styles all told. 

To drive sales, the rewards program features a diverse selection including specialty craft brews created specifically for Old Chicago. Guests can experience a “Mini Tour” of eight beers introduced several times a year as part of the restaurant’s loyalty rewards program. The Mini Tours last for three weeks and guests who drink all eight selections receive a free themed T-shirt that fits the promotion. Beer lovers seeking a greater challenge can sign up to become members of Old Chicago’s “World Beer Tour.” Members receive an electronic card that tracks every beer on their around the globe tasting journey. Rewards include free food on birthdays, invites to exclusive members-only parties and other special offers. The tour is complete when a member consumes 110 beers and their name is forever emblazoned on the famous hall of foam wall.

Old Chicago units include a minimum of 36 taps in each restaurant with a rotation schedule of craft brews, authentic glassware and a free taster program. Chill blast spritzers quickly clean and chill each glass to ensure guests taste beer with no residue. Beer directors visit breweries to create the specialty craft brews, with some receiving major awards. For example, Deviant Dale’s India Pale Ale was originally brewed for Old Chicago’s “I Love Beer” Mini Tour and it received a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival (GABF).

To market their beers, Old Chicago employs digital menu boards, specialized beer menus, fresh sheets and more. The digital menu boards help promote the rotating beers and current Mini Tours as well as a countdown to the next Mini Tour. Old Chicago partnered with its sales promotion agency MarkeTeam Inc. to create a specialized beer menu that includes flavor profile descriptors, origin, ABV information and more. Draft and bottled selections are listed in the menu as well as beer blends and four different beer flights.

A decision tree is also included to help guests pair beer and food items. Sixteen different core beer menus were created to accommodate regional preferences for various locations. In addition to the new menu, a “fresh sheet” updated at least weekly but as needed lists current rotating beers which change frequently. The Mini Tour T-shirts and famous hall of foam wall also helps market the beer program.

All executives, regional managers and training managers at Old Chicago are certified beer servers and have passed at least the level one Cicerone Program. This program covers beer storage techniques, proper service, as well as beer styles and culture. An overview of beer tasting, flavors and a basic knowledge about the brewing process and ingredients are also covered. Additionally, Old Chicago’s manager of beer operations partnered with its training program company to improve the video-based beer training which was rolled out to every restaurant prior to the new menu launch.

Since the new beer menu was introduced, craft beer sales have increased and in 2014, craft beer sales grew more than five percent - Old Chicago attributes this increase primarily to the new menu and updated training. “Thanks to a great new menu, enhanced training and the best team in the industry, we’ve experienced a 5.3% increase in overall beer sales,” said Stuart Melia, vice president of beverage for Old Chicago. “We’re proud to feature a truly world-class beer program and thankful for an amazing team and loyal customers.” 

“Twenty four percent of our total sales come from beer alone, which is significant when you consider that most beer programs account for less than 15 percent of total sales,” said Melia. “Thanks to a great program and our amazing team, we’re known as much for our beer as for our delicious food, and beer sales have never been better.”