Although “economic” and “stimulus plan” may have replaced “green” and “organic” as the latest buzzwords in the news, the environmental movement has taken root as a bona fide life philosophy for millions of Americans, with more joining the movement each day, despite tough economic times. And Americans are showing their green commitment with their greenbacks: Sales of organic products, both food and non-food, reached $24.6 billion in the U.S. by the end of 2008, rising 17.1 percent over 2007 sales, according to a May report by the Organic Trade Association. To reach out to these environmentally friendly patrons, bar and beverage professionals from all segments are increasingly introducing all-natural, green and/or organic spirits in their beverage programs. The key to successfully “greening” a program, however, is to do your homework and stay focused on creating value while controlling costs.
The Green Bar Movement Sweeps Hotels
Going green has a number of benefits, both for bar owners and guests. Bar owners profit from smaller carbon footprints, and guests appreciate the offering of organic options and the listing of health benefits of ingredients on beverage menus.
“For the Westin [hotel] brand, superfoods are a real differentiator,” explains Michael O’Donohue, corporate director of food and beverage of North America for Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide.
“We are incorporating superfoods into our breakfast offerings, and as we are looking at beverage direction for this brand, a superfood-inspired beverage line is possibly in the works. VeeV Açai Spirit is one that we put on the menu for spring and summer. We think it’s a great product, and it’s green. People who are fond of vodka but open to new things tend to love it.”
Hotel venues often see a demographic interested in organic and green spirits for two reasons. First, people on vacation are looking for new experiences, and this translates into a willingness to try new spirits in cocktails. Second, high-end hotel guests have a higher level of disposable income, meaning they are willing to lay down a dollar or two more per cocktail.
“With hotels, we want to make everyone happy,” adds Laura Vocino. Currently the director of food and beverage at The Roosevelt New Orleans, opening this summer, Vocino’s history also includes positions with The Drake Hotel in Chicago and other Hilton Hotels Corp. properties.
“At The Roosevelt, we are thinking of adding a few cocktails instead of doing a whole spring green menu,” she says. “You have to mix it up, and it’s tough for a hotel to do something all green unless you are a smaller boutique chain that has that focus.”
While Vocino hasn’t nailed down the specifics of the hotel’s organic drink offerings yet, she plans to highlight the green and organic spirits on the menu with an asterisk and a bit of information, as well as change the list of beverages seasonally.
Creating Value When Going Green
“With our locations in California, it’s more natural for people to look for organics,” explains Jason Miranda, regional director of operations and director of wine and spirits for the Woodland Hills, Calif.-based chain of seven Mastro’s Restaurants. “Our Arizona locations seem to lag a bit behind. We took the lead with our wines, stocking two organics, and when we had a good response, we carried it over by creating an Organic Martini.”
The Mastro’s venues are upscale and cater to a wealthy clientele. The drink menu offers a $17 Martini made with Blue Ice organic wheat vodka, organic olives and organic olive juice. After the Martini is poured, guests can take the shaker to their seats to top off their drink throughout the night.
“The value is there because basically they get two Martinis. On a good Friday, we go through about 15 an evening,” Miranda says. “From what we have seen, if they like the initial organic experience, they will stick with it.”
For Wayne Roemhildt, a beverage consultant in Minneapolis, creating the sense of value in any brand — but especially organic or green — begins with the staff.
“When products come in, I tell my rep, ‘Thank you, I’ll take care of it,’” he says. “Your staff can shut down when it’s a sales rep talking. When you present a product you are behind, your staff knows you care about it.
“A part of what I try to impress upon bartenders with my philosophy is to back up and revisit the history of beverage,” he continues. “To do that, you have to consider local natural resources. Being local is important to being green.”
Roemhildt has become a fan of Prairie Organic Vodka, produced in Minnesota.
“It’s then as simple as a bartender taking five seconds to say [to guests]: ‘We have Grey Goose, but we also have this new Prairie vodka, and it’s right along those lines in terms of a premium. Oh, and it costs less, plus it’s organic and local.’ Ninety-five percent of the time, they order it.”
Separating Fact from Fiction
Research is half the battle when stocking and selling a green or organic product. David Wolowidnyk, a bartender at West restaurant in Vancouver, B.C., says it’s critical to not only tell eco-conscious patrons that you have organic options available, but also to make sure the products are from a company that protects and replenishes the natural resources used.
“You can’t just go to the web site when researching how green a spirit is,” Wolowidnyk explains. “It can be unsupervised propaganda, and it’s best to go right to the source. Get in with a few people, go to the distillery if you can and get a small tour with a distiller. When you are asking them questions, you know that person is giving you the straight goods and it’s not the marketing team dressing it up. There is also a network of [alcohol] geeks out there who offer up an incredible amount of help. Jamie Boudreau is one I call on when I have questions, and DrinkBoy.com is another great site. In your research, you can find different forums and blogs that leak you information through independent people who are not profiting off their opinions.”
Capitalizing on Brand Creativity
You have to hand it to them; the organic and green brand teams have devised exceptionally creative marketing programs. The TRU Organic Spirits line partners with Sustainable Harvest International to plant a tree for every bottle purchased, and VeeV launched a “treetini” campaign in April 2009, replanting a tree for every cocktail ordered at participating restaurants. Victoria Gin, made in British Columbia, uses wild gathered botanicals that are not commercially farmed, thus lowering the carbon footprint while encouraging forest regeneration. There are wide-open opportunities to market the green and organic brands creatively with the help of these promotions or some in-house marketing.
At the Mandarin Oriental Miami, the entire operation is going green. Food and beverage director Antonio Recillas stocks an organic option for whisky (Highland Harvest), tequila (4 Copas), vodka (TRU Organic) and rum (Papagayo), and the spirits are selling so well that he hopes to add a sake too.
Part of the hotel’s success with organics is due to its marketing approach. The organic bottles are front and center on the backbar display, menus are made from recycled materials and Recillas has created organic cooking classes for his guests, where they go to a sustainable/organic farm offsite to learn and experience.
“Mixology classes along these lines are something we are working on right now,” he says. “We want to offer guests a choice that looks good on the menu, tastes good in a glass, but also makes a difference. I know our guests appreciate it.” NCB
Be a Smart Shopper
Just because something is organic doesn’t mean it is totally environmentally friendly. In fact, sometimes organic products have a larger carbon footprint than other products, due to things such as shipping distance. But organic production methods are environmentally friendly because they reduce the introduction of man-made chemicals into the environment. Here are a few definitions to help make sense of the green world we live in.
Organic: Produced without the use of unnatural chemicals, fertilizers or pesticides. Currently, the European Union, the United States, Canada, Japan and many other countries require producers to obtain special certification in order to market food as organic. The United States Department of Agriculture requires products using the term “organic” on labels be made of at least 95 percent organic ingredients. Other products may use the term “made with organic ingredients,” which means they must contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients.
Greenwashing: When a company, product label or person claims to be environmentally conscious but are not.
Superfood: A term often used by companies to describe a product that has a high phytonutrient content, believed to offer increased health benefits. Examples of superfoods include blueberries, açai berries, beets and bee pollen. There is no agreed medical definition, however.
All-natural: A marketing term that can mean almost anything. There is no nutritional definition, and it is not regulated by the Federal Drug Administration.
Sustainability: Using a resource so it is not depleted or permanently damaged.
Carbon Footprint: The total amount of greenhouse gas emissions caused by an individual, organization, event or product, according to the UK Carbon Trust 2008. Reducing a carbon footprint (the intended goal) can be accomplished in a variety of ways, from mitigating pollutants released during processing to changing transportation and distribution methods.