It takes serious effort for a major chain restaurant to make an impact with its cocktail program, given the constant churn of trends that has been generated in the past few years. But Ruth’s Chris Steak House made just such an effort to elevate its cocktails, the reason it took home the 2014 VIBE Vista Award for best chain or multi-concept restaurant spirits program, presented by Pernod-Ricard USA.
To emphasize its commitment to the spirits program, for example, Ruth’s Chris in 2013 introduced Tableside Juleps; guests ordering a classic Mint Julep or Sparkling Pear Julep were served tableside in a classic silver julep cup.
The chain’s “Sizzle, Swizzle & Swirl” Happy Hour was named one of Top 10 best Happy Hours in a featured story in USA Today. The menus, available in the bar at all times to promote specialty cocktails prepared with fresh juice and ingredients, featured the Pomegranate Martini (Smirnoff, Cointreau, pomegranate, cranberry juice and a sugar rim) and Ruth’s Manhattan (Jim Beam Bourbon, Noilly Prat Sweet Vermouth, Southern Comfort, Luxardo Cherry).
Ruth’s Chris Hand-Crafted Vintage-Inspired Menu featured 16 specialty cocktails, all classics with a modern twist - for example, the Blackberry Sidecar (Remy Martin VSOP Cognac, Cointreau, freshly squeezed lemon juice, muddled blackberries, plum bitters, topped with blackberries and finished with a sugar rim), and the Broad Street Hurricane (Zacapa Centenario 23 Year Old Aged Rum, POM Pomegranate Juice, freshly squeezed lemon and lime juices, Monin Yellow Passionfruit, sugar rim).
The chain promoted its cocktail innovations with national events, like the National Big Reds & Bourbon Dinner, which debuted 10 Year Old Small Batch Bourbon by Bulleit in Partnership with Diageo; and a National Hand-Crafted Cocktail Dinner, a five course meal in partnership with William Grant and Remy.
To market the innovations, the chain incorporated in-store videos, posters and check stuffers, national press releases for each event, email blasts to preferred guests, promotion on the corporate website and through social media campaigns.
The results have been impressive: double digit increases in cocktail sales by volume over the previous year; incremental spirit sales drove overall beverage mix, and traffic and sales leading to a double digit increase in bar sales for participating locations. Then there’s the added development of a loyal following among spirit loving guests and local media, and favorable local and national media exposure.
Of course, training was required: corporate beverage shows were held in each location via front-of-house trainer systems, certification programs and education videos developed by Helen Mackey, corporate senior director of menu strategy for Ruth’s Hospitality Group, Inc., for cocktails, cocktail history, wines-by-the-glass and bottle listings. Top-performing bartenders and trainers won trips to the annual “Tales of the Cocktail” event in New Orleans.
“What we do in training is to know not just the drink [itself], but the story that actually transcends the liquid,” said Helen Mackey. “Part of what we do in hospitality is provide those insider tips that make people feel they’ve left with something of value beyond the food and beverage.”