Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Woe is Me

I don’t get a rush of comments on this site, but maybe this post will open the floor up a bit, who knows.

I’m not really held back by much in my dining / beer drinking adventures, I don’t meet any resistance when I want to go out to dinner and have a good beer at the same time. I realize this isn’t the case for everyone. Be it families, girlfriends, business partners or what have you, sometimes you end up at a place that just doesn’t serve any beer you’d like to drink.

Looking at the list of beers can be a little disappointing when you realize that some restaurants are stocking virtually the same beer just with six different labels. This is not to say that their customers don’t buy enough of all six to keep them re-ordering from the distributor, but the fact that there are about 100 styles of beer is hard to get by when you are staring at a menu full of beers that all look and taste the same.

In some cases, restaurant owners may not see the big deal in bringing in what may sound like another fad that they’ve fallen for in the past (malternatives, et al) and in other cases they may feel a bit intimidated by the risk of a higher priced product that they may not be able to move. They may just not want to fix what they might not see as broken.

Distributors are a big key here and in this area they have been stepping up well over the last few years. More and more restaurants and chains are looking at the numbers (double digit growth through the industry, increased market share) and seeing the obvious benefit of putting something, anything on their list. The sales forces of PA’s local breweries do wonders for their brands and get actively involved in the beer drinking communities that support them.

Yet still, not everyone is with it and the potential for bigger things within the spectrum of beer is stifling. Sure not everyone is going to be all that excited by craft beer and by imports, but as the numbers show- the customer base is getting bigger and bigger and all those folks have to go out to dinner sooner or later. Right?

Here’s the thing. As new restaurants open up and really now I speak about the suburbs, in Philly its become kind of automatic that you at least have something for the good beer drinkers (which makes Don Russell so, so right), they come up with their shtick and they try to be a million appealing things and then fall flat with their beer offerings due to a simple lack of education, effort, or understanding (assumption on my part).

Putting together a decent list of beer offerings is pretty easy if you know what to look for. Every restaurant can’t be the next great beer bar nor should they, but looking at what you have on your menu or your theme, or whatever defines you as a restaurant will dictate what beers make sense for you. Example. A new restaurant opens up in the town I grew up in. It’s a pretty cool building, they’ve got more hours than most places in town, their menu is nicely sized with something for everyone including a variety of Cajun/Creole sandwiches and wraps.

16 taps and 20 bottles later and nothing that really links up. Sierra on draft, check. Hoegaarden on draft, check Blue Moon, check. Sam Adams, check. The thing is, you just opened up, you’ve got a menu full of food to please an Italian craving, a Spanish craving, a seafood craving and a beer list that’s practically lifeless. I’m not saying it’s a short coming of the restaurant, but this is a gap that would be easily filled. Sure Sierra Nevada, and Hoegaarden are beers that I’ll happily settle for in such a grim case as this, but it’s just so hard to trust draft beer in a place that carries so little good beer. A bottle of Sam Adams is probably what I’d settle for here. Is that what you want to feel like when you sit down to dinner? Like you just settled for something? Not when there’s 36 beers on the menu.

My point, scattered as it may be becoming, is that if you take these 16 draft lines and these 20 bottles and pour them all into their own glass and line them up on the bar, all but 6 or 7 are going to look the same, barely identifiable from one to the other just by looking at them. After putting together 12 varieties of sandwich, 8 different tortilla wraps, and 5 steaks and 5 salads for the menu you are going to let 30 beer choices battle it out in your coolers waiting for the Bud bottle drinker, the Bud draft drinker, the Miller Lite bottle drinker, the Miller Lite draft drinker, the Michelob Ultra bottle drinker, the Michelob Ultra draft drinker, the Michelob Lite bottle drinker, and the Michelob Lite draft drinker to walk through the door but you won’t take a chance on a beer that’s a little different or exciting? It’s all a big mystery to me. You’ve got 7 beers that you offer both on draft and in bottle? Why? What do they all have to do with what defines you as a restaurant?

In this case something as simple as an offering from Abita or Dixie can sell you some beer in your restaurant with the slightest effort on your part. It’s not an expensive case, it actually fits into one of the themes that’s running straight through your food menu, it sounds just right to the guy about to order lunch:

“What’s that Ab..Abita beer all about?”

‘Abita is a brewery from New Orleans, their Amber Ale goes really well with our Bourbon Street Chicken Sandwich actually.’

You don’t have to spell it out, you look clever for offering it and any Amber Ale is gonna go just fine with chicken fingers and coleslaw in sauce on a bun. Can you really do that same thing with those 30 look alikes that we poured and set up on the bar?

I know, I know. Not every restaurant wants to make their staff memorize facts about beer or wine or booze, but one small piece of info like that can cover a bunch of their menu items and pulls their theme together. People now remember their little Louisianan experience and to them and the friends they tell, you’re the Cajun place with that New Orleans beer. Those little differences, having what nobody else does aren’t hard (especially in Pottstown) and they’ll bring some people back for more.

So where am I going with this? I dunno. Is it ok to just ramble for a morning? Hope so, because that’s what you’re getting out of me today. Share your thoughts or go drink a beer. Or do both.

Oh right, to leave you with a question. Is it just overthinking the whole thing to wonder why a place would carry 20 macro lagers and not make an attempt at something more interesting or carry something with an allusion or tie in to the menu? Is the line of thinking that if you don't carry Miller Lite in a bottle and on draft that you are really going to take that big of a hit?


Young said...

I imagine the thinking is that bottles are a lot easier to serve quickly than draught beers, I've come across this phenomenon in the past many times... Usually you'll find it in places that don't really have an identity[as evidenced by the strange combination of cuisines] or in places that become watering holes after the dinner crowd is finished. Luckily for me, the bar/restaurant that is local to me shares the same kind of culinary schizophrenia but offers great beers.

Dan Bengel said...

It sounds like someone has been to Pottstown lately.

Anonymous said...

Tap fees, sports tickets, advertising. That is the root of your bland tap list. Will a distributor selling Guiness really offer Great Divide Oak Aged Yeti to replace that tap? If one of their lead brands is Sam Adams, do you expect them to replace that tap handle with Shelter Pale Ale?