Liquid Assets: How and Why to Sell More Beverages

Don’t overlook your beverage business as a key way to make money…..

By Jim Sullivan

They speak of my drinking, but never my thirst.Dylan Thomas

OK, it’s apparent that most of the industry recognizes that food is king. Owners, operators, managers and cooks fawn over the entrees, appetizers and desserts on their menus. Managers slavishly sample and in detail describe their food to waitstaff in pre-shift meetings, hoping to encourage more sales. CFOs and chefs labor over portioning, specs, flavors and recipes of their center-of-the-plate offerings, ciphering ways to wrangle a few pennies more from each item. But meanwhile, sitting alone, unattended, tucked into the corner in tiny type on the last page of the menu, sits the red-headed step-child of top line sales: the beverage selection. Overlooked more often than an O’Doul’s in Ted Kennedy’s fridge, the beverage menu is sadly under-promoted and overlooked by most operators. Sure, they’ll occasionally spotlight the alcohol or wine menu, but it’s time to wake up and smell the water and soda, too.

The gross profit margins on beverages are astronomical compared to food, yet strangely, most beverage incidence (ratio of beverages sold to food sold) is less than 10% in foodservice operations. And yet beverages can contribute as much as 70-80% gross profit margin per serving…so what’s wrong with this picture? Opportunity knocks if you’re willing to listen, and here’s a few ideas to help you start managing your beverage sales like the (overlooked) profit center they are.

Liquid assets deserve focus.

“Beverage is sometimes treated by crew and management as an accessory to the dining experience–like a silverware roll-up, or a condiment–rather than a pivotal part of the guest experience,” says Tim Kirkland, Beverage Training and Development Manager for Rock Bottom Restaurants Inc in Louisville CO. “While all good restaurant managers teach their sales teams to be familiar with and suggest their signature food items, few stress the importance of the beverage as the companion centerpiece of a customized experience.” He’s right. Consider the fact that a guest would never hear “What do you want to eat?” from a well-trained server, but that same server commonly asks “What can I getcha to drink?”

Sell two beverages to every guest.

At breakfast, train servers to suggest a glass of juice and a coffee. At lunch, a soda, or a bottle of water or mango-raspberry tea, or coffee. At dinner, a beer, cocktail or glass of wine and later, a cappuccino.

Keep the lines clean.

If you want to get the most out of your fountain beverage sales make sure you listen to the advice of your account reps relative to maintaining clean lines, nozzles and syrup/carbonation mixes. Take as much pride in the quality of your carbonated fountain beverages as you do in your food. Your customers notice and will buy more—and more often.

Just say no to tap water.

I figure that giving away a glass of ice water to a customer costs you about $1.08 per serving once you factor in the cost of the glass, ice, and labor to store and serve it, coupled with the cost of the detergent, hot water, rinse and labor necessary to clean it. So I say carry bottled water on your beverage menu and suggest it always instead of faucet water when a guest asks. This is applicable no matter what segment you operate in, full-service or quick service, fast-casual or on-site dining. A glass of tap water is not “free”!

Offer to re-fill alcohol beverages at 1/3 full.

The best time to offer a new alcohol beverage like beer or wine or a cocktail is when the glass is about 1/3 full. Which reminds me of a classic Bill Cosby line: “Is the glass half empty, or half-full? That depends on who’s buying.”

Suggestively sell non-refillables.

Rock Bottom’s Kirkland likes the profit inherent in fountain beverages, but has another perspective too: “Every time you allow a guest to slide into a default beverage choice that comes with unlimited free refills, you not only miss a chance to distinguish yourself, but you potentially lose money too. Consider the number of times a $1.99 iced tea is refilled at lunch on a hot day—four, six?  If that beverage was two non-refillable Cokes or bottled water or a signature fruit/spice premium tea at the same price instead, you’d already be ahead by 100% and your guest has a better tasting drink to remember you by.”  You can get your waitstaff to warm up to this thought process by asking them how many times and how much they’re tipped on six refills of iced tea or tap water.

Say what, say when.

The best way to offer a new alcohol beverage is by being specific. Don’t say “Didja want another drink?” The word “another” can be off-putting. Instead, servers could say: “Ready for a glass of the Woodbridge Chardonnay, sir?”

Offer another drink before delivering entrée.

Our good friends at The Cheesecake Factory have taught me that the best time to suggest dessert is right before you bring the entrees out, and that is also the ideal time to suggest another beverage.

Be a Devil’s Advocate.

With your fellow managers, compile a list of reasons why your team doesn’t sell more beverages. Now do everything you need to do training-wise and operations-wise to remove those obstacles and make those objections irrelevant.

Don’t sell “rounds” (unless it’s shots).

“When you have four or more people drinking alcohol beverages with dinner, try to stagger the drink orders and avoid the phrase ‘Another round?’, unless it’s shots.” says Mr. Kirkland. Although it can affect a server’s table timing, selling new drinks one-on-one, actually raises the number of beverages sold.

Suggest your best.

When a guest orders a vodka/tonic, many servers respond robotically: “Would you like Absolut or Grey Goose in that?” Nice try, but a better, softer way to sell might be to phrase the question thusly: “Do you have a favorite vodka that you’d like in there?” Servers tend to suggest more top shelf liquor when they’re reminded that when the guest drinks better, they do too! Better tips now, better drinks for the staff after the shift. (If you don’t serve alcohol, this is another example of where suggesting bottled water over tap water can improve service and increase sales).

List wines from driest to sweetest.

If your servers are novices at wine selling, I recommend that you list your wines from driest to sweetest so they have an easier time remembering the flavor profile.

Use the Sullivan Nod.

Whenever servers suggest a beverage, have them smile and slowly nod their heads up and down as they make the suggestion. Body language is powerful, and research shows that over 60% of the time, the guest will nod right back and take your suggestion!

Remember to ring them up!

This should go without saying, but I won’t let it. A beverage sale ain’t a beverage sale till it’s rung up and in the till. And you can take that to the bank.