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More than luck: to turnaround its beverage program, Bennigan's got back to basics--focusing on the bar and the bartender.

Clay Dover and Tony Darden spent much of February behind the bars of eight Bennigan's Grill & Tavern locations, checking out everything from what's on the back bar to bottle labels and placement, garnish trays, shakers, blenders, ice scoops, strainers and pour mats. Dover, who is vice president of marketing for the Irish pub themed concept, and Darden, a one-time Bennigan's bartender and now vice president of operations, also talked to bartenders about their jobs, their tools and their needs, and to customers about their beverage experiences at Bennigan's.

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What they learned--basically that bar equipment, systems and the drinks produced were largely inconsistent but that some great best practices were in use--fueled a multifaceted effort to revitalize the bar at the 321-unit Bennigan's chain. The goal of the comprehensive program is simple: to make, and be known for, consistently great drinks, drinks that will differentiate Bennigan's in the crowded casual dining landscape and help reverse the chain's declining sales.

"Bennigan's built its heritage on 'bar first, food second,' and then swung to the other side, with 'food first, bar second,'" explains Jeff Moody, president and CEO of the 40-year-old Piano, Texas-based concept since last fall and also CEO and chairman of parent company Metromedia Restaurant Group, Inc. "We need equity between food and beverage. As long as you focus on safe alcohol practices and don't play the low-price game, you can make beverage as important as food in the overall experience and the business itself."

The chain is unique in its recent laser-like focus on beverage, says David Henkes, senior principal at Chicago-based market research firm Technomic. "Many casual dining chains are de-emphasizing beverage in favor of family and take-out business today, so it makes sense from a profitability perspective and in terms of differentiation for Bennigan's to focus on beverage."

Bennigan's system-wide sales of $535 million in 2005 represents a 3.1 percent decline, according to Technomic, and the chain is now suffering the same softness as its competitors resulting from higher fuel costs slowing guest traffic. What's more, beverage sales declined during the past five years as the company focused on its family-friendly positioning; drinks now generate 20.1 percent of total sales, says Dover.

In crunching the numbers, however, he recognized that the units driving the greatest profitability were those with the healthiest beverage sales. Dover and Darden knew they needed more than the luck of the Irish to achieve their goal of 25 percent of sales from beverages in the next few years, a change that would surely impact the overall performance of the chain. With a major assist from Patrick Henry Creative Promotions (PHCP), the Stafford, Texas-based consulting firm engaged in January, they started with the basics.

RE-TOOLING THE BAR

In late March, every restaurant received a Bar Makeover Execution Kit containing new pour mats, mixing tins, bar spoons, strainers, pour containers, fruit caddies, ice scoops, salt rimmers, cutting boards, muddlers, bottle labels and so on. "We had to first address the inconsistencies in the tools bartenders were using to make the drinks," says Dover.

In April, the Bar Operations Manual and Kit went out, featuring a Rolodex of 300 new recipe cards with updated ingredients and quantities, an updated bar operations manual and server training cards. A highlight was the Bar Log, a spiral book designed to foster daily communication between bartenders and managers.

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"Some operators had created their own bar log--we just streamlined it and wrapped it in the Bennigan's brand," says Darden. "We're open until 2 a.m. in many locations, and there are cleanliness, quality, equipment and inventory issues that have to be addressed each morning. The bartender can note that they're low on an item and the manager can get right on it."

Rounding out the turn-around package was the introduction of Island Oasis equipment and mixes in April. "If we wanted to deliver consistent frozen drinks, we had to insure the set up, ingredients and equipment were consistent," says Darden. "The machines are a big win--the bartenders have fun using them, the drinks are great and the execution is right on."

Next, Bennigan's rolled out an entirely new beverage menu in May. The sleek, spiral-bound 17-page menu showcases 30 cocktails, beer, wine and non-alcohol beverages. Featuring enticing drink photography, it replaces a green leatherette, copy-heavy tome.

"We took the 20 top-selling drinks and expanded on them with 10 new cocktails," says Dover, noting that Philip Raimondo, director, drink development and training division of PHCP, was instrumental. The Premium Long Island Ice Tea--the long-time sales leader made with Stolichnaya Vodka, Bacardi Rum, Beefeater Gin, Cointreau Orange Liqueur, Finest Call Sweet & Sour and a splash of Coca-Cola--is now joined by drinks including the Frozen SoCo Hurricane, blended with Southern Comfort, Island Oasis Hurricane mix and Myers's Dark Rum. "Alcohol-Free" offerings like Strawberry Lemonade and the creamy Wildberry Yogurt tempt 'tweens and guests thirsty for a non-alcohol beverage.

"We found that 60 percent of our guests already know what they want to drink, so we focused on going after those who don't," Dover explains. "The menu has no brand logos--the drinks are the stars--and the photos really show them off."

Drink presentation also got a make-over: Bennigan's partnered with Libbey to bring in a signature goblet for frozen and blended cocktails and a sturdier wine glass system-wide. While prices do not appear on the menu, drink prices now are standardized by market.

Spirits sales are climbing at Bennigan's and now account for 47.5 percent of beverage sales; beer accounts for 46.5 percent. Bud Light remains the top draft seller at Bennigan's locations, which offer anywhere from eight to 22 taps. True to its Irish pub roots, Bennigan's is the largest seller of Guinness among chain restaurants, according to Dover. The base beer list numbers 24 brands; recent additions include Blue Moon Belgian White, Stella Artois and regional brews such as Yuengling.

Wine--generating six percent of beverage sales--remains an opportunity area. Recent additions to the menu include Yellow Tail Shiraz, Twin Fin Pinot Noir and Gallo labels such as Ecco Domani Pinot Grigio. "The quirky, cool wines appeal to a younger demographic, which is working for us," Dover notes.

While the new beverage menu has been well received by guests, Dover notes that "it's only a sales tool. It's up to the bartender and the server to close the deal."

To that end, Bennigan's director of training Donna Wait revamped the beverage training program, creating a bartender certification. By the end of August, all bartenders were certified on the new curriculum of a self-study program on all new drinks, equipment, systems, guest service and also food safety practices. New bartenders undergo one week of training and new managers are certified on the bar program as well. Bartenders will be re-certified every 12 months.

The program also included re-certification on Bennigan's Responsible Alcohol Service curriculum, a program every front-of-house employee undergoes every six months. Wait recently completed the ServSafe Alcohol trainer certification; area directors will be trained next and the program will be rolled out system-wide in 2007, replacing the proprietary responsible server program.

"Basically, we're applying the same focus to the bar as we do to the kitchen, with the right equipment, systems, procedures and training," says Darden. "From an operations standpoint, this whole process makes sense. We didn't just roll out a new menu and assume everyone could execute. First we cleaned out the bars, got the right equipment, got the training going and then we rolled out the new menu."

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"What makes Bennigan's unique is the willingness to look at fundamental issues," comments Angela Wyka, assistant director, casual dining division at PHCP. "Before we even got into the menu, we were looking at the bar set-up and talking about training needs. Often, companies come to us for front-of-the-house beverage marketing and don't always go into the back of the house."

CELEBRATING THE BARTENDER

The role of the bartender is also getting special consideration at Bennigan's. "In most casual restaurants, all the training, incentives and programs focus on the server. We are putting all that into bartenders, and we want to make bartending the position everyone in the restaurant aspires to," says Dover.

Bartenders at Bennigan's are now distinguished by a new uniform unique to them--often a black logoed shirt with "Barkeeper" emblazoned on the back. Once certified, a "Certified Barkeeper" pin is added; after the next round of certifications in 2007, shirtsleeves will be embroidered with the phrase. Bartender business cards were included in the Bar Operations Kit; barkeepers are encouraged to personalize the cards with their names and schedules and give them to patrons when inviting them back. The next phase of the program calls for examining bartender hiring practices, says Dover.

"The bartender can make or break your business--they bring in the guest in many cases or are the first interaction the guest has," he explains. "The personality aspect and pride in their work is crucial."

To measure how well the bar revitalization effort is being executed on the front lines, Bennigan's initiated a beverage secret shopper program in June. The shoppers critique everything from the bartender's greeting to pouring and sales ringing procedures. The program is rolling system-wide this fall.

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BEVERAGE + FOOD = SALES

Although the focus on beverages is sharp, Dover and Darden certainly aren't wearing blinders. "Just focusing on alcohol will not be as successful as focusing on the food element and beverage pairing," warns Technomic's Henkes. "You do have to bring a complete package to the guest."

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Food promotions, which change every two months, always include a beverage element. Often rife with tongue-in-cheek humor--"we're getting away from the Kelly green, forced Irish-ness," says Dover--the four-panel menus feature a beverage panel. The "Cheeseburger Rebellion" program this summer highlighted drinks including the Margatini--combining Sauza Conmemorativo Tequila and Grand Marnier--and Corona and Corona Extra as suggested beverage pairings, with the tagline, "The Revolution will be Refreshing."

The Guinness Grill forges a strong connection between the bar and the dining room. Launched in June and recently expanded and extended to the end of October, the 12 items on the special menu feature the exclusive Guinness Glaze. A Black and Tan made with Guinness Stout and Bass Pale Ale is presented as an accompaniment to dishes including Guinness Glazed Popcorn Shrimp ($7.49) and Guinness Glazed "Oh, Baby" Back Ribs ($13.99).

"This is our highest-rated food promotion in four years," says Dover, adding that Guinness Stout sales are up 27 percent.

Also driving positive results is Bar Bites, launched in the spring. The menu offers handheld bar snacks such as Burger Bites--three mini-cheeseburgers with fries--and Buffalo Shrimp priced at $3 or $4 each, depending on the market, and a selection of drinks including the house Margarita, pints of domestic beer, Long Island Iced Tea and the Cosmopolitan Martini for $2 or $3 each.

BAR BITES DRIVES VALUE

Available late afternoon and late night, the Bar Bites program delivers value on the beverage and food side, says Moody. "This increases the beverage mix, but not at the expense of food sales. It's growing both." The Guinness Grill and Bar Bites programs are supported by television ads in select markets.

The bar revitalization initiative helped increase beverages from 18 percent of total sales in 2005 to the current 20.1 percent. Year over year, beverage sales are up five percent; non-alcohol drinks are exceeding that trend with a seven percent jump. Thanks to consistency of recipes, systems and equipment, Dover says beverage costs now average in the low 20 percentile as opposed to the 18 to 30 percent range where they had been trending.

The Dallas/Ft. Worth market is perhaps the best testament to the impact of the bar revitalization effort. All elements of the initiative are firmly in place at the 22 restaurants, including local television advertising, and beverage sales are growing quickly.

"The Dallas/Ft. Worth restaurants picked up a 3.7 percent increase in beverage as a percent of sales, which is almost twice the system-wide gain," says Dover. "Beverage generates an average 21.7 percent of total sales in Dallas."

Bar sales increased 57 percent at the Bennigan's in West Plano, Texas, where average checks rose from $12 to $18, according to general manager George Carbajal. "The add-on is coming from drinks," he says. "It's a combination of the new systems, the new menu, the new interest from the bartenders and guests. There's really a great vibe with the employees."

Bartenders are riding high at the West Plano location. "They've got better bar tools and more knowledge to sell to the guest and deliver good service, so it's more fun for them. With the training and the different uniforms, they feel more pride--almost elite--and they're really motivated," Carbajal reports. "It's a really exciting time to be part of Bennigan's."

RELATED ARTICLE: Fast Facts

Bennigan's Grill & Tavern

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Parent Company

Metromedia Restaurant Group, Inc.

Corporate Headquarters

Plano, Texas

Units

321

167 corporate

154 franchised

2005 System-wide Sales

$535 million*

Average Unit Sales Volume

$1.94 million

Average Check

$13.23

Expansion Plans

As many as 13 franchised and 1 corporate units opened in 2006; 25 franchised and 1 corporate units planned for 2007

*SOURCE: TECHNOMIC INC.

RELATED ARTICLE: Bennigan's Jop Calls

Beer

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Bud Light

Miller Lite

Coors Light

Spirits

Premium Long Island Iced Tea

Emerald Isle Margarita Vodka Cocktails

Wine

Turning Leaf Chardonnay

Beringer White Zinfandel

Kendall-Jackson Vintner's Reserve Chardonnay
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Author:Crecca, Donna Hood
Publication:Cheers
Date:Oct 1, 2006
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