How to Develop a Top Beverage Program: An F&B Insider’s Guide

Women enjoying their restaurant experience because of a variety of drink options in the beverage program.

How to Develop a Top Beverage Program: An F&B Insider’s Guide

If you’re in charge of the direction of a modern restaurant and you’re looking to make a real “splash” on the scene, developing a standout, high-impact beverage program for your restaurant is an absolute must. So, what is a beverage program – and how can you build one that will put you on the local (and national) map?

Let’s take a deep dive into the world of beverage programs with the F&B Insider’s Guide on How to Develop a Top Beverage Program.

What is a Beverage Program?

Put simply, the beverage program in a restaurant is all of the drink options you’ll offer your diners. The beverage program will generally break down into these different sections:

  • Beer is generally a centerpiece of any restaurant’s alcohol menu. As the world’s most widely consumed alcoholic drink, it’s essential for an excellent beverage program to have an engaging mix of beer tastes. The beverage program should include some of the domestic light-beer standbys for those classic drinkers alongside some of the more creative flavors. With the national beer tastes increasingly shifting towards hoppier IPAs, their inclusion is a necessity – right alongside porters, stouts, ales, and lagers. Funkier styles like sours and saisons should also have representation. Another important tip: local breweries should get represented to deliver an element of area pride to drinkers. People will be familiar with these breweries, and they’ll drink them!
  • Wine is another foundational aspect of any beverage program. Build up a colorful selection of reds, whites, and other varieties from both domestic and international sources. Be sure to have classic styles and new options available (the ever popular frose, or frozen rose, or natural wines like pet-nats are example of this). If it is appropriate for your restaurant, try to angle your wine menu to complement your food selections; offer pairing suggestions, if your menu allows it.
  • Cocktails offer a “spice” to your beverage program. Don’t try to list every cocktail you make on the menu – after all, drinkers will always know what’s in a gin and tonic! Instead, work closely with the bartender to offer a mix of standout classics with your own style (martinis or Manhattans with a twist, for example) and then put together a creative selection that’s all your own. Try experimenting with new ingredients or new styles, or utilizing locally-made spirits to deliver an engaging piece to the menu.
  • Finally, there are non-alcoholic drinks. This covers everything else that gets served at the restaurant, from tea and coffee to juices and kombucha. It’s important not to neglect this area of the beverage program; after all, not everyone drinks! One thing to know about? “Mocktails,” or cocktails without alcohol, are increasing in popularity in bars across the country; they’re perfect to tie in with an emphasis on healthier living or to provide an alternative to the non-drinkers out there. Here’s another thing to remember with the cocktail menu: CBD-infused cocktails. These are an excellent, appealing option for non-drinkers or those that don’t have more than one drink – providing additional beverage revenue per cover.

Why is a Beverage Program so Important for a Restaurant?

In a crowded food & beverage industry – with an enormous amount of choice for the consumer – a standout beverage program is a practical, engaging way to build buzz and build a name brand for your restaurant. The word of mouth that an excellent beverage program delivers is second to none. Think of how valuable statements like “Oh man, that place has the greatest beer list!” or “One of the best wine selections around” have on the local reputation of the restaurant. That’s one of the most effective ways to solidify your customer base – and keep it growing.

The second big reason why a beverage program is so essential for a restaurant? The impact of social media. In a world where Yelp, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook are the make-or-break foundations for many institutions (restaurants included), great buzz and social media chatter around an excellent beverage program can make your restaurant a hit. Let’s take Instagram, for example. After putting effort into developing a fantastic beverage program, you get a young, excited crowd in the restaurant, snapping pictures of craft beers, creative cocktails, and fine wines. They tag the restaurant in those photos and post on their news feeds for all to see. Other young folks see these photos and add that establishment to the tops of their lists to visit—all of that due to an active, creative beverage program.

The bottom line about beverage programs? Well, it’s all about your bottom line. A creative, effective beverage program can oftentimes be the reason why a restaurant’s profit margin grows and expands – as detailed in this Modern Restaurant Management article.

What are Some Great Examples of Impact Beverage Programs?

As we’ve stated throughout the article, a top-notch beverage program can put a restaurant on the map – both regional and national. Here are some examples of restaurants around the country (in some of America’s hippest locations) that have developed standout beverage programs.

  • In the “Emerald City” of Seattle, Canon presents locals and tourists with “America’s largest spirit collection” and some of the most creative cocktails in the United States. An intimate but standout bar, Canon is celebrated for its standout cocktail list – even garnering a published book of cocktail recipes. Favorites from the “Yesteryear” cocktail menu feature classic favorites like the “Hanky Panky” with gin and sweet vermouth and the “Jabberwock” with gin, sherry, and orange bitters. Some of Cannon’s originals include the “Finding Nemo” with rum, lemon, and butterfly pea ice and the Doctor Who-influenced “Tardis” with banana zing Bombay sapphire, coffee, bonal, and lime. There’s even a “Large Format” menu with big servings of drinks like the “Daft Punk” with a medley of liquors and vanilla strawberry rooibos.
  • Down the coast in the “City by the Bay,” San Francisco’s Benu is one of the nation’s top spots for superb wine. A haven for locals and tourists, Benu is a three-Michelin-starred restaurant featuring some of the most spectacular wine available. The 300-strong wine list includes favorites from France, Germany, California, and Austria, along with menu-specific beverage pairings. Benu also won a 2019 James Beard Award.
  • In “America’s Playground” of Las Vegas, the acclaimed Sushi Roku is breaking new ground with its innovative CBD-infused cocktails. The flagship CBD cocktail at Sushi Roku? The “Green Fairy,” with CBD oil, absinthe, rhubarb, lime, and mint. Along with the CBD cocktails, Sushi Roku boasts some of the more creative and colorful fruit-driven drinks in the country. Favorites like the “Berry Berry Mash” with Bacardi and fresh lemon juice and the “Everything Zen” with strawberry, sage, and Nigori sake populate the menu at Sushi Roku.
  • The “Mile High City” is also a place where some of the world’s best “mocktails” live. In Denver, the Rocky Mountain spin-off of the acclaimed New York bar Death & Co is making non-alcoholic waves on the burgeoning RiNo (River North) neighborhood. This stylish, acclaimed restaurant boasts drinks like the “Business Casual,” with a non-alcoholic aperitif, red verjus, and black tea. A “Pipe Dream” features kiwi, coconut, lime, vanilla, and seltzer. The “Liar’s Gambit” boasts spice, tea, pineapple, lemon, and clarified milk. Of course, there are also boozy drinks for those who indulge – like the “Bat Country” with cognac, coffee, and cream.
  • Portland, Oregon is well known as one of the epicenters for the craft beer revolution – and no place embodies that beer boom better than the Tin Bucket. This fun and lively spot boasts one of the best beer collections in the country, with a focus on Pacific Northwest beers. The extensive tap list includes favorites like the “Chocolate Dynamite” from Portland’s Level, the Block 15 “Sticky Hands” from nearby Corvallis, and the Aslan “Hook’s Stash” from Bellingham, Washington.

What Elements Do I Have to Consider When Putting Together a Beverage Program?

Restaurateurs putting together a beverage program need to have one eye on the variety they can offer – and another on the bottom line of beverage costs. “How much does X cost?” needs to be a question that is thought out and pondered with every element of the beverage program.

Think about all the cost control factors that go into your beverage program, and make sure you add those factors into the prices. Specialized, involved cocktails – the ones that require plenty of mixers, out-of-the-norm ingredients, or a long and involved creation process will need to have labor costs factored into the price. After all, the time spent making these drinks is also time when the bartender or server is not focusing on others.

Service is also crucial when it comes to the long-term success of a beverage program. Ensure that the service standards are incredibly high at the restaurant; after all the menu development you could do, it would be a shame for a poor customer service interaction to ruin someone’s enjoyment of the restaurant. Additionally, be sure to train your servers and bartenders well about the different elements of the beverage program you’re putting together. The more the servers know about the different drinks offered, the more opportunity there will be for server upsells. If a server knows the ins and outs of an $8 IPA, creative cocktail, or fine wine for their customer, the better the chances that the customer will opt for those instead of a domestic beer, house wine, or house mixed-drink.

Getting Started On Your Beverage Program

Ready to get started? By considering all these factors detailed above – and paying close attention to your selections when it comes to developing your program – the right kind of beverage menu at your restaurant could boost your profile, drive sales, and keep the customers happy. Cheers!

Michael is a freelance writer who writes about lifestyle and travel.

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