Drinks drive brunch business

Cocktail lists that promote value and encourage socialization win customers.
earls bloody mary

The competition for brunch is heating up, as the morning meal becomes more of a social occasion and less of a meal. Thirty-four percent of younger consumers now consider brunch a destination, not just a dining-out opportunity, according to Technomic, and innovative adult beverage programs can give operators an edge—whether it’s a twist on classic cocktails or a menu of thematic signatures. Coupled with judicious discounting strategies and careful costing, brunch beverages can be a weekend win.

The batching solution

50 Eggs, the multiconcept casual-dining operator based in Miami, has tried a few brunch strategies, says wine director Daniel Toral. At its Swine restaurant, the company experimented with an all-inclusive beverage package, which featured all-you-can-drink bloody marys. That didn’t work out: Tables were tied up for hours with lingering parties, reducing table turns. And, because of the bottomless drink offering, some guests imbibed too much. “People were puking in the bathrooms and managers had to keep cleaning up,” says Toral. 

That program was discontinued. Now Swine offers one-liter pitchers of mimosas for $26 at brunch to target those millennial guests who often dine in groups. “It’s a good deal for customers and a bonus for our brunch business,” he says. To get a better margin on the large-volume mimosa, he uses a good cava rather than the more-expensive prosecco that he employs in the a la carte mimosa ($11).

Setting limits

In Chicago, Pata Negra restaurant in Latinicity food hall offers an “Unlimited Eats” brunch program for $25. But despite the unlimited moniker, they limit table time to two hours and a maximum of two included drinks. Table turns are brisk and the cocktails are not the loss leaders bottomless drinks would be, says Manny Flores, national director of operations.

Latinicity also offers brunch at its food court stalls, where a separate bar creates signature Latin-themed cocktails such as the paloma, as well as mocktails mixed with a branded Mexican soft drink. Offering these signature beverages distinguishes this as a Latin brunch experience, says Flores. Latinicity also boasts a popular build-your-own bloody mary bar, offering two Latin-accented bases to choose from: green tomatillo and fire-roasted tomato.

Sampling to sell

As Canadian chain Earls Kitchen + Bar expands into the U.S., it is using the brunch occasion to introduce its special cocktail—Earls Signature Caesar. To hook brunch customers when the Chicago location opened in October, Earls offered samples of this Canadian version of the bloody mary, which uses a housemade spicy tomato base blended with clam juice. “Canadians are crazy for Caesars, and we want to get people here crazy for them as well,” says Brad Bilick, general manager of the Chicago Earls, one of seven in the U.S. Today, as many as 40 percent of stateside brunch diners are ordering Caesars, he says.

Bilick believes that one reason for the strong sales is that Caesars are half-price for Sunday brunch ($4 instead of $8). And the drink’s wow factor boosts orders—Earls’ Caesar is garnished with sausage and a pickle, in a glass rimmed with celery salt, red pepper, black pepper and garlic. “The Caesar does differentiate us, and everyone is looking for that signature that will draw business,” says Bilick.

Not for weekends only

A differentiator for Denver-based Snooze: An A.M. Eatery is that the 14-unit chain offers brunch every day of the week. To keep its customer base engaged and booze sales strong, Snooze has reworked classic cocktails for morning consumption, incorporating espresso and cold-brew coffee. “Snooze has a large audience of millennials who love their espresso beverages,” says COO Peter Gaudreau. “We feel that offering twists on boozy classics that feature coffee and a craft cocktail in one satisfies them on both sides.”

Two of the best sellers are the Snooze Fashioned—a combination of cold-brew coffee, bourbon, cherry shrub and bitters—and the AM Manhattan, a mix of local bourbon with espresso and Irish cream liqueur, topped with steamed milk and a cherry. Prices vary by unit, but average $8 per cocktail. Sales of adult beverages are growing, says Gaudreau, due to enhanced seasonal offerings and the handcrafted approach—both baristas and bartenders are on premise. An added bonus: Guests often enjoy morning cocktails while waiting for a table, bumping up average checks.

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