Restaurants revitalize bar service to spur alcohol sales

From bar-centric layouts to expanded cocktail menus, there’s a renewed focus on adult beverages, but some hurdles remain.
Bar scene
Photograph: Shutterstock

In an effort to recapture traffic and sales, operators are increasingly focusing on the bar.

While some segments have rebounded post-pandemic, others are lagging behind, most notably casual dining

Upgraded bar programs can be a way to get more butts in seats.

Earlier this month, Restaurant Business' sister company Technomic presented a State of On-Premise webinar as part of its Adult Beverage Planning Program, detailing how bar programs are evolving to lure new and old customers.

Full-service restaurants are creating bar-centric layouts and expanding and upgrading their drink lists, while fast casuals are adding alcohol service for the first time, said Technomic Principals David Henkes and Donna Hood Crecca during the webinar.

P.F. Chang’s recently put its alcohol menu front and center with an extensive selection of cocktails, beers, sake and “refreshers.” Guests are given a physical drinks menu on a printout, but to access the food menu, they have to scan a QR code at the bottom of that drinks list.

PF Chang's menu

Fogo de Chao’s new Bar Fogo menu also is designed to draw people to the bar, offering a craft cocktail-centric experience with light bites.

There’s an opportunity for casual and fine-dining restaurants to recapture ownership of the "third place," said Hood-Crecca, referring to the bar as a gathering spot outside of home and the workplace.

The desire to get out and socialize after two years of restrictions is strong and widespread.

Family-dining and breakfast-lunch concepts are getting in on the action, too. First Watch rolled out a menu of brunch cocktails at a majority of its locations and is gradually expanding the program nationwide. Along with the classic mimosas and bloody Marys, signature drinks using the chain’s fresh juices are on offer. These include the Vodka Kale Tonic, Morning Glory and Pomegranate Sunrise.

And Cracker Barrel is serving up mimosas, wine and beer in several markets.

Fast casuals are jumping on the trend by installing bars and offering house-made cocktails and a greater selection of beer and wine.

Smashburger opened its first bar last month at its new Denver location, betting on consumers’ desire to socialize post-pandemic. A bartender is shaking up cocktails to order, offering drinks such as a Blackberry Smash, Smoke & Spice Margarita and Coconut Mule along with wine and beer.   

Other fast-casual brands, including Hopdoddy, Dog Haus and bartaco have longer-established bar programs that are getting a refresh.

That bodes well for alcohol sales at restaurants. 

Technomic predicts nominal sales growth in adult beverages through 2022. On-premise wine and spirits are expected to increase 16%, with beer increasing 15%.

While new COVID variants and inflation may cut into restaurant visits, Technomic's Q1 2022 Economic Outlook shows optimism. In the next three months, 25% of consumers expect to increase their dine-in frequency. And as the weather warms up, outdoor dining should see an uptick, with 22% of consumers planning on it.

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