With competition continuing to heat up across the foodservice landscape, operators increasingly are turning to beverage-focused strategies to help boost customer traffic and build loyalty.
In addition to gathering pertinent information about the consumer groups they’re looking to target, operators are employing such tools as special promotions, menuing of specialty beverages, the use of distinctive packaging, order customization and enhanced customer service.
Foodservice executives took the opportunity to discuss those and other marketing tactics during a beverage marketing roundtable sponsored by Whirley-DrinkWorks!, a designer and manufacturer of high quality food and beverage containers. The roundtable was convened during the National Restaurant Association Hotel-Motel and Restaurant Show in Chicago in May.
While roundtable participants underscored the importance of devising effective beverage promotions, they all agreed that it was critical to first understand the customer base they hope to attract.
Knowledge: “You have to start with understanding what the customer wants,” said roundtable participant Peter Zilper, vice president of operational excellence and food and beverage for Aramark’s Sport and Entertainment.
A few years ago Philadelphia-based Aramark conducted a study of customers at its major league baseball venues. Among its findings, the company discovered that sports fans who attend events most often tend to spend more. And beyond the beer options, they found younger customers — millennials, the generation born after 1990 — were interested in cocktails and food pairings with alcoholic beverages, such as a pork sandwich and a cucumber cooler.
At college campuses operated by onsite feeder Sodexo, students want less sugary drinks and more healthful options, said Jeff Pente, senior director of brand development for Sodexo. In response, Sodexo-run dining areas have “hydration stations” that offer fresh fruits like watermelon or cucumber to flavor carbonated or still water.
Other trends in the beverage arena include energy drinks, according to James Park, vice president of marketing and research and development for Which Wich, the Dallas-based sandwich brand. The chain has experimented with adding caffeine to food and drinks.
“We do believe there’s a big component in energy,” Park told roundtable participants. “Every day there’s more and more fatigue. There’s a lot more information than there ever was before, a lot less time to consume that information. We need something to give us a boost in energy.”
The late afternoon daypart can be a good time to promote energy drinks and caffeinated beverages, the executives said.
McAlister CupPackaging. The packaging of a beverage also can help an operator boost sales. For example, every 18 months or so, McAlister’s Deli introduces a new tumbler for its popular handcrafted sweet tea, said Donna Josephson, chief marketing officer for the Alpharetta, Ga.-based fast-casual chain.
“It’s something, too, that the guest expects; in fact, they actually demand that we provide the new cups and the tumblers,” Josephson said. “They see them as collectables.”
At Sodexo-run State University of New York at Binghamton, students can participate in a prepaid refill mug program that allows them to use the same mugs for drinks throughout the semester. The mugs, produced by Whirley-DrinkWorks! sister company ValidFill, feature RFID tags that can be scanned so students who only want a beverage can skip the cash register lines, Pente said. The mug also meets student demand for sustainable drink container options.
Souvenirs and re-useable mugs and cups labeled with a company name and logo also helps reinforce a brand, said Tom Minella, national director of business development for Whirley-DrinkWorks! Having the cup within arm’s reach in their car, office, or home increases the likelihood consumers will return to that establishment.
“It keeps the operator’s brand front and center,” he said.
Restaurants and foodservice operators also can identify returning customers by using refillable brand cups and mugs in promotions, Minella said.
“When an operator offers a refillable mug promotion and their guests bring the mug back for a refill, it’s a way to identify your loyal customers,” he said. “Here is Jim or Sally back with a mug versus a new customer. When you see them on a regular basis, you can learn their names and call them by their name. It’s a way to surprise and delight the customer.”
Customization: Just as today’s consumers — millennials, in particular — like to customize their food by adding or subtracting ingredients, they also want the same freedom or ability to personalize their drink options.
Firehouse Subs was one of the first to test Coca-Cola’s Freestyle soda machines, which offer more than 100 drink combinations — and even more than that at Firehouse, which had its proprietary cherry limeade drink added to the machines, said Doug Reifschneider, vice president of marketing for the Jacksonville, Fla.-based chain.
Meanwhile, Quiznos is able to offer a good variety of beverage options for customers by working with Pepsi and using coolers and bottled drinks, said Jonathan Tress, senior vice president of marketing at the sandwich specialist headquartered in Denver.
Smashburger, the fast-casual burger brand, promotes local brewers and suggests beer and burger pairings to also give customers variety and personalize their dining experience, said Josh Kern chief marketing officer of the Denver-based chain.
Special promotions. Concepts must be able to tailor promotions to fit the brand’s message and image. For example, McAlister’s Deli’s sweet tea outsells carbonated drinks in the chain’s restaurants. The tea is freshly brewed multiple times a day and made with cane sugar. Because of its popularity, the company’s annual Free Tea Day has become a highly anticipated event, Josephson said. Last year the company gave out some 350,000 glasses of tea.
“Obviously for McAlister’s, beverage inspires the loyalty,” she said. “We do that giant event once a year as a gift back to our guests.”
Hospitality: But no matter how great the quality of the food, the uniqueness of the cup or the customizable options operators provide, the customer’s experience remains the best traffic generator, executives said. Roundtable participants agreed that experience depends on having well-trained, hospitable employees.
“It isn’t about getting a free soda or coffee,” said Aramark’s Zilper. “You want to feel cared for. You nourished me. You cared. You gave. Inherently, I think that’s the answer here. Figure out hospitality. People embrace that and come back.”
For the most part, though, operators have access to many tools to help drive visits, restaurant executives agreed.
Knowing the customer’s likes and dislikes can help operators shape successful promotions. In addition, enabling guests to customize their drinks, providing high-quality ingredients, using well-made sustainable containers that can be branded with the company logo, and offering personalized and friendly service are all steps to using beverages to increase visit frequency and build greater brand loyalty.
*Abridged from an article in Nations Restaurant News, NRN.COM