Profiting at Zero Proof

If real men don’t eat quiche, then real cowboys don’t drink bottled waters and middle linebackers don’t sip smoothies. Or so went the conventional wisdom not too long ago. Society has certainly changed.

Take for example the Cowboy Palace Saloon in Chatsworth, CA. Billed as America’s last real honky tonk, it’s a legendary country bar, complete with a 15-horse hitching post, live western music and a clientele of real working cowboys and cowgirls. It’s also about the last place you’d figure to be successful with an alcohol-free drinks program.

But figure again. “Initially we brought in no-alcohol beverages to cater to our mainstream customers, or ‘part-time’ cowboys,” says Cowboy Palace co-owner Bob Rustigian. “We designed a menu, created some alcohol-free specialty drinks and stocked up on nonalcoholic beers and wine. Sales took off in a big way almost immediately.

Shortly thereafter, Rustigian and partner Rhonda Sarnicola noticed that even their regular clientele were hoisting an O’Douls or Sharp’s between long necks, or foregoing alcohol altogether and quaffing a sarsaparilla. Especially popular are Snapple Iced Teas and brewed, old-style sodas

“We still sell a fair amount of alcohol,” states Rustigian, “but there are times when people want to quench their thirst without worrying about the aftereffects. If this kind of program works here, it ought to work just about anywhere.

More than a trend, non-alcoholic beverages (NABs) are now part of the dynamics of our industry. An increasingly large segment of the population is predisposed to socializing without alcohol. Reasons include stricter DWI laws, health concerns, caloric content and, of course, personal preference. Long gone are the stigmas and stereotypes surrounding NABs and the people who drink them in bars.

Operators, too, have adjusted their attitudes toward marketing NABs. Aside from increased consumer demand, alcohol-free products command roughly the same profit margins as their more potent counterparts. In addition, alcohol-free marketing incurs no third party liability and precipitates no service related problems. From a management standpoint, the incentives are rife.

NAB Marketing Keys

Alcohol-free products are the fastest growing category of beverages in the country. An important aspect to marketing NABs and alcohol-free specialty drinks is to do so in the same manner as you would alcohol products. Alcohol-free menus should be developed with the same production value as your regular specialty drink menu. A poorly conceived menu will undermine your efforts and make it appear to both staff and clientele alike that you are merely going through the motions.

Your alcohol-free menu should be as diversified as your clientele. It needs to be easily read in low light and present a balanced offering of NABs — from non-alcoholic beers and wines to bottled waters and fruit juice spritzers. Other candidates for promotion include specialty coffees, espresso, cappuccino, herbal teas.

Price your NABs in-line with the bar’s other products. If priced too low, service personnel will be hesitant to market them, and may consider them to be lesser products. Price these drinks too high, your clientele will rightfully conclude that they are being gouged.

Non-alcoholic specialty drinks have the potential to be as delicious and sophisticated as those that contain alcohol. To be successful, however, they should be presented with the same appeal and flair as your bar’s other house specialties. In addition, consideration needs to be given to glassware selection and garnishing. Every effort should be made so that your alcohol-free signature drinks look and taste exceptional.

Getting your staff to fully support any beverage program is essential to its success. As the people who will be marketing these, they need to rid themselves of any lingering negative attitudes they may have towards NABs and the people who drink them. Furthermore, they need to look for opportunities to market NABs. For example, up-selling a bottled water to someone who orders a club soda, or an alcohol-free cocktail to a person who is reluctant to order another alcohol drink. Servers need to believe in the quality and basic appeal of NABs to be successful selling them. Risk-free profits make these no octane beverages one of the most significant beverage trends to hit the restaurant business in years. Stock up and ride the wave.