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When an N/A Drink Will Do

 

“You know you’re low man on the totem pole,” griped one bartender, “when you’re the guy who has to come up with the nonalcohol drink.” That’s the attitude that prevails far too commonly among hospitality professionals---that the N/A drinks are the least important part of the alcohol sales equation.

A little simple math should dispel that myth. If less than half of the American adult drinking-age public admits to consuming alcohol, that means that just about half would prefer to be seen drinking something without alcohol in it.

A Bar Orphan

Nonalcoholic drinks remain the redheaded stepchild of the bar. Worse yet, they are often referred to as “kiddy cocktails.” With all due respect to children, who deserve a liquid to sip on while they watch their elders have a glass of something stronger, many of us adults appreciate the nonalcoholic choice, too.

I’ll even confess to regularly drinking N/A. Why? I have younger friends who can drink more than I do. Personally, I prefer to remember what happened last night (a product of my age), so midway through the evening, I’ll switch, at least for a while, to an N/A drink.

Frankly, I’m bored with fizzy water and lime. Nothing against Perrier and its ilk, but I like variety. So I’ll ask the bartender if there’s something else he or she has that is N/A. I whisper this request. Now imagine how I feel when the bartender shouts back that I could have a Shirley Temple or a Roy Rogers, which are supposed to be kids’ drinks. My kids don’t even know who Shirley Temple and Roy Rogers are. If you were trying to market these drinks to my kids, why not make a drink called a Jay Z or an Eminem, which would surely get their attention?

And why would I sell a child a sweet soda mixed with a sweet syrup such as Grenadine? The creativity of a bartender lies in his or her ability to make a balanced cocktail, one that is both soothing and flavorful and that generates greater thirst for one more sip.

A Profitable Category

The smart restaurateurs get it. “To us, N/A is just as important as any other beverage; it‘s part of the overall beverage program,” insists Mary Melton, director of beverage for P. F. Chang’s. “We teach the waitstaff that during the dining experience there are several ‘beverage occasions’ to look for. Getting the N/A drinks right is just as important as getting the wine right to enhance the food or the event.”

A tired canard is that the people who drink N/A are just trying to save money. What nonsense! As an adult N/A consumer, I am willing to spend some money---if you can mix up a delicious and balanced drink. When I’m out with my drinking friends, I’d like to be able to hold an interesting-looking cocktail in that famous martini glass, just like my friends are doing. I’ve been known to pay nine dollars for such a cocktail, assuming that it tasted good.

N/A can offer greater profit percentages to the sharp and creative restaurateur. But as Melton explains, “As far as a profit center, we never start out thinking of the profits first. We base our decisions on what will give the guest the best N/A choices for their dining experience. Our loose-tea program is not the most profitable program we could find, but we felt it was the right quality, flavor, and service style to make our guests feel their tea was a memorable experience.”

With tea shops sprouting up in US cities, there are new kinds of tea available and sought after: chais, bubble teas, and tisanes. If the coffee phenomenon of the 1990s taught us anything, it is that people want to try new versions of the old categories and that they will spend good money to do so.

Juices, Too

Instead of being looked upon as the last category of interest, N/A should be seen as a new center for profit, through creativity and new thinking. You don’t have to promote only dealcoholized wine; you can sell new and exciting fruit juices, with their own brand identities. Those fruit juices can be blended into smoothies or you can use them as the base for other cold drinks, combining healthy ingredients and adding the newest nutriceuticals such as wheatgrass or spirolina.

A better-than-the-competition N/A program does require more effort than in past years, because there are more choices than ever before. So let’s attend to N/A---for the children and for ourselves.

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