Increase Check Averages with Mocktails
By Piet Jones
January can be a rough month for restauranteurs. After the excess of the holiday season, people can be stretched a little thin and less likely to go out for a nice meal. Then you take a closer look at those who are coming out and you’re likely to find a bit of a surprise - lower check averages. For any restaurant already operating on thin margins this can be worrisome, especially when you see a big chunk of the decrease is showing up in alcohol sales.
Fortunately, there’s another trend on the rise that was hot in 2017 and looks to be even hotter in 2018 - mocktails. Born from the craft cocktail craze and bolstered by booming sales of drinks like LaCroix, mocktails are a great way to maintain your check average even when your customers are refraining from indulgences. Sure, you could just carry flavored seltzers, but making your own alcohol free drinks isn’t that hard and adds a little cachet to your offerings.
Tinctures - Often used in mocktails but not exactly alcohol free. Think of it like vanilla extract, a strong flavoring where a few drops are all that is needed. Use anything from lemon or blood orange peel to lavender and allow to macerate in a neutral spirits for 6-8 weeks - store in a dark, cook place while “brewing.”. Add a couple of drops to soda water and you’ll have your own house-made LaCroix.
Bitters - Like tinctures, bitters contain alcohol but are used in such moderation that the level is negligible. For bitters you really want to extract the oils, be it from citrus, cloves, anise root or even coffee. You can even use certain fragrant barks for deep, rich flavors. Here the process is adding your ingredients to a neutral spirit and allowing it to steep over low heat to extract and intensify the flavors. Again, all it takes is a few drops to a glass to impart the flavor.
Shrubs - In short, a vinegar based syrup infused with flavor. Take equal parts water and sugar to make a simple syrup, allow your fruit to steep in the syrup as it cooks (the high heat of the sugar water will extract much more flavor than just boiling water would). In the last five minutes of cooking, add your vinegar. Choose your vinegar wisely. Red wine vinegar might pair well with blueberries, apple cider vinegar might not. When added to soda it makes for a wonderful adult soda that is more complex than a Coke or Sprite.
Syrups - Infusing simple syrups with flavor isn’t that hard, you just need to adjust the brewing time to match your ingredients. Chopped lemon grass might give up its entire flavor to the simmering syrup in half an hour. Cinchona bark, the base for any good tonic water, might take a few hours to really get the flavor and the beautiful caramel color. You won’t get the intense flavors of the methods that use alcohol to extract the flavors so you will need to use more than just a couple of drops.
“Ades” - As in lemonade or limeade. Whether you squeeze your own or use bottled, you can easily ratchet these up to make them uniquely yours. For the simple syrup (a better choice than just adding sugar to sweeten), allow mint to steep in it to add another layer to the flavors. Spritz with a little soda to add effervescence and lighten the citrus flavors.
Juices - Fresh and bottled juices can be jazzed up to be something more. Try cranberry with soda and a wedge of lime. OJ with lemon lime soda and a wedge of orange might look like a mimosa but is amazingly refreshing. Muddle some mint then add equal parts mango juice and ginger beer for something more exotic.
The Visuals - Part of the allure of a cocktail, especially premium craft cocktails, is the visuals - the glass and the garnish. Don’t sell your mocktails short by putting them in a plain glass with no adornment. Use your good highball, martini, and even wine glasses to make them more visually appealing. Sprigs of mint, stalks of lemon grass, or candied lime wedges all can add to the look.
The Soda - Speaking of visuals, many mocktails are made with soda water - an extra selling point for those who are cutting back on the calories in addition to the alcohol. Spritzing from the same soda gun that delivers your Coke or Pepsi can be a bit mundane. Consider getting a few rechargeable soda bottles. You can get them in a style to complement your decor or theme and customers seeing your bartender employ them helps reinforce the “made in-house” vibe you’re trying to sell with these special drinks.
They say every challenge is an opportunity. Decreased alcohol sales can be offset by offering adult sodas and mocktails that help keep that check average up and have similar margins to your missing drink sales. Plus, who knows, catering to the non-drinking crowd not just in January but year round, might just open your doors to a whole new crowd of oft-neglected diners.