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R&IEditorial Archives2000 — January 1 — Operations

Listing Toward Upscale
Mid-price dining concepts find success with improved wine selections and service.

Entrees in the $7 to $8 range aren’t necessarily ominous for wine-lovers. Thanks to consumer savvy about wine and the availability of many affordable labels, casual-dining restaurants are upgrading choices beyond “red” or “white.”

The Olive Garden’s recent initiative to provide a more authentic Italian dining experience has pushed Darden Restaurants’ 464-unit chain to open a cooking institute in Tuscany and solidify relationships with local wine producers. Corporate chefs and wait staff will participate in weeklong training seminars in Italy. Not only will the red sauce be more authentic, so will the wine choices and service, says Steve Coe, director of media relations for the Orlando-based company.

“Wine is an integral part of the dining experience in Italy,’’ says Coe. The partnership with wineries already is evident on the menu. Two wines have been added to Olive Garden’s list, which is expected to grow by 30% over the next few months. Wine presently accounts for 8% of sales.

When executives of Max & Erma’s Restaurants asked customers for feedback, they learned customers wanted more and better beverage choices. The Columbus, Ohio-based group overhauled the program for the 51-units. Better quality and bigger pours resulted.

The chain’s typical customers, mainly in their 30s with children, are willing to spend a little more for quality and presentation. “The mind-set is, ‘If I’m going to have a drink, I want a good one,’” says Kelley Stinehelfer, director of marketing and communication. An investment in glassware for red and white wines followed. The standard wine pour went from 6 ounces to 8 ounces served in a 12-ounce glass. Customers perceive it as a better value, she adds.

Critical for corporate wine buyers is finding wines of good quality and value with recognizable names. They also must have consistent distribution in the nine states where Max & Erma’s restaurants are located. Wines by the glass range from $3.95 to $6.95. The most expensive bottle is $21.95.


Cocktails and a happy-hour ambience always have driven sales at T.G.I. Friday’s. The Dallas-based chain has no aspirations to being a wine-destination restaurant, but wine is hardly overlooked. In fact, the chain revamped the wine program to serve a broad range of customers. Wines are selected and marketed to pair with menu offerings.

“We have no intention of having a complex wine list. Rather, we go for names you can trust,’’ says Angela Afflack, senior director of beverage marketing.

The wine list was honed from 18 to 13 selections, including three champagnes. Friday’s invested in a new pump storage system for its by-the-glass program. Having upgraded its American choices, it is considering adding a few imports.

Wine education coupled with increased availability and affordability has changed the customer, she says. “We used to sell lots of house wine. Now, customers ask for a specific variety and they’re willing to pay a little more.’’


There’s good news, too, for wine-lovers at Leeann Chin. One unit, recently opened in Kansas City, Mo., is a test site for wine and beer sales. Twelve-ounce, screw-top bottles of red, white and white zinfandel are offered at this location in a shopping mall, according to Aric D. Nissen, director of marketing. Other units of the Bloomington, Minn.-based chain don’t offer alcohol. But this location is considered an entertainment destination. It competes with several casual-dining restaurants, a movie theater and takeout shops at the mall.

Family dining and value always have been the focus of the Portland, Ore.-based The Old Spaghetti Factory chain, where the average dinner check falls under $10. Wine never has been more popular with customers as it is now, says Steve Sweeney, director of marketing.

The customers, often couples with children, are more knowledgeable about wine and make it the adult drink of choice. In fact, wine sales account for 5% of annual food and beverage sales.

Wine choices and information about each one’s origins and taste are displayed on paper placemats. Three wines are spotlighted every four months, teamed with food suggestions. Wine is available by the bottle, glass and 750ml carafe.

By-the-glass prices range from $3.50 to $5.50, bottles up to $25. The 750ml carafe of house wine sells for $6.75.

“Though we have a full bar, wine is more popular than beer or mixed drinks. It goes with the food and atmosphere,’’ says Sweeney.

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