Bret ThornExploring pairings for mass markets

NRN senior food editor Bret Thorn asks why pairing suggestions at large chains have been slow to catch on.

I learned on a recent flight that Frontier Airlines has started charging $2 for coffee, tea and soft drinks. I’d think that kind of nickel-and-diming would be a sure way to alienate customers while bringing in negligible income. But what do I know? I don’t write about the airline business. Maybe it’s somehow in their interest to keep their customers irritated.

But I also noticed that the airline has a section in its Cabin Services Guide called Perfect Pairings. It lists three food items and beverages that go with them: Oatmeal with coffee, chips with ale, and the airline’s assorted snack boxes with soda. Order those pairings together and you get $1 off.

So the notion of pairing food with the right beverages has even made it onto airplanes, where customer service is, well, let’s just say they could learn a thing or two from restaurants.

Pairing food with beverages seems like a great way to improve customer satisfaction, as well as increase check averages. If you recommend a beverage to go with food, I’d think the chances of a customer taking you up on that suggestion rather than ordering water would go up, and if the pairing works well, you’ll enhance the customer’s experience.

Here at NRN we like the idea so much that we recently launched a feature called Pairings, in which some of the country’s leading beverage directors recommend a beverage (usually wine) to go with one of their restaurant’s menu items. I hope it will help our readers gain new insight into food and drink choices that go well together.

Picking a suitable wine to go with a meal is commonplace in fine dining, of course. Every once in a while, I get invited to a press dinner in which beer is paired with food — Weissbier with seafood, a brown ale with steak — and on rare occasions I’ll see someone try to pair food with cocktails.

I’ve even seen non-alcoholic beverage pairings from time to time. Years ago at The French Laundry, Thomas Keller’s Napa Valley flagship, I had lunch with six close friends, including a pregnant woman, who was treated to a range of virgin drinks to go with her meal. They included sparkling cider to start things off, followed by a high-end lemonade with a cauliflower panna cotta with osetra caviar, Gewürtztraminer grape juice with the salad and pasta courses, and black-cherry soda with foie gras.

Steve Olson, a beverage consultant and owner of Apartment 13, a restaurant that just opened in New York City’s East Village, has a whole pairing scheme for the new place. He has developed icons for beer, wine, sake and cocktails, which he lines up under his menu items, with the name of the specific beverage next to them. He said listing the pairings on the menu not only helps customers select a drink that will go well with their food, but also helps servers make good recommendations.

I’ve only seen pairing suggestions made in fits and starts beyond the fine-dining world. Olive Garden periodically adds wine recommendations to its menu, listing them under entrées in a way similar to Olson, sans icons. And last year, fast-casual chain Smashburger started teaming up with local craft breweries in the major markets where it operates to recommend beer to go with its different hamburgers and chicken sandwiches.

I’ve seen signs at the soda fountains of Burger King franchisees in Missoula, Mont., and Denver recommending drinks to go with the food — basically cola with burgers, lemon-lime soda with chicken — although from what I gathered from a store manager it’s not part of a national program.

And of course there’s Frontier Airlines’ Perfect Pairings.

But I wonder why this type of easy, suggestive sale isn’t more widespread at restaurant chains.

What do you think, Nancy?