Exploring 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?
Execution is everything
The following is Kruse Company president Nancy Kruse’s response to NRN senior food editor Bret Thorn’s take on beverage pairings.
Well, Bret, the first thing I think is that you should practice a little deep breathing to insulate yourself from the trials of air travel. I agree that it’s no fun, especially with the added indignity of having to fork over a couple of bucks for a beverage.
That said, it strikes me that promoting coffee with cereal or soda with snacks has very little to do with enhancing culinary compatibility. While they may be Perfect Pairings, they don’t exactly challenge the palate or broaden beverage horizons. They’re really kinder, gentler versions of the standard suggestive sell, the one that’s typically verbalized. You know, the familiar, “Do you want a soft drink with that?” query, with a nice financial incentive in Frontier’s case.
That familiar query can be pretty darn grating, especially when it’s loudly and robotically bleated at the customer, which may be part of the problem. Most suggestive selling in mass-market operations is badly done. There’s a fine line between suggesting and badgering, and while this is an old complaint relative to quick-service operations, I don’t think they’re the only culprits. It’s a total turn off. Better training in the fine art of the sell is definitely in order.
It’s not that it can’t be smartly executed. Taco Bell does a nice job of matching specialty beverages with specific food items; you can view the go-togethers on the website. On the full-service side, Fleming’s has long been active in food-and-wine pairings, and the Small Plates, Big Pours menu marries dishes with drinks. Petite syrah accompanies the New Zealand Petite Lamb Chops; Sauvignon Blanc goes with the New Bedford scallops, and so on.
I think this raises a bigger issue, and that’s the surprising lack of synchronicity between the bar and the dining room in most full-service restaurants. Many chains have done an outstanding job with innovative wine and craft beer programs, and they’ve also upped their game with some truly creative cocktails. I’d like to assume that the beverage menu is created at least in part to provide a nice complement to the food menu, but too often the twain don’t meet. The bar and the dining room remain silos, and money is being left on the table. That’s bad news at any time, and it’s much worse when times remain challenging for many restaurateurs.
But I must tell you, Bret, that I’m mightily impressed and not a little envious of your experience at The French Laundry. Lemonade with caviar and black-cherry soda with foie gras? Anywhere else, this would sound like a punch line. In the hands of a masterlike Thomas Keller, it sets an aspirational standard for thoughtfulness, creativity and guest-centricity.
Nancy Kruse, president of the Kruse Company, is a menu trends analyst based in Atlanta and a regular contributor to Nation’s Restaurant News. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.