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Rick Crossland, Ruth’s Chris executive chef, said customers have taken a lot of interest in the dinners. “I think people come for a great evening with great food and drink,” he said. “But they’re also there because they’re very interested in beverages and how they complement a dining experience.”

While the concept of pairing wines with meals is certainly nothing new, wine expert and author Kevin Zraly of Windows on the World Wine School said he thinks Ruth’s Chris’ strategy is a good one. “I think there’s an insecurity in most people when they’re walking into a restaurant and are given a wine list,” he said. “Any restaurant, including Ruth’s Chris, that is trying to alleviate that stress, I think, is a positive thing…I think it’s good marketing. It’s a good way to think of the right wine paired with the right food.”

Still, he said, there are many pieces that make a restaurant an authority on wine. Education, he said, is just one piece. “To me, a wine program is No. 1, a good list; No. 2, good pricing; No. 3, education of the staff,” Zraly said. “Putting together a wine dinner is another arm of those things. It’s a part of the whole.”

Gathering Customer Feedback

Although new menu item testing isn’t the core goal of the program, Mackey said sometimes items from the specialized wine dinner menus will find their way to Ruth’s Chris’ main menu if they resonated with consumers.

One example of that was a Port of Manhattan cocktail — a Manhattan cocktail made with port wine instead of vermouth — that was featured at a dinner in 2012.

Although Ruth’s Chris has not formally gathered consumer data from the dinners, it does make note of trends and consumer feedback, Mackey said. For example, last year, the company hosted a bourbon dinner in June that was purposely scheduled around Father’s Day to attract male consumers.

About 40 percent of those who showed up to the bourbon-pairing dinner were women, Mackey said, adding she was thrilled to learn that information. “We definitely try to pay attention,” she said. “Next step is to get a better idea of what specific demographics are showing up. Different people come to each dinner.”

Ruth’s Hospitality Group operates or franchises more than 150 restaurants systemwide.

Contact Erin Dostal at erin.dostal@penton.com.
Follow her on Twitter: @ErinDostal