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Here’s a little secret—I’m a regular at Sakerum. The Latin-Asian fusion restaurant on 14th Street NW is woefully underrated when it comes to sushi. And I’m a fan of the friendly servers who go out of their way to ask things like, “How will you spend the rest of this beautiful day?’”
But there’s one part of dining at Sakerum that I dread.
When you sit down in the windowless dining room that causes you to lose all sense of place and time, you’re immediately presented with a drink menu with cocktails like “Big Bang Against the Wall” and an array of sake. The dinner menu is held hostage until peer pressure causes diners to succumb to ordering alcohol—or at least it feels that way.
But what if you don’t want to bang anything against a wall on a Monday night? A diner might want to stick to soft drinks for any number of reasons: religion, pregnancy, budget, sobriety, marathon training, migraine, you name it. Maybe someone’s move is to dine after a toke and they don’t like mixing weed and wine.
It’s not only Sakerum that leaves you feeling guilty when your beverage plans stop at iced tea. Turn down the cocktail list at almost any restaurant and watch servers’ shoulders slump as they shuffle away—likely in the direction of stressed out supervisors who are trying to make their numbers.
The economics of the restaurant business have long depended on booze. “Without alcohol sales, it is extremely extremely difficult to be profitable,” says Justin Abad. The D.C.-based restaurant consultant and former restaurateur (Cashion’s Eat Place) provides an example. “Pretend there’s a $10 appetizer,” he says. “If you’re a good operator, you’re running at 30 percent food cost, meaning you will make $7 on that item.” He compares that to a cocktail. The restaurant might make $7.50 on a $10 cocktail once it aggregates all of its beverage costs.
Fifty cents might not seem like much, but Abad says it comes down to “soft costs.” Serving that $10 drink may only require cracking something open and pouring it, while with food you have to think about labor and waste.
This is not news. But several fresh factors compound the need for restaurants to push liquor sales on guests. Chefs are aching to get their hands on the latest and greatest and ingredients to keep up with competition, whether that means answering the call of the farm-to-table movement and sourcing locally or going the extra mile to score something special from overseas.
Abad says sometimes restaurants are willing to take a hit on an appetizer in order to keep a chef’s mojo flowing. “You lose on foie gras, oysters, things like that,” he says. “But you have to give chefs access to that stuff.” That’s why alcohol will always be required to make up the difference, according to Abad.
And the explosion of craft beverages has restaurants, even casual ones, staffing new positions like head mixologist, beverage director, beer cicerone, and sommelier. It’s only natural that restaurants want to use their investment in these individuals to the fullest.
Abad says the movement to legitimize bartending as a craft has only been a good thing. “It’s worth every penny if you have a great beverage director who can engage a guest on a creative, playful level with the economic understanding that we have to make money.”
Above all, Abad cautions restaurants to put hospitality first when it comes to pushing drinks. “I don’t think anyone is naive to believe that there’s not a transaction going on, but the relationship should mean something between you and your guest.” He suggests highlighting a cocktail the bar team has been working hard on or suggesting an outside-the-box wine pairing, rather than more in-your-face tactics.
Despite the need to offset food costs and bankroll beverage professionals’ salaries, it is possible to be profitable without begging diners to order booze, according to Steve Uhr, director of operations for Michael Schlow‘s restaurants. (Those restaurants include The Riggsby, Tico, Alta Strada, and Casolare.)
“In our company, there is no messaging about trying to push alcohol sales,” he says. Rather, “In our small plates concepts, we try and sell one more dish.” Servers are trained to talk about signature menu items when guests overlook them. “If it’s $9, you just added $4.50 a person and that can drive check averages.”
Uhr continues, “If you’re a smart operator, you can figure out ways to make money off of food.”