Doubling Down on Drinks To-Go

Drinks To-Go Wray & Nephew
Drinks to-go from Wray & Nephew, as served at Ka-wana Jefferson’s Sweet in Brooklyn (Photo by Jay McClinton/DosOjosMedia)
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When we took a look at newly instituted drinks to-go laws around the country last fall, they were hard-won new pieces of legislation providing a lifeline to bars and restaurants.

Today, the tide has changed. Drinks that could walk out the door with a guest back then meant the difference between life or death for a business; now they’re a unique marketing tool and a smart additional revenue stream.

Ka-wana Jefferson, owner of Sweet and Sweet Catch in Brooklyn, has ridden the rollercoaster from necessity to nice-to-have, and is still committed to offering a selection of drinks to-go on her menu. Sweet Catch has a menu created by Shannon Mustipher, which is designed to enhance the flavors of the menu while creating flavor touchpoints for the community’s palate.

“Since Covid it’s been a great incentive to have that additional stream,” Jefferson said. During the pandemic it was a lifeline. It was needed, it gave us life and essentially kept us in business.”

“Sweet has been open for seven years,” Jefferson continued, “but Sweet Catch Brooklyn has only been open since the pandemic and we are open still far from out of the red, so having any revenue stream that enables us to increase growth has been essential.”

Jefferson explains how forces outside her four walls were essential for her decision to keep investing in the vessels needed for to-go drinks, “We are very connected with our community, and in talks with our merchant association, and it’s a consensus that covid has changed the trajectory of businesses.”

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“Drinks to go are an additional stream that proves to be very helpful,” Jefferson said. “Truly in 2022 vs. 2020 we’re doing less to-gos, but those drinks we are doing are boosting up to-go orders and pushing people to our website. People are now able to add on that drink which they couldn’t do pre-covid. It’s a great incentive to order from us.”

That was the goal when Lisa Hawkins, Chief of Communications and Public Affairs at the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, noted the benefits of the work she and her team did in successfully lobbying at least 18 states and the District of Columbia to allow drinks to go.

Hawkins told us what they were hearing from consumers, “At the height of the pandemic, it allowed them to support their local restaurants and bars, while also enjoying a handcrafted cocktail at home. When the pandemic hit, so many people missed being at bars and a being able to pick up a handcrafted cocktail to go was a small way to bring that experience back into their homes.”

Touching people at home is where the magic really is. In a town like New Orleans where to-go drinks have been a forever thing (except during the pandemic, but that’s a legislative story for another day), it almost seems redundant to be talking about the benefits of drinks to go, but what they discovered down there is that you can teach an old dog new tricks. And a drinks to-go program can take on a whole new meaning during the holidays, for instance as they do at Cure.

Drinks To-Go Devil Moon BBQ
Devil Moon To-Go Cocktails (Photo by Randy Schmidt)

Cure Co. founder Neal Bodenheimer oversees the programs at Cure, Val’s, Cane & Table, and Dauphine’s in DC too. Many an unfinished cocktail has been put in a to-go cup at the end of the night at one of his New Orleans establishments, but Bodenheimer has created a new bar experience for his guests, one that lingers long after they leave.

That’s important at holiday time when attention is pulled in many directions – iconic restaurants where families have celebrated for years draw them back, holiday pop up bars like Miracle and Sippin’ Santa draw them in, and so he harnessed an old tradition of egg nog with a new to-go twist and started promoting his batched egg nog via Instagram and expects it to go on sale at the bar shortly after Thanksgiving.

Bodenheimer shares why they take the time to batch the nog, “Any time you can provide something that a guest can walk out of the door with, something they can purchase, you should. I’ve seen this with our book. They want that add-on purchase. I think it’s a great thing to have.”

“For the average operator you’re always looking – bars have things that are branded, and we think about a nice pen with your bar or restaurant name on it, you want them to have stuff at their house that reminds them of you. It’s the same way with these drinks you want people to bring home a piece of the bar, not just for the extra revenue, but also for the marketing,” Bodenheimer concluded.

Making the marketing work with to-go drinks is one part reputation and one part organization. Good to go cocktails can be a reminder you exist and that you’re doing something great…if you merchandise them correctly. Nick Farrell is the Spirits Director who oversees the beverage programs at Show of Hands, Caruso’s Grocery, and Irongate in DC and the bar programs at Devil Moon BBQ and Brewery Saint X in New Orleans.

During the Pandemic, Farrell sold a lot of bottled freezer cocktails that were simple open and pours and while sales have slowed down a bit, he’s still seeing 50-75 go out each week. He explains, “We could be doing a bit more but it’s not where we’re focused right now. We are selling them to the people who just want to take something home and don’t want to fuss around to have to make cocktails. They’ll come in and have a drink and – especially at our food hall – then take pizza home and grab a cocktail because it’s there.”

Farrell stocks his bottled drinks at the checkout counter. He notes, “We are purposefully putting drinks to-go at checkout – where it makes sense. And, it is easier than hand selling.”

Farrell’s commitment to glass bottled drinks is a reflection of his commitment to sustainability and drink integrity. Being able to share those values with guests is another marketing point to be made with to-go drinks.

When Jefferson started her to-go program she had branded cups, but over time shifted to standard stock options. But that leaves her, and many others who use what they buy at Restaurant Depot and places like that, with a missed opportunity. Two, actually. A missed opportunity to have their brand name in people’s hands, and a missed opportunity to do so while making a statement about their commitment to sustainability.

That’s where a product like The Good Cup comes in. After winning multiple design awards abroad, and being put to the test in bars, restaurants and coffee shops in Europe and Asia, Good Cup is bringing its environmentally sound alternative to plastic to-go cups to the US this fall.

Cyril Douret, co-founder, Managing Partner of Choose Save Planet’s The Good Cup, designed the first prototype after attending a music festival. He shares, “I was originally at the music festival where the waste from drinks was the most prominent and that was mostly plastic or paper cups with plastic lids! The vision is to remove as much plastics in the food and beverage industry as humanly possible.”

A noble effort many are on board with but haven’t had a solution for yet. Douret explains how it can be used for cocktails, “The Good Cup performs the same as a plastic cup, but actually is even better, because there is less possibility for the lid to pop off. So, if you can walk and sip with any other cup, The Good Cup will perform the same, if not better.”

Drinks To-Go Industry Spirits
Drinks to-go from Industry Spirits’ bottled cocktails with Vodka and Gin (Photos courtesy of Industry Spirits.

He continues, “Because The Good Cup uses a water based or aqueous coating on the inside of the cup, there is a certain percentage of alcohol that does best with the cup. Beer and wine are perfect at 10% alcohol content. We know straight alcohol will compromise the materials-anything over 40%. In between, the life of the cup is being tested, but has lasted up to two hours.”

Any shift to paper and or The Good Cup will make a significant shift in waste for “to-go” or “take-away” options for restaurants and bars.” Sounds like a potential option, especially as branding comes free of charge with every minimum order, and the cups come assembled in stacks of 25 or 50 which saves time when trying to get a drink out the door and maintain its integrity.

The integrity of the drink is one thing that is sacred for a bar. Much as you know a to-go meal isn’t going to be the same exquisite experience as dining in, you take out all the time; drinks run the same risks.

Andrew Friedman, founder of the bartender-owned spirits brand Industry Spirits got into the spirits business during the pandemic and leveraged his bartending and bar ownership expertise to help Washington state restaurants present great to-go cocktail offerings to their guests. He’ll come in and create a cocktail for them or work with them to adapt a popular menu cocktail for a to-go format and admits it is not for everyone.

Friedman remarks, “Nobody is doing a great job of marketing it to the customers to do it well; the servers don’t know what to do with it, you have to add it to your menu, and it just gets confusing unless it’s well managed. But when it is done right …what a to-go program can do is act as marketing.”

He concludes, “Someone is already in your business, so when you let them take home a really good cocktail and put a bottle in their freezer and then when they pull it out or open the freezer, they remember you. Instead of it being a replacement for them coming to your business, it’s a reminder about you. Every time they open the freezer there it is staring you in the face, reminding you to come back.”

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Francine Cohen
Francine Cohen is an award-winning journalist covering the business of the f&b/hospitality industry, and a proud native Washingtonian (DC). In addition to her work as a journalist she keeps busy fundraising for Citymeals on Wheels, Les Dames d’Escoffier, NY Women’s Culinary Alliance, and the USBG Foundation and serves as chief storyteller and brand steward for clients in the food and beverage sector by providing them with strategic marketing and business growth guidance. She has never met a cheese or beverage she does not like, and lives with her husband in New York; leaving him behind to visit New Orleans every summer. (Except 2020. Darn pandemic.) You can reach her at francinecohen@mindspring.com