Ready For Another Round


Down but not out, restaurant and bar operators get creative in a challenging marketplace

It’s been a difficult year for those on the beverage side of the restaurant business. While economic events beyond control made Canadians reticent about unnecessary spending, the phrase ‘I need a drink’ was likely more common as markets dove and stress levels soared.

Overall, the research numbers for drink slingers isn’t good. The Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association’s Foodservice Facts 2009 states, “Since the start of the millennium, bars, pubs and nightclubs have posted the weakest performance of any segment. Smoking bans, rising alcohol prices, an aging population and changing consumer behavior have led to a steady decrease in units and per capita sales.”

While the commercial foodservice industry enjoyed a 17.4 per cent increase in revenues between 2004 and 2008, sales at drinking places actually fell by 8.2 per cent. That trend should continue this year, with sales at drinking establishments expected to slip 5.8 per cent more, dropping 1.5 per cent further between 2010 and 2013.

And all this is happening while sales at government-run liquor stores soar. In its first quarter of 2009, the Nova Scotia Liquor Corporation recorded net income of $52.7 million on gross sales of $140.1 million, an increase of 1.6 per cent. Gross sales increased by 3.4 per cent in the quarter. In Quebec, the SAQ ended its 2008-2009 financial year with consolidated net earnings of $806.7 million, a record-breaking six per cent increase from the preceding year. And in B.C., total 2008-2009 sales were $2.8 billion, an increase of $115 million or 4.3 per cent over last year, meaning people were still drinking; they were just going out to do it less often.

Nevertheless, while statistics indicate a doom-and-gloom scenario for team tipple, some experts say that whistles are still being whetted — you just have to pick the proper poison.

Vino Veritas // The preferred libation of Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, is one that has seen much upheaval in the past few years, particularly in the Canadian market, where a domestic product that was once scoffed at is now quaffed by casual wine appreciators and sommeliers alike. According to a recent report from Wine Align’s master sommelier, John Szabo, Ontario sommeliers are pushing more VQA Ontario wines. “This year the Wine Council of Ontario recognized 120 restaurants with their award of excellence, earned by establishments with a strong focus on local wines. Another 32 restaurants received Gold Status, which means at least 75 per cent of the list is VQA, up from last year’s 27 recipients. Things are looking good for the Ontario wine industry.” So good, Ontario wine sales jumped 6.2 per cent in 2007/2008, up $286.1 million.

Wine sales increased by 5.3 per cent in Nova Scotia in the first quarter of 2009 and, adding to that success, Canada’s West Coast wine industry has also seen some remarkable growth, even through a difficult recession. According to the British Columbia Wine Institute’s 2008-2009 Annual Report, BC VQA wines saw a three per cent increase in sales for the 12-month period ending March 31. “By almost any measure, our industry fared well compared to most during the economic turbulence of the past year,” said association chairman Scott Fraser in the report. “We did grow, and we managed to stay ahead of the competition, meeting our objective of having a higher dollar market share than any of the competing import categories.”

Sommeliers, mirroring the locavore trend in the kitchens of top restaurants, are touting the virtue of local, too. Hip restaurants like Frank in the Art Gallery of Ontario, River Café in Calgary and DNA in Montreal feature many local producers on their wine lists.

“The most important trend in wine today, and what really warms my heart, is the increased enjoyment of local wines,” says Zoltan Szabo, consulting sommelier with Skyline Boutique Hotels and Resorts. “It’s so important to develop and support local gastro-culture.”

An unlikely convert to Canadian wines, Szabo, an immigrant from the Transylvania region of Hungary, says it’s not just about serving Canadian wines to attract a local-leaning crowd, but rather a pure quality calculation. “Canadian cuisine paired with local wines is as good if not better than anything else out there, and I’ll sign my name to that anytime.”

However, Szabo is quick to note that a wine list with a random smattering of CanCon thrown in misses the point. “You have to develop the right relationships and be meticulous when it comes to staff training. If you just have wines listed on a piece of paper, that’s not a wine list,” he says. As a result, he insists the servers at Toronto’s Eight Wine Bar in the Cosmopolitan Hotel have a chance to try the product and be ready to give their own tableside opinion. “We get everyone involved with our suppliers. We sit around and taste and debate the wines. If the staff likes it, they are going to sell it.”

And selling it is still going to be a challenge, particularly the more expensive bottles. “We’re certainly not selling a lot of bottles over the $100 mark anymore,” says Jamieson Kerr, owner of Toronto’s Crush Wine Bar as well as the recently opened Queen and Beaver Public House. “As a result, we’ve adjusted our wine lists, and I’d say about 75 to 80 per cent of our wines are under $75, and we’ll probably keep it there moving forward.” Other programs at Crush have included no-corkage-fee days — a trend Kerr says is likely to continue — as well as focusing on the venue’s by-the-glass program. “Crush had a tougher summer than usual, but we expect that to turn around now that fall is here,” he says. “We’re selling a lot of great wines by the glass, so people are trying two or three different wines with meals, instead of splurging on a bottle. We’ve also been focusing on wine flights, three different wines matched with an appetizer-sized portion, which has been very popular.”

In terms of offering his own recommendations in the establishment of a wine list, Szabo has a few key tips. “First, a wine list has to be interesting. The questions to ask are always: What foods do I have? What’s my location and my demographic? What level of training does my staff have, and what’s hot and cutting edge?” However, Szabo also notes that you still have to offer a little something for both the adventurous oenophile and the lifelong Pinot Grigio fan. “A good wine list needs to have balance,” he says. “You need to have your ABCs and your usual suspects, but also something that can tantalize.”

Cocktail Culture // If AMC’s hit show Mad Men has taught us anything, it’s that old-school is cool, particularly when it comes to business suits and cocktails. While you might be hard pressed to find a liquor-stocked office anymore, today’s top cocktail bars are experiencing a rejuvenation of sorts, and it’s all thanks to the classic cocktail.

In a response to Sex and the City-type martinis, barkeeps that opt for classic cocktails are trading in the pre-fab lime mix in favour of fresh citrus, muddlers, a pinch of real sugar and even a splash of egg yolk — the key ingredient to creating the viscous mouth-feel of any great whisky sour. “Today’s consumers are demanding cocktails that are more complex than the over-sized, overly sweet ‘sourappletinis’ of the past,” says Gavin MacMillan, director of Operations for Bartender One in Toronto. “I hope we’ll see the end of ‘post-mix’ in the very near future, and I think we’re also close to seeing the end of the really large martinis, in favour of drinks that have a more traditional size and ratio.”

In Vancouver’s hopping bar scene, cocktail drinkers enjoy everything from ultra-modern molecular creations to well-crafted classics. “We’re trying to do something that’s a little more approachable,” says Josh Pape, owner/bar manager at The Diamond in the bourgeoning Gastown district. “It’s a nod back to the classics. I don’t want to say that we’re educating people, but we’re trying to help them learn about cocktails, and we’re using the highest-quality ingredients we can.”

Pape says classic cocktails will always find a place in a scene that’s transient in terms of consumer taste. “The cocktail scene in big cities tends to be cyclical, going from classics to adaptations, then to really intricate drinks and back to classics again.”

But unlike the vodka phenomenon kicked off by Sarah Jessica Parker’s love of the cosmopolitan, many of today’s aficionados look askance at the odourless, tasteless, colourless spirit. “One thing we’re trying to get away from is the cocktail built predominantly on vodka,” says MacMillan. “Now, you can’t ignore it — vodka accounts for 30 per cent of the market. But when you use some other base spirits like rum, gin, whisky, tequila and even cognac, you’re getting real flavour, not just modifiers, sugars and juices.”

Pape agrees, and his efforts to wean Vancouverites off vodka are showing signs of success. “Gin is our top seller, but we’re also seeing a lot of people getting into whisky drinks, and bourbon is flying off our shelves,” he says. “Personally, I’ve been trying to help people realize that vodka isn’t bringing anything to the party. In a cocktail, you’re drinking it for the wrong reasons, and I’ve never had a vodka drink that wasn’t improved by gin, unless of course you’re drinking a classic vodka martini; I can’t really fault you for that.”

No matter what you’re serving though, industry insiders are steadfastly bullish on the coming months. Some even say that, in terms of the overall bar marketplace, the keepers of the cocktail have weathered the storm. “Typically the bar industry doesn’t suffer as much in downturns as some other sectors,” says Nick Di Donato, president and CEO of Toronto’s Liberty Entertainment Group. “People aren’t buying cars or houses, but their cuts to ancillary spending come much later,” he says.

Posh Pints // While wine and spirits have a dedicated, loyal following among the masses, bar and restaurant owners can sleep soundly knowing that Canada remains a great place to sell beer. However, the palate of many loyal beer drinkers has evolved, coming a long way from the stubby bottles and slurred speech of the Mackenzie Brothers.

Specialized, beer-first bars are shaping the preferences of a savvy new group of suds sippers. “We do try to educate people, but we also want to ensure they’re having fun with beer,” says Joe Sacco, owner of the aptly named Smokeless Joe’s, a Toronto beer mecca. “We don’t want people to think that a large beer list is daunting.”

According to Sacco, despite his establishment’s reputation as the place to go for a unique beer experience, he still has to gently push new patrons away from their automatic go-to choices. He’ll recommend a similar style of beer, but something that’s a little more adventurous. “German wheat beers have been our top sellers this summer,” he says. “And Canadian companies like Rickard’s and Alexander Keith’s have come out with wheat beers recently. When the big producers start making and marketing a certain product, it benefits all of the smaller producers, and the imports as well, because more people are aware of it.”

Nathan Cameron, mixologist and bar manager for Casey’s restaurants and Prime Pubs, says when it comes to beer, awareness is key, particularly among social groups. In many cases, there’s competition among friends to see who can recommend the new craft brew or imported beer to the group. That attitude, along with shifting views in the culinary scene to buy local, has been a boon for smaller domestic producers. “It’s sexy to buy something domestic. Craft brewers are doing a great job of promoting that,” he says. “They’ve taken import-savvy consumers and turned them onto something local.”

For his part, Sacco agrees that progress has been made in terms of promoting smaller, local beer producers, but he also sees it as a work in progress. “I’d love to be able to say that sales for small producers are going to jump 10 per cent next year. In reality, things are improving but it’s at a slow pace,” he says.

Regardless of the beer in the glass, Cameron says there are a few key factors about the glassware itself that are changing, particularly with regard to more stringent regulations around drinking and driving in Ontario. “It’s important that licensees do what they can to ensure a positive guest experience. In light of new laws, guest habits are going to change,” he says. One significant change Cameron sees on the horizon is a move away from pints to something a little smaller in size, but perhaps higher in alcohol content, which is sipped, savoured and enjoyed, as opposed to guzzled. Included in that push is large-format bottles — think Unibroue’s Fin du Monde, Maudite, et cetera — which can be ordered and shared at a table.

“We see some guests moving to a higher-percentage alcohol beer or more expensive options, because they might only be having one. Bars just have to be prepared to offer beers in many different portion sizes.”

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