By Erica Nonni, Foodable Contributor
Any restaurant manager can tell you that a good beverage program is a crucial profit center. A clever wine list, an eye-catching cocktail selection, and a finger on the pulse of craft trends can build a restaurant brand. It engages repeat customers, upsells beverage choices, and creates serious buzz. Consider the Manhattan, invented a century ago at the club by the same name, or the Frozen Negroni that’s got NYC’s Alta Linea in the current spotlight.
For private members’ clubs, the stakes are high. A limited, repeat clientele that pays a membership fee and a monthly F&B minimum presents distinctive challenges:
- Keeping an inventory of off-menu items in case of special requests or past menu items that members remember
- Stocking a solid collection of top-shelf spirits and classic wine styles to suit the gin-and-tonic, Napa Cab set
- Always having something new, creative, or seemingly spontaneous at the ready to engage more intrepid sippers
- Offering items that are unavailable elsewhere, whether rare, old vintages or secret-recipe cocktails
Does a dedicated, repeat clientele mean clubs can take more risks with introducing new cocktails, wine styles, and craft beers - or fewer? When members have a choice to go to their clubs or to any number of public restaurants, how does a successful beverage program help retain and attract members?
New York and London both have members’ clubs in spades, from staid suburban country clubs to edgy urban drinking dens. Here, beverage directors from across the Atlantic share their tips.
Fernando Silva, Wine Director & Sommelier at GlenArbor Golf Club in Bedford Hills, NY, is cautious about introducing trendy new drinks. But ensuring that old-time favorites are available makes introducing new drinks easier. During the golf season, Silva invites guest winemakers and wine connoisseurs to introduce new styles, such as Austria & Hungary Night. GlenArbor’s most popular drink at the moment is the Kentucky Rain, a classic bourbon cocktail with a modern twist of ginger beer.
Xavier Landais oversees the private members’ clubs bars at the Caprice and Birley groups, including The Club at The Ivy, Annabel’s and George. He believes that by acquiring members’ trust over time, he can experiment more, and they will be receptive.
“Members’ bars are definitely a step ahead compared to public bars, where most customers are unknown. On the other hand, a member’s expectations are very high. They’ll expect the best – be it style, ambiance, cocktail ingredients, or service. So dramatically changing a cocktail list, wine list or beer selection can backfire if done without a great deal of thought and research. Members have taken an interest in the winning cocktails from our in-house cocktail competitions. The ‘Hammer of God’ is very popular – rather a masculine beer cocktail made from Johnnie Walker Black, cinnamon, lemon and Innis & Gunn beer.”
At Aspetuck Valley Country Club in Weston, CT, Wine Director J.C. Mejia strikes a balance between classics and creativity. His bar staff is encouraged to develop new cocktails, which are first tested at the pool bar. He ages the club’s own bourbon in small casks, one of which is on display behind the main bar while the others age in the club’s cellar. Mejia’s weekly Wine Wednesdays program allows him to test obscure sommelier favorites like indigenous Sicilian red blends alongside favorites like Pinot Grigio.
Education and exclusive access are keys to success at Merchant House in London’s financial district. Merchant House is part of a group that trains staff at some of London’s best bars and it offers the largest selection of premium gins and rums in the world, and is open to the public. However, a list (now closed) of 100 customers enjoy some distinctive perks. When a member orders a drink, two versions are served: one as a cocktail and one neat. Members enjoy regular not-for-profit tasting events, such as a make-your-own-gin workshop. The goal is education. The result is loyalty: a model that allows Merchant House to grow its public following while maintaining an exclusive members’ cohort to test concepts and create community over extremely limited bottles.
The Cornell Club in New York City has a membership that spans wide age and professional demographics, but has a specific university-associated identity. Timothy Della Pace, Food and Beverage Director, enjoys offering the traditional club experience paired with a straightforward value proposition and a dose of school pride. He believes “a key component with clubs, unlike transient establishments, is member value. A larger pour for a lesser price. We have the Big Red Bubbly and we continually run $5 drink specials from 5 p.m.-7 p.m. We also have a prix fixe menu that includes a glass of wine and/or a draught beer. We feature wines made or hand-picked by Cornellians in the business. We call it Cornell by the Glass.” Members want high-end bourbon, vodka, scotch, and craft beers, as opposed to a cocktail menu. I believe if you simplify with quality and value — as opposed to cocktail flair — a home-run is hit every time.
Word on the street is 5 Hertford Street may be London’s members’ club of the moment. 5 Hertford Street draws in a younger, trendier professional set but maintains traditional values. Beverage Director Tim Parkinson feels that a repeat clientele means he can explore more options, such as serving large format wines by the glass, which has proven hugely popular with members. Parkinson is constantly searching for more double magnums to be able to alternate the wines each day.
So how do private clubs compete with the spread of public cocktail bars? Creativity draws them in, but consistency maintains members’ trust. Says Parkinson, “The benefit of a membership club is knowing clients’ habits and preferences better than a typical restaurant or bar. The other benefit of a club is members feel very much like it is their club, so we get very honest feedback on the food and drink selection. If a request comes through for a particular product, a particular distillery or a vintage of fine wine, we do our best to accommodate, as we have that relationship with the member and know they will be back to the club.”