By Brian Murphy, Foodable Industry Expert
Oktoberfest is a celebration that continues to gain popularity in the U.S. every year, anywhere from the restaurant and bar level to the community and city level. The season for celebrations and menu specials is a short one, but does it need to be?
Staying true to Oktoberfest’s traditional dates is something that allows establishments to offer events and specials for several weeks, but the flavors and celebratory atmosphere are something that can be extended well into fall and winter.
The social aspect of Oktoberfest begs to be replicated, and can be done so on a more regular to perhaps permanent basis. Consider the explosion of community tables and biergarten-style seating popping up at restaurants and bars, and make the connections. Guests, especially millennials, are genuinely interested in a more social experience when going out for drinks and food. The experience is what a large demographic is after, so indulge them!
The model works well in a fast-casual environment, where orders are placed with a cashier or bartender, and food and drinks are delivered to tables or picked up, possibly eliminating the need for servers and allowing for the reassignment of funds to go into the kitchen or quality of the food and beverage being offered. The casual, community-style atmosphere makes guests feel as though they are taking part in a larger celebration instead of simply going out and having fun with their friends as a small group. One bar off the High Line in New York City, The Standard Biergarten, is an example of taking this concept deep and offering the entire Oktoberfest experience year-round.
The options for Oktoberfest can range from ultra-traditional imported beer to a special release from craft breweries, but they are typically a style reminiscent of or inspired by traditional Oktoberfest beers. There is no reason other fall and winter brews can’t take part in the celebration, although some higher ABV brews may not be the best candidates for pouring into a large stein or boot.
Build relationships with local breweries and discuss your plan of extending Oktoberfest, or at least continuing with an Oktoberfest-style celebration in your establishment, and they can point you in the direction of session beers that offer depth and robust flavor, but are lower in ABV so guests can enjoy your space longer and purchase several rounds.
Many Oktoberfest foods have an established place on bar menus. Consider the soft pretzel, which is often a simple appetizer, preferably made in-house (but often not), heated or baked, and served with some sort of beer cheese or mustard. There is no reason why the soft pretzel can’t go in a number of directions. Prosciutto-wrapped, changing the dipping sauces, or using different flour when baking are all options that can make this rather unassuming, beer-soaking appetizer a bigger, better menu item.
Another staple on Oktoberfest menus is sausage. The possibilities of building a respected charcuterie program is enough reason to consider thinking “Oktoberfest” when designing the fall and winter menus. Sure, traditional, German-inspired sausages offer a safe place to start, but the potential options are limitless. A dry-cured sausage has every bit as much place on a sausage board, entrée, or appetizer plate as a beer-braised bratwurst.
Guests buying into the celebration you are offering don’t want an average sausage, either, so be sure to partner up with a local sausage maker or grind and stuff your own in order to position your establishment as a destination, not a novelty.
Fermented foods are in demand, so curing your own sauerkraut is something that should be consideration if your kitchen and space afford the opportunity. Outsourcing the kraut is an option, but the mushy, jarred stuff is not what will keep guests happy, so seek out a fresh product when sourcing the menu in order to find a milk, crisp, and clean-tasting option. Guests will appreciate a kraut that was slow-fermented with minimal ingredients, both because the flavor is drastically better, but also because guests are increasingly aware of the nutritional benefits they offer.
The flavors of Oktoberfest are definitely within the “comfort food” category, and these menu options pair beautifully with a flavorful brew. Offer pairings on the menu and educate staff to give advice on what beer would work especially well with certain menu items. Offering guests suggestions is a great way to introduce them to new beers. Educate them on new flavors and local breweries, and give them more to take away than a full stomach.
Dishes do not need to beat guests over the head with the Oktoberfest theme. In fact, referring to them as such could bring negative feedback when guests inquire, “Wasn’t Oktoberfest last month?”
Instead, use Oktoberfest as inspiration and deviate from serving a sausage with spaetzle and cabbage. Use other fall ingredients, but offer a nod to the German beer celebration. Consider using sauerkraut as an accompaniment to cut through the fat in a variety of braised dishes, fried items, or meats served with a rich sauce or gravy. The crisp bite will give guests a welcome crunch, and the fresh yet fermented flavor will contrast and brighten up the dish.
Explore the similar flavors that are still different enough, like kimchi and Chinese sausages when composing the menu. The difference in flavors can intrigue diners but are close enough for guests to “get” what you were after when the dish was designed. Consider working squash into the mix instead of sticking with traditional potatoes, as they work extremely well with Oktoberfest-style flavors and can certainly hold their own when it comes to pairing with beer.
True Oktoberfest comes around once a year, but don’t let the calendar steer you away from offering the lovely, comforting flavors and fun that come along with it. Explore local options and build relationships with vendors that will make your Oktoberfest season a longer, more lucrative one.