Pizza and beer are age-old companions whose affiliation is anything but stale. Now that craft American brews have garnered enough popularity for multinational companies like MillerCoors to copy, these distinguished drinks also can help reinvent pizza as it enters the fast casual segment.
Take Brixx: Wood Fired Pizza, a 13-unit-strong neighborhood restaurant based in North Carolina. Technomic Inc. deemed Brixx one of the Top 100 fast casual restaurants in a recent report, one of 11 pizza chains in the segment — and one of seven within the sub-segment that served wine and beer.
It seems this subset may be on to something. Jeff Van Dyke, Brixx managing partner, said beer sales account for a whopping 10 percent of the chain's sales. That's a lot closer to what casual eateries do than fast casuals, which can average about 1 percent to 2 percent, five percent if they're doing a great job, Technomic's Darren Tristano said.
But Van Dyke will be the first to admit that the beer love didn't all come at once.
"I would definitely say the craft beer market is a higher socioeconomic level than the average consumer," Van Dyke said. "But basically today everyone from college kids on up is more interested in the local beers and craft beers â€¦ We've been open 11 years, and more and more of the market appreciate that."
People appreciate new and bolder beer from smaller American "craft brewers" more than they used to, Van Dyke said. He said customers' demands range from MillerCoors' "faux" craft Blue Moon label to more obscure and locally crafted beer with a high gravity, or more intense taste and alcohol levels.
The numbers agree with him: The Brewers Association, an advocate and information center for independent American micro and craft breweries and brewpubs — most of which produce no more than roughly 2 million barrels yearly — reports that the craft brewing industry grew 5 percent by volume and 9 percent by dollars in the first half of 2009. That's even while big, multinational macrobrewers were trending down in the recession.
Brixx capitalizes on its customers' motley affinities through its Master's of Beer Appreciation or "MBA" program, which encourages patrons to sample Brixx's 24 or so taps for T-shirts, free pizza and other swag, and involves them in beer dinners and tastings.
This capitalization may be one of the restaurant's unsung keys to success.
Tristano said that as pizzerias increasingly enter the fast casual markets, they should look to high-margin menu items like beer or wine as solutions — especially for the dinnertime crowd. His prescription for growing the revenue on these items includes in-store marketing like table tents or server suggestions. The MBA program at Brixx is an even more entrenched version of Tristano's in-store initiative recommendation.
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Beer additions can also help stores' bottom lines indirectly by putting fast casual pizzerias in a segment all their own. Indeed, Rick Hendrie, senior vice president of marketing with Uno Chicago Grill, said one reason they imbued the menu of new fast casual Uno Do Go was to "add additional layers of separation between (them) and the Paneras of the world."
"It's intended to have a lounge component to it," Hendrie said.
Similarly, Tristano said, pizzerias might steal bar patrons with a "night program" for younger audiences who are looking for a venue to have a drink. "Bars don't necessarily have good food products," he said.
And retrofitting a pizzeria with beer offerings or beefing up an existing beer or wine menu is easier than one might think. Managers can start off with simply a few more daring rotating beers of the month.
"You don't have to do a big beer system to do that; you can do it in bottles," he said. "Almost any operation can find a way to put a couple-kegs-of-beer cooler in," Van Dyke said. "It's mainly about keeping it fresh and giving your customers what they want. It really varies from market to market, so listen to your people and give â€˜em what they want."