Building your lunch business

by Julie Slama

Gone are the days of the leisurely three-martini lunch. It has been replaced by a quick meal, usually soda and a sandwich, and back to work. Even the longer business lunch is more business and less drinking. So how do brewpubs, which by the nature of their business are centered on beer, still have a successful lunch?

Every manager knows that quick, good service is essential. More than ever people are looking for value as well. According to the National Restaurant Association, lunch counts for 37 percent of total restaurant traffic, and managers are making the most of those customers. While factors such as location and concept predispose some brewpubs to have more successful lunches, there are things managers can do to increase lunch sales.

Yes, people are drinking less at lunch than they did 10 or 20 years ago. But don’t think beer is out of the question. At Yegua Creek Brewing Co. in Dallas, selling beer at lunch isn’t much of a challenge. Much of the lunch business is shoppers from the surrounding antique dealers — people who don’t have to go back to work and have time for a leisurely lunch. Toby O’Brien, the brewpub’s president of general partners, estimates that 50 percent of his lunch customers order beer.

Yegua Creek also has a happy hour that extends over lunch. From 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. pints are only $2. When sodas are so close in price, says O’Brien, it’s easier to sell the beer. On a typical $900 lunch, $189 is alcohol with $147 in beer and $22 in liquor. Because of their extended happy hour, that means on a $900 lunch, approximately 75 beers are sold.

Low-Pressure Sales

Many managers accept that much of their lunch clientele doesn’t have the luxury of having a drink at lunch. Dan Feiner, general partner of Brew Moon Brewing in Boston, doesn’t like his servers to push beer on people, but instead to let customers know that the restaurant brews its own. “People know if they want to drink when they come in,” he says. Instead of wasting effort pushing beer on unreceptive guests, servers use the opportunity to promote happy hour or dinner business.

Scott Carlson, assistant general manager of Court Avenue Brewing Co., Des Moines, looks at lunch as an opportunity to remind people that Court Avenue brews good beer. “Use lunch as an opportunity to plant the idea of having a beer. That way when they are ready to have a beer, it’s ours that they will chose,” he says.

When describing your beers for customers, encourage servers to remind them that samplers and smaller 10- or 12-ounce glasses are available. Offering a hand-crafted, non-alcoholic root beer is another way to encourage guests to enjoy the brewing experience even if they have to go back to the office. The added benefit is that guests are reminded that you brew beer as well.

Lunch Menus

For the most part brewpubs and customers have common goals for lunch: getting food fast and making it easy. Many brewpubs have found success having a separate lunch and dinner menu. Usually the lunch menu has fewer items — which helps the customer decide quickly and the kitchen prepare better — smaller portions, and lower prices.

Yegua Creek Brewing recently began serving lunch again, offering a limited menu to control costs. There is no sautŽ cook during lunch, which decreases the menu by 10 items. Having one fewer line person helps keep kitchen labor down during slow lunches. O’Brien says that it is more profitable to be open and slow than not open at all. “It affects our dinner business; lunch helps us have stronger dinners.”

Another trick on lunch menus is to offer fixed-price options, according to the National Restaurant Association. Pair five or six entrees with soup or a salad and a beer or soda. Customers interpret these special lunch combinations as a bargain and you have the advantages of promoting your beer and preparing for a limited number of choices.

For an easier and faster lunch all around, Carlson at Court Avenue promotes his to-go business. When people call in their orders ahead of time, the kitchen can prepare the food before the lunch rush and to-go diners don’t tax busy servers and seating room.

A limited express menu, or a pre-prepared “express dish,” such as a sandwich, can be a good choice if your market is in an extremely busy location. By preparing in advance, you can promise immediate service for diners with no time to spare and free up prep cooks and chefs for standard menu orders.

If limiting your lunch menu doesn’t fit your brewpub’s style, you can plan to add staff to keep up with the demand on fast service. Brew Moon, which has a second location in Saugus, Mass., has two sous chefs for each location, allowing customers to get in and out quickly. For the Boston restaurant, which is generally on a wait, having quick kitchen ticket times has been very important.

Work/Lunch Promotions

At Tied House Cafe and Brewery, which operates three restaurants in the San Francisco Bay Area, lunch promotions have helped to tap into the large companies in nearby Silicon Valley. Each week a company or department is chosen as the “business of the week,” and its employees are offered 15 percent off their bill.

According to Mark Nodurft, general manager of the Mountain View location, the human resources departments of surrounding organizations are often willing to hand out free pint cards or assist in organizing department parties. Catering to large office parties has been an asset to Tied House as well. A beer garden and tap room allow the restaurant to physically accommodate parties, but Nodurft’s willingness to prepare special menus and offer a decorated room at no charge is what draws large groups for the going-away lunch or office party.

Court Avenue offers a secluded dining room that is often reserved for lunch meetings. A large oak table and the ability to close off the room from the main dining room makes the restaurant attractive for business lunches. The plan is to eventually have a fax machine accessible as well. The only drawback is that it is often hard to get people to leave once they have secured the table.

Cross-promoting with other advertisers or businesses is an option for many brewpubs. O’Brien and American Express do a 50,000-piece mailing for Yegua Creek. The companies will co-op the expense to send the piece, which includes a two-for-one entree coupon, to target zip codes.

Lunch Buffets

There are ways to increase lunch covers without discounting. Allow customers to be seated, help themselves, and get back to work on time. Buffet. The word strikes fear in the hearts of chefs everywhere. They immediately assume it means they can’t control the quality or the cost of their product.

Court Avenue has had great lunch success, partially because they offer a lunch buffet. Changing both the server’s and the chef’s attitude about buffets is what has made it successful, says Carlson. He and his other managers were originally opposed to the buffet idea but have since changed their tune. “Servers have been trained to use the buffet as a tool. If the restaurant fills up, they can sell the buffet and reduce the load on the kitchen and themselves. When it’s slower, they can concentrate on selling the menu.”

“It has to be nice,” Carlson says. “We buy fresh flowers and make sure the tables look nice.” You can’t miss the buffet as you walk into Court Avenue. Large labels announce the buffet’s offerings, catching the attention of the customers as they wait for tables. The chef spends time every morning educating the servers on the buffet entrees.

A typical lunch may see anywhere from 30 to 70 buffets. At $7 each the buffet has been costed out at approximately 40 percent, although that number changes depending upon covers.

It is a cooperative effort from the kitchen and front of the house staff to get the buffet out, keep it clean and stocked, and break it down. By using front-of-the-house staff as well, the buffet hasn’t required any extra hourly kitchen labor, allowing it to be profitable. According to Carlson, at first it seemed to be time consuming but now, “setting it up and breaking it down is just part of the routine.”

The buffet at Court Avenue features eight to 10 gourmet salads as well as four hot entrees and bread. Originally the salads were on a separate table from the hot items. However, in a recent format change Carlson found that by making guests go past salads to get to other items, as in a traditional buffet, the salads were selling better and entrees going further, helping to control costs.

The buffet has helped Court Avenue manage the catch-22 that many restaurants find themselves in at lunch. Being on a wait may be the best advertising in town. Customers know you are doing something right if there is a 20-minute wait. But unfortunately at lunch, many people aren’t able to wait and return to work on time.

Court Avenue managers expected lunches to be their strongest sales, but successful lunches led to busy dinners, and the word of mouth has created dinner sales that have surpassed lunch.

Service for Success

Because a lot of lunch customers have limited time, Carlson stresses the importance of conveying a sense of urgency. “It makes the customer feel like they are the most important thing to that server.”

Carlson adds that being in control, even when a walk-in party of 30 arrives, is critical to a successful lunch. As lunch becomes shorter and more competitive, good service must be a constant.

A change in taxable lunch deductions in 1994 may contribute to the changing face of lunch crowds. The business meal deduction dropped to 50 percent from the 80 percent allowed prior to 1994, causing many corporations to limit their employees’ lunch spending. At Tied House, which has been open for nine years, Nodurft doesn’t think that the change in deductions has hurt business, but it has changed the clientele. He sees an increase in the number of covers and a decrease in the average check as people don’t have as much available in deductions.

Feiner says the change in deductions hasn’t affected his lunch business. People still like to get out of the office, he says, and Brew Moon offers a good value. “Everyone has to eat,” he says.

Published in the May 1997 issue of BrewPub Magazine.