Smart pairings and well-trained staff are key to boosting sales

Oftentimes, the back of the book is the best part of the story. It’s where the journey, after being laid out in multiple chapters, often concludes with a bang. That’s how astute operators look at their dessert beverage program. If organized smartly, and curated with the guest experience and the bottom line in mind, a restaurant can see its sales increase while leaving a lasting impression with their most adventurous fans.

Training staff to learn basic beverage pairing principles for the end of the meal, and then offering them a toolbox of standards and surprises to unfurl with confidence, will ensure that every revenue and hospitality opportunity has been seized before the book is closed.

“I find that a good by-the-glass dessert beverage list can really bump up a check average, especially if the price points on some are relatively low,” said Christine Wright, general manager and beverage director at Hearth Restaurant in New York City. “An $8 glass of Brachetto d’Acqui [a sweet sparkling wine from Northern Italy], for instance, is a great add-on at the end of a meal, especially at a restaurant where the average check is around $75.”

Wright has found that her guests are interested in trying new things at the end of their meals, and keeps a large selection of options on-hand to meet their interest.

“I love dessert beverages,” she said. “At any given time, I’ll have 10 dessert wines, four sherries with residual sugar, three ports, six Madeiras, 20 amaros, five grappas, 12 brandies, and around 20 [other] liqueurs all available by the glass. This is bolstered by about 25 listings of dessert wines and fortified wines that are only available by the bottle.”

While that large arsenal of offerings may not be appropriate for all restaurant concepts, having at least a small mix of options is smart business, as it enhances the guest experience.

“I see the dessert wine section as a way to have some high-quality wines in the dining room, more than thinking of the revenue they accrue,” said Seth Wilson, wine director at Booth One in Chicago. He carries seven different selections by the glass, ranging from light sparkling, to botrytized (wines naturally sweetened via a fungus affectionately known as “noble rot”), to fortified, and a few half bottles of higher-end wines.

“My costs for dessert wines are always higher than my other by-the-glass pours because they don’t sell as much, and really barely affect my bottom line because they move at a much slower rate,” he said. “But [they’re] a little hidden gem for diners to recognize when dining out. The ‘deals’ are usually going to be in dessert selections because guests consider them the black sheep of most lists.”

Whether it’s a huge cast of characters, or a lean group of stalwarts, without proper staff education, dessert wines will never make it to a guest’s table, so training is imperative.

“The key to selling after-dinner drinks is to actually sell them,” said Kim Cavoores, wine director at Marta and Vini e Fritti restaurants in New York City. She carries 10 dessert wines, with five of them being sold by the glass.

“Dessert wine is not a common indulgence at home, so it is viewed as a luxury item. Therefore, including dessert wines in the dessert table-side spiel will trigger a memory of having once enjoyed a dessert wine, and maybe a desire to revisit it again. Dessert beverages are diverse, and the right pairing will bring a whole new level of flavor to the dining experience. More than anything, a server’s enthusiasm encourages guests to branch out and try something new.”

Wilson agrees that staff need to make the suggesting part of the selling, and to be deliberate about it.

“The staff is trained to offer an option of a specific dessert wine pairing with the guest’s dessert choice, either in full three-ounce or one-and-a-half-ounce pours,” he said. “So if a guest orders our chocolate coconut cake, for instance, the immediate response should be, ‘I highly recommend pairing either of our Ports with this if you’d like to try a full, or a half-glass pour’.”

In addition to having specific pairing ideas ready to go, there are a number of tried-and-true approaches to pairing beverages with dessert that need to be learned by staff so they’re comfortable with recommendations.

“I love to give them lots of options to play with, and we’re sure to taste everything with the staff so they are educated about the products,” Wright said. “I find that the guiding principle of an after-dinner pairing is that the beverage needs to be sweeter than the dessert, otherwise the beverage will taste bitter or flat. Try pairing apple cider doughnuts with an apple ice wine. Ice wine is almost always on the sweeter side, so that works great with a sweeter dessert, and the caramel and fruit notes are echoed in the beverage.

“Another style of pairing is to contrast, as in, dark chocolate with a Pedro Ximinez sherry. The deep, sweet, raisiny flavor is an excellent match to the earthy bitterness of dark chocolate.”

Taking a guest on a journey into a new realm of the beverage list they are often not familiar with is a great way to turn them into a regular, as it offers a memorable experience for them, which so many diners are craving.

“I’m always excited to teach my guests away from what they think they already know,” Wilson said. “My favorite guest is the one who turns his or her nose up to dessert wines because they’re ‘sweet.’ I love taking on that challenge, and at times even presenting a free pour for a pairing and waiting for their reaction. I have yet to have a guest disappointed with free goods, and this allows them to understand how amazing these pairings can be, and they’ll hopefully return having even greater faith in the wine team and the restaurant philosophy.”