Since its merger last year, Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits covers 45 markets in the U.S. and Canada. That national coverage appeals to multi-state, multi-unit restaurant chains who want to simplify their distribution and make national beverage programs more efficient.
Bill Edwards, Southern Glazer’s SVP of On-Premise National Accounts, has a unique perspective on restaurants’ wants and needs. He spent 17 years working in beverage and culinary strategy at Darden Restaurants (mostly on the Olive Garden brand) before coming to SGWS in 2004.
“Customers find it easier to deal with us because we’re a one-stop shop,” Edwards says. “When it comes to communicating strategies or executing new products and programs, it’s infinitely easier to make sure everyone is on the same sheet of music across a single network.”
While at Olive Garden, Edwards dealt with 63 different distributors on his house wine program. It was a challenge to make sure items were in stock, product forecasts were accurate and pricing was managed correctly. “Today, since we cover 90% of the operating units for most chains we deal with, they can execute a program with one phone call,” he says.
Edwards’ group calls on the top 200 restaurant chains and 60 top hotel and resort chains, so staying on top of consumer trends is a must. Right now growth in premium spirits, interest in whiskey, a focus on quality and catering to female consumers are the trends driving national chains.
“The premiumization trend continues to outpace everything we see,” Edwards says. “The value brands are still there, but growth is in the premium and luxury sector. It reflects the shift toward people being healthy, drinking in moderation and enjoying affordable luxury when they go out.”
Quality mixers and flavor modifiers go hand-in-hand with premium spirits (a trend our sister publication Cheers has covered extensively). “Mixologists are paying attention to the details,” Edwards adds. “What goes along with the quality brand within a cocktail is just as important as the spirit itself.”
The casual dining industry has also adapted to female consumers’ embrace of brown spirits. With women representing 60% of casual dining customers, many national chains were reluctant to offer more whiskeys on the menu, but Edwards says that’s changed. “Women and whiskey is a huge trend right now, and it’s absolutely influencing cocktail menus and how restaurants view their female clientele.”
The Middle Tier as a Link
With its national distribution footprint, Southern Glazer’s has the benefit of scale and market insight when dealing with on-premise chain accounts. And it uses those benefits to provide added value to its customers.
“We have the great opportunity to analyze any market that we operate in, since we know what leaves the docks and goes into the doors of every sector from fine dining to hotels to ethnic restaurants,” Edwards says. “We have a database to show us what products are successful in the market and which are outpacing their categories.”
On a regular basis, the wholesaler shares that information with customers to show them where they over-index and under-index, providing strategies to take advantage of national trends. Wholesalers should see themselves as conduits of information for both suppliers and operators, Edwards says, and not just distributors meeting a quota.
“We’ve transitioned from a mentality of needing to find homes for the products we represent (which requires fitting round pegs into square holes) to understanding what customers are looking for and what they need, using our portfolio to fill in any gaps,” he says. “We no longer say, ‘it would be really good if you bought this from me this month.’ We’re account-first, and I challenge my team to understand not only the beverage goals for our customers, but what their overall business needs are.”
In the restaurant business, successful beverage programs are often a direct indicator of guest satisfaction, with customers who order a drink reporting higher satisfaction overall than those who don’t. “We’re trying to connect the dots in terms of what we can do as a wholesaler to help our customers build a better experience for their guests,” Edwards says. “If we can do that, they’ll have happier guests who come back more frequently, which leads to more business for everyone.”
Jeremy Nedelka is the editor of Beverage Wholesaler. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.