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Darden’s George Miliotes On Wine, Spirits, Service And Today’s Beverage Scene

July 1, 2011

Orlando, Florida-based Darden Restaurants today reported sales of $7.5 billion for its fiscal year ended May 31st, up 5.4% over the previous year. Darden is the world’s largest restaurant company, with brands Red Lobster (698 units), Olive Garden (754), LongHorn Steakhouse (354), The Capital Grille (44), Bahama Breeze (26), Seasons 52 (18) and Synergy (1).

Darden’s Specialty Restaurant Group comprises three of those brands: The Capital Grille, Seasons 52 and Bahama Breeze. Average sales per unit for The Capital Grille were $6.5 million in fiscal 2011, while same-unit sales increased by 6.2%. At Seasons 52, sales per unit were $6.3 million, and same-unit sales increased 4.4%. Bahama Breeze, meanwhile, had sales per unit reach $5.5 million and same-unit sales increase by 2.4%. Shanken News Daily interviewed George Miliotes, master sommelier and director of beverage and hospitality for Darden’s Specialty Restaurant Group, to get his views on today’s business.

SND: What are the most important trends you’re seeing at the bar and the table?

Miliotes: The biggest trend is that people still want value at all price points, including in the value category at Seasons 52, where guests don’t order $200 bottles of wine very often. They’re more in the $40 to $60 range, and they demand good value at those prices. At Capital Grille, our customers gravitate more toward the $75 range and are looking for quality at that price. The days of “If it’s expensive, it’s good” have gone by the wayside.

SND: How do you deliver value to your customers?

Miliotes: We taste to make sure our wines are the best they can be at their price point. That often means working with vendors to get specific styles and qualities. Wines on the Seasons 52 list must be varietally true, flavorful and good value. It’s the lower end that brings people into the restaurant to try and experience wine, and that builds them into more knowledgeable wine drinkers. That’s the fun of Seasons, which has 100 wines by the bottle and about 58 by the glass right now, covering 26 varietals from 13 different countries. We’re looking to settle at around 52 wines (by the glass) for the long run. With all those bottles open, if a guest wants to know the difference between an oaked and an unoaked Chardonnay, we’ll pour them a taste of both and let them compare.

SND: How is your by-the-glass list composed at Capital Grille? How many by-the-glass choices and how many bottle offerings are there on the list at Capital Grille?

Miliotes: At Capital Grille, we have 27 by-the-glass offerings. By the bottle, our main list is around 225 choices, and the Captain’s List is another 100-150—sometimes a little more depending on the market. Some of our restaurants may have a $20-$25 glass on their list. But I’ll loop back to that value proposition. Emilio Moro Ribera del Duero is on all our lists at around $15 a glass at Capital Grille. There’s a lot of love in that glass of wine at $15. If our guests are getting our dry-aged strip or Delmonico, that wine with either of those two steaks is as about as sweet a pairing as there is. We work hard to find wines like that.

SND: Tell me about the Captain’s List at Capital Grille….

Miliotes: We allow the wine managers at each Capital Grille to show their chops and tailor a list to their market. So those lists can be fairly wide-ranging. The Captain’s List doesn’t necessarily have to be expensive. There are allocated wines that perhaps aren’t $200 a bottle that managers will put on their lists simply because they can reprint more frequently than the main list, which is printed twice a year. So you’ll see a wide range of prices on the Captain’s List. It’s not just about top-quality expensive wines, although you do find many big-name wines on it. Some units have about 100 choices on their Captain’s List, but in D.C. or New York there are a couple of hundred or more.

SND: Can you describe Seasons 52’s bottle list?

Miliotes: U.S. wines are the most prominent, comprising just under half the list. That’s mostly California, with some Washington and Oregon. Since Seasons 52 is about seasonal, healthier food, California wines are a natural fit for us. For the rest of the list, we search the world for the best buys from producers who are the best—consistently, year-in and year-out. People ask me, “How do you get on the list of Seasons?” I’m not looking for the guy who made the absolute best wine one year. I need the guy who made one of the best wines for the last 10 years. With 18 operations—soon to be 24 and then 30—turning over the list every year to different producers who might make a slightly better wine that year doesn’t really do us any good. I want excellent producers who are steady across vintages.

SND: How do you manage inventory and deal with out-of-stock situations?

Miliotes: At Seasons, we’re in contact with our suppliers four times a year, to ensure that we have supply. We print the vintage on the list, which is very important to us. We reprint four times a year. I don’t change producers a lot, because when I choose one I stick with them. But the flip side is we’ve got to make sure we always have wine, and vintage specificity. We discuss this up front, and if a producer can’t provide that, I’ll find another one who can.

SND: How are spirits sales doing?

Miliotes: At Seasons, we’ve been thrilled with sales of fresh fruit infusions. We do our own, such as Prairie Organic Vodka with oranges. In wintertime we use grapefruit, and for spring and summer we’ve been running strawberry. We do a strawberry basil Martini that’s Prairie vodka strawberry infusion, a bit of organic agave nectar and muddled basil, shaken and strained. It’s delicious, and it sells. It’s all about simplicity in the drink. Right now we’re rolling out a nice strawberry sour with that infusion. We’ve been overwhelmed with how Americans love strawberry. It’s crazy: there are all these flavors out there, but nobody has done a strawberry vodka, which is the most popular flavor in the U.S. We’re also working in our test kitchen on some infusions with organic Tequila. At Bahama Breeze, we’re looking at ways to up our game with rum.

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