Shrub 'n' Mary Mornings
The palate can recognize true passion. For hotels, it’s just a matter of getting that passion to the table. At VERGE restaurant at the Toll House Hotel in Los Gatos, California, injecting that passion has come, among other elements, via use of housemade shrubs (an acidulated syrup made with fruit juice or vinegar with sugar and other ingredients) in next-level Mimosas—and taking it to the table by cart. The result is a 30% increase in brunch drink sales since introducing cart service on May 14.
Before February of this year, brunch at VERGE was only on Sundays and “was just kind of a thing we were doing out of necessity, for a hotel restaurant,” says Tyler John, director of F&B at the hotel. That wasn’t cutting it.
“When we got here, we thought we’d turn brunch from a meal period into an experience,” says John. “The menu offerings were really important. Now, we have a really eclectic menu with items such as goat cheese bread pudding, waffle biscuits and gravy, and a pancake soufflé.” With its other offerings including sausage ravioli and a pork-and-duck burger, the menu is a “far cry” from other brunches, says Chase Underwood, supervisor of VERGE since September of 2015.
The new cuisine caught on; in fact, VERGE eliminated the breakfast menu altogether on weekends and expanded brunch to Saturdays as well. There was a little pushback from the hotel’s regular, luxury travelers when breakfast was eliminated in favor of brunch, but it wasn’t significant, Underwood says. For hurried travelers with no time for brunch (which is 8 a.m. to noon), VERGE is “super flexible,” says John. “If there are people trying to get up and out before our service starts, we do everything we can to try to accommodate their requests.”
Blood on the Tracks
Even with the new success, sales of handcrafted Bloody Marys were stagnant. But the failure to launch wasn’t for lack of quality and serious attention to detail.
“You can go anywhere and get a middle-of-the-road Bloody Mary,” John observes. “I knew that with our food programming and attention to detail, the things that were very important were handcrafting the mixes from scratch. The ice we use is very important, because that will really set off your drink. You don’t want too much melt in it. We double-boil purified water so the cubes are as clear as glass. We have spheres or cubes, depending on what they want in the Bloody Mary. We partner with local farmers for the freshest berries, peppers, tomatoes, horseradish, and citrus. We have a local farmer we get our bacon from. It’s thick-cut pork belly that we roast down and render until it’s crispy. It adds a different dimension to the drink.”
Despite the high quality of ingredients and preparation, the Bloodys lacked a wow and a vehicle for visibility. John and Underwood decided to go literal on the vehicle front and shed blood right in guests’ faces, via tableside service from a mobile cart.
“The Bloody Marys weren’t quite a hit when we first launched the program, but with the tableside service, guests couldn’t help but veer their attention toward this beverage cart that is overflowing with fresh herbs, vegetables, fruit, fruit juices, and condiments,” Underwood says. The carts showcase an array of jars and options, creating interactive fun for guests as they ask what each is. “Not only do we tell them what’s in each jar, we tell them where it’s from,” John says. And by “we,” he means a crucial piece of the brunch beverage sales puzzle at tableside: the staff.
“We have a significant artisan craft cocktail, wine, and craft beer program here at VERGE, so even to be hired on the floor, you need a certain amount of skills and background,” John says. “You really need to know your way around the bar. And then we take you out from the comfort of the bar and put you in a more mobile environment.”
Still, beverage sales weren’t where VERGE wanted them to be. The answer would involve again taking the team’s intense dedication to mixology to tableside, with more options.
Since he came to the Toll House, Underwood has seen to it that the bar program has always made its own in-house shrub syrups, simple syrups, and cellos. “This is all based on our VP of F&B Darlene Marcello’s ideas,” Underwood notes. “She introduced some of our shrubs—for instance, our Meyer lemon and coastal fennel shrub. We use apple cider vinegar, organic Meyer lemons, and wild fennel seeds.”
Underwood and John decided to work these specialties into that brunch workhorse, the Mimosa. The creativity got bubbly pretty quickly, and the team’s nuanced knowledge of the chemistry of good drinks paved the way.
“For instance, our Cherry Limeade Mimosa asks for Prosecco—sweeter than brut or dry Champagne—cherry shrub, lime juice, and simple syrup, and is garnished with a lime wheel and two ‘filthy black’ cherries,” Underwood says. “Furthermore, we try to use shrub syrup to replace citrus juices when we can, because it is healthier for you, as ours are made from apple cider vinegar. Also, it has balance between tart and sweet with the shrub syrup rather than a really sweet-forward juice such as orange juice or pineapple juice.”
Mimosas incorporating housemade lemonades have been a hit. “Our strawberry-basil shrub we wanted to integrate into more of a lemonade, because sometimes the acidity of the shrub is a little overwhelming for people who don’t have a more sophisticated palate with Champagne,” John says. “So we balance that dry, sparkling California white with a very acidic, sour, bitter flavor. Most people associate a Mimosa with sweetness. We do a lot of grapefruit cellos, such as grapefruit and basil. We just made a strawberry cello that’s unique, with some mint. Our two top sellers are the Meyer lemon-coastal fennel and the strawberry-basil.”
The cart staffers are all a part of the handcrafting of the shrubs, cellos, and ingredients, so they are able to explain it very well to the guest. Training is in-depth.
The pricing is $10 for Mimosas and $12 for Bloody Marys. Sales of the drinks for a brunch period are $600 to $650.
While the drink-making, the mouthwatering presentation, and the showmanship of the staff are all key factors, the design and layout of the cart are not overlooked.
“It’s a trial-and-error operation,” John says. “Getting the right cart was very important. It’s not too big and cumbersome. It’s sleek and modern and fits the brand of the restaurant. Some carts may look fantastic but have no room to work. You need your spirits, your juices, your herbs, your garnishes, your shrubs, your ice, and your Champagne. To make it functional and also appealing was the biggest challenge.”
In the Bag and Beyond
VERGE at the Toll House Hotel in Los Gatos, California has now started creating sous vide cocktails. “It’s a new technique of infusion,” explains Chase Underwood, supervisor of VERGE. “What used to take 10 days now takes three or four hours. If we want to infuse a bourbon with brown sugar and bacon, we can put those ingredients into a sous vide bag and extract 95% of the oxygen out of it. Then we immerse it into an immersion circulator at 150 degrees for about three hours. That super-modifies the infusion. Depending on how much oxygen you take out of it and the temperature and time of cooking, that’s how intense your drink is going to be. That’s going to be the next chapter of the beverage program.” Like all successful operators, Director of F &B Tyler John isn’t afraid of borrowing great ideas. “People who stay here are luxury travelers who have been all over the world,” he says. “So, anytime someone’s had a cool experience somewhere, I put my pen to paper and think about how we could use that. The trends are always evolving. It changes so fast in this industry. You have to be open to be flexible and take on new ideas and execute them. Some things work, and some things don’t.” -TW