By GREGORY ZELLER // Long Islanders who appreciate small-batch craft beers can now find them on tap in the mothership of large-scale commercialization: TGI Fridays.
In addition to stalwart suds like Budweiser and Coors, the Texas-based restaurant chain is now serving microbrews at several Long Island locations, part of a larger corporate effort to capitalize on the increasing popularity of regional craft beverages.
While it includes beers from several Northeast locales – including the fall-flavored Pumking by the Southern Tier Brewing Co. of upstate Chautauqua County and selections from as far afield as Vermont – the regional menu at TGI Fridays restaurants in Hauppauge and Lake Grove includes several born-on-LI brews.
Matt Strebel, bar manager at the Lake Grove Fridays, noted Long Ireland IPA, Blue Point Brewing Co. Toasted Lager and Great South Bay Brewery Blood Orange Pale Ale as particularly strong sellers.
Nick Hofknecht, a manager at the Lake Grove Fridays, called the introduction of Long Island beers into the Fridays rotation an “awesome” innovation for the restaurant and its patrons.
“We’re excited to support our local distributors and local breweries,” Hofknecht said. “The different choices, the catchy names … it’s exciting and it’s more enticing for customers. And they taste good.”
It’s all part of what Strebel called a “mandate” by TGI Fridays Inc. to include regional beers on local menus, “whether they’re from the state or somewhere else in that part of the country.”
“In the last 10 years, the (bar) market that’s grown the most has been the craft beer market,” Strebel said. “We’ve seen explosions in the vodka market, with new brands and flavors coming out, and we saw it with Caribbean rum. Now, in the last decade, the craft-brew scene has blown all out of proportion.
“The Budweisers, the Coors Lights, they’re still the kings, hands down,” the bar manager added. “But the demand for local craft beers – the rarer they are, the more intriguing they are – is off the charts. Customers see them as an increasingly popular alternative.”
The emergence of microbrews inside macro-chains is also an increasingly lucrative revenue source for local brewers. Dan Burke, co-owner of the Riverhead-based Long Ireland Beer Company, said it’s “definitely a positive being served in a national chain” – not only because it pushes his own products but because it legitimizes the craft-brewing industry as a whole.
“I appreciate all the local bars and restaurants, but it’s cool when a national chain recognizes the significance of local beer,” Burke said. “It’s very positive that they recognize that customers who frequent their place desire these local products.”
Adding buzz to TGI Fridays’ crafty plan is the changing nature of the regional menus. Strebel noted local managers have a certain “flexibility in whatever we feel is most successful,” meaning as long as a set number of regional selections is included among each restaurant’s taps, the managers themselves are free to mix-and-match.
“We have five or six craft-beer lines that we can flex between,” Strebel said. “I may have the Blood Orange Pale Ale right now, but maybe I’ll switch that out later. We’re continuously changing our craft-brew lines to keep things fresh.”
And they’re constantly looking for the next great micro-batch to share with customers via field trips on which regional TGI Fridays managers can “enjoy an afternoon out and sample some beers and see if we want to add them.”
In addition to the latest creations from Long Island’s microbreweries – pumpkin flavors are taking off as the seasons change, according to Hofknecht – Long Island Fridays managers are considering several other regional possibilities. Strebel noted a new hard root beer produced by the Coney Island Brewing Co. as a strong possibility, while new Farmingdale brewery The Brewers Collective is lobbying for a tap of its own.
While adhering to the corporate mandate, the local managers are careful in their selections, and their selectivity appears to be paying off.
“They’re definitely selling, especially with the rotating of the tap,” Strebel said. “I’m hearing a lot more, ‘Oh, what do you have this week?’”
Another benefit of TGI Fridays’ regional approach is that it helps promote local beers outside of hyper-local locales. Just as the Lake Grove restaurant is serving beer made in Vermont, so too will out-of-state Fridays begin serving Long Island beers.
It’s a mash-up of networking and basic supply-and-demand, according to Strebel, who noted a sort of regional nirvana for the Long Island brewer who connects with a New York City-based distributor. A distributor will “typically distribute about 50 miles or so from their location,” the bar manager noted, meaning a Long Island beer could potentially find itself pouring into New Jersey, Pennsylvania and elsewhere.
No Long Island-based beer is yet being served at off-Island TGI Fridays, but Long Ireland’s Burke noted his company’s first interstate expansion has occurred: Patchogue-based distributor Clare Rose – one of the nation’s top beer wholesalers, with a flagship-heavy product list including Budweiser, Michelob and Busch – not only helped get Long Ireland IPA into four different Island-based Fridays, but has brought the brew to Connecticut.
For now, it’s only available in a handful of local, independent Nutmeg State saloons – “still the home-run place for a small business like mine,” Burke noted – but that’s how you build a following.
“Enough people have to ask for it before the bigger chain will consider bringing it in,” Burke said. “I assume they wouldn’t have brought us in (on Long Island) unless there was a certain buzz.”