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Recently, I was a judge at the Friday’s Bartender Championships in London and will be attending the World Bartender competition in Dallas this coming week. I am often asked how did this all get started?

Consumer tastes are constantly evolving. We call this the ‘yellow brick road’. In the early 80’s the ‘road’ was turning away from heavy consumption of alcohol. This resulted in an industry-wide decline in sales. Many chose the easy answer by discounting prices and promoting happy hours.

Friday’s policies supported the efforts of MADD and community responsibility. We felt promoting more consumption of alcohol through volume discounts and price promotions was the wrong answer to sagging sales. Our answer was to promote drinking quality, through educating the customer to the finest of alcohol beverage products and entertaining them while doing it.

We became the largest purveyor of fine cognacs, scotch whiskeys and unusual wines. We even FedExed a DC-10 full of Beaujolais Nouveau to celebrate the fun worldwide race to have this iconic wine delivered first. We produced a popular drink menu, with over 600 drinks. It was over an inch think and can be bought on eBay today due to its high theft rate.

Last but not least, Friday’s was always known for having the best bartenders in the world. They were always entertaining and executed clever showmanship behind the bar. As a part of the strategy to improve sales responsibly, we decided to formalize, train and develop what they called ‘flair’! This led to intra-company competition and eventually to the worldwide phenomena you see today.

 We solved the decline in sales and in fact grew sales through innovation. The lesson is anyone can ‘cut price’ but it’s more effective, in the long run, to innovate. Oh! And it is more FUN!

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Do the Bartender Olympics have anything in common with Beaujolais Nouveau?  Sort of, it all started at T.G.I.Friday’s in the early 80’s. Beverage alcohol consumption was on the decline. Fancy way of saying people were drinking less. This was for a variety of reasons but it was having a negative impact on our business. To compensate for  the trend of drinking less we focused on educating the consumer to drinking better. We started introducing our customers to fine wines, cognac’s (we became the largest seller of Hennessy XO) and the most fun wine event of all the annual race to be first with Beaujolais Nouveau. We had always wanted our bars to be entertaining. We  had the best bartenders and they were always entertaining (sometimes too entertaining!). We now put more  focus on what was then called flair and went on to turn it into an event. Hence, THE BARTENDER OLYMPICS! (we did all of  this without focus groups!)

The Beaujolais Nouveau race was a huge success. To introduce the event I brought the wine over on the Concord and had Tony Randall as our spokesman at a black tie event in NYC. The next year it was a reward trip for our best mangers, a race to see who could get the wine back to their store first. The third year we FedEx’d a DC 10 full of the wine and did a photo op with the company plane nose-to-nose with the DC-10 in Memphis. The event was greatly anticipated by our customers and liquor retailers praised it’s impact on their business. The fourth year I was off sailing so someone decided to use California Beaujolais Nouveau instead of the traditional French wine.  There was no fifth year. Hmmmmmmm!

Bartender Olympics have become a world-wide event. It’s origins obscured by what it has become. While a great event, we were focused on our customer, today it is less about the customer but still a great publicity event. Mike Werner ‘Magic Mike’ and  Jimmy Skeadas were instrumental in the creation of flair and then the Olympics. They have a business today called SHOWTENDERS which is the best in bartender training both on the showman side and business side as well. Yes, this is a plug! If you know me,  you know it’s all about being the BEST and they are!




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