Restaurants focus on alcohol to boost business

Even though autoworker Pam Martin lost her job a few months ago, she still finds room in her budget to go out and have a few drinks a week.

“I love happy hour,” said Martin, 52, of east Orange County, who was enjoying a Coors Light Thursday night at Smokey Bones on East Colonial Drive. “Just to come, sit down and relax. … You can’t just stay in the house the whole time.”

As the recession takes a bite out of food sales, restaurants are paying more attention to customers such as Martin by focusing more of their efforts on beer, wine and spirits.

Several chains have started happy hours, while others are remodeling to create new bars or call more attention to existing ones.

The Cheesecake Factory last month started the first happy-hour promotion in its 31-year history, selling appetizers and many drinks for $5 apiece in its restaurants. The California-based chain hopes to fill its restaurants when it’s not normally busy — weekdays from 4 to 6 p.m. — and to draw “people who might not otherwise be able to afford to come to us” during tough economic times, Chief Marketing Officer Mark Mears said.

Late last year, Ruby Tuesday started a $5 premium-cocktail program. In January, P.F. Chang’s China Bistro launched a happy-hour menu with drinks and appetizers for $3 to $6.

Generally viewed as more profitable than food, alcohol has always been an important sales lubricant for restaurants. In a recession, beer, wine and liquor can lure new customers or boost the checks for the ones already there.

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