Joshua Hillary, Solotel’s first food and beverage director, talks about the group’s beverage program, six months into his new role.

Late last year, Solotel announced that it had appointed its first Food and Beverage Director, Joshua Hillary (ex Duxton Hospitality Services, Rockpool Group). The creation of the role signified Solotel’s intention to cement it’s reputation in its markets as an industry leader for the long-term.

“I think there’s a lot more opportunity to rework and shake up what was going on [within the organisation]. But also the aim was setting the business up for the next three to five years to work out, how can we continue to grow? How can we get back to full strength in the post-COVID world that puts us as venues of choice or the organisation choice for our guests?” explained Hillary.

For the pub venues that make up the majority of the Solotel portfolio, beverage is a huge component of that equation. Hillary discussed with Australian Hotelier how he and the broader beverage team are using sales data and other data points to drive their product focus.

“It’s about being really close with our guests and understanding the data and leaning into that. We spend a lot of time looking at sales mixes and making sure that what we have on offer is resonating through the tills the way that we expect.”

Small-batch tapped cocktails

With shifting preferences among younger demographics, Hillary stressed the importance of cocktails at the moment – particularly for its venues that attract plenty of 18-25 year-olds.

“It’s no secret that your beer-swilling 18-year-olds are few and far between these days. Something we’ve really been playing around with is this big shift in the market towards cocktails, as the price of beer and everything has gone up. The trade-up now, between beer and a cocktail is not that different on a lot of SKUs,” explained Hillary.

So how are Solotel trying to take control of that in house? By making small batches of kegged cocktails that are bespoke and tailored to the patronage of each venue.

“It gives us a really awesome opportunity to take a lot of control around what the ingredients are that go into these cocktails. And because we’re doing it in smaller runs – as opposed to those commercial products out there, which some of, by the way, are very, very good – it means that we’re building it with a shorter shelf life, which means our flavour profiles can probably be a bit more vibrant, can be a bit more nuanced,”” stated Hillary.

“And we know that we can keep it around what the guests like, from a seasonality perspective, it’s not just a core range of four cocktails and the same four cocktails being on every tap.”

These house-made cocktails are already on tap in The Erko, The Abercrombie and in the Garden Bar and Grill at The Bank Hotel, and is being considered for venues across the Solotel portfolio.

Wine formats

With Master of Wine Annette Lacey looking after Solotel’s wine program, Hillary says he has left that well alone, however he is interested in the way it is served within the venues.

“I think it’s about making sure that the format is right. So having your glasses, your larger glasses, carafes, bottles, that sort of thing.”

In efforts towards sustainability, Solotel has also started working with a couple of suppliers of tap wine, including Alpha Box & Dice out of McLaren Vale. Besides the obvious cost and environmental savings, tap wine also allows some of the group’s venues to engage with patrons even when they’re not in the venues.

“It’s an opportunity for us to be able to share that with people to take away. All the venues that have those on tap sell the glass squealers, they get filled up and taken home to take up half of your fridge to have your two litres of wine,” joked Hillary. “Which everyone should always have at all times.”

Getting the beer taps right

As always, beer is a major component of the beverage make-up within the group’s pubs, and Solotel is using its own data and that of its supplier partners to inform the beers they have on tap, down to the different sections at each pub.

“We want to get the right products in the right space for the right guest. So a venue like The Bank should be able to have your core front bar range that resonates with your core front bar drinker, but then also have a couple of craftier options for people that want to sit out in the Garden Bar and Grill and be more food-led, and not let one dictate over the top of the other. So that goes back to the setup of your system,” stated Hillary.

And with so many top-quality draught products available, it’s a juggling act that needs constant reassessment.

“How many tap points can we afford? And how do we get that balance right especially with the with the wine and the cocktail element coming in and sometimes putting a bit of pressure there? It’s really about looking at the quality of the product, looking at how our guests engage with it, and listening to them and understanding what they want so we can deliver in the best possible way.”

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