Drinking up Sales
How Museums Make Beverages a Profit Center

At the Museum of Science & Industry (MOSI), Vicki Ahrens, Senior VP of Operations stated that ancillary revenue from their beverage strategy “is important to the museum.”  Located in Tampa, Fla., MOSI, the fifth largest science center in the USA, ensures their guests are never far away from finding a beverage throughout the 400,000-square-foot museum. Beverages can be found starting with vending machines in the main lobby, bottled drinks in various locations and a full bar in their IMAX theatre.  The museum café is the only location offering non-bottled beverages such as fountain drinks along with Slushies in vibrant colors and some smoothies outside of busy times because they are labor-intensive. The reason behind only offering bottled drinks outside of the café is to reduce any mess from open beverages and fewer spills. The museum’s top sellers include diet soda, white drinks and energy drinks, with beer and wine offered in the later part of the day.

Aherns confirmed “We don’t separate beverages from other profit centers and provide guests the maximum opportunity to purchase beverages; a lot are impulse buys.” The museum has an exclusive beverage partner and this partnership allows MOSI to participate in beverage promotions and provides seasonal marketing opportunities.   Another top tip for making beverages a successful profit center is to package fountain drinks (lower cost base) with the daily food special which helps promote the food sales.  Ultimately, the key is making beverages readily available for the museum’s average 500,000 visitors annually.

Katie Laux, director of Special Events and Business Strategy at the Columbus Museum of Art in Columbus, Ohio, stated “We do a little bit of everything and are in the process of expanding the museum’s food and beverage business with the construction of a new restaurant.”  The museum offers a full range of beverages at the Palette Express café including soda, water, ice tea, juice, coffee and vending machines with both cans and bottles. During the museum’s special events a full bar is offered and wine in the café but with the opening of the new restaurant they will be able to offer a larger variety including sweet drinks.  The new restaurant will be “fast casual” where guests can order at the counter and food is delivered to their table.

“Beverages are growing and a solid part of the business” said Laux. Over the past year, they have introduced new items with a family focus such as Horizon organic milk, juice and child-friendly options on the weekend to cater for increased family visits.  They have seen an increase in bottled beverages because visitors cannot take food or beverages into the galleries and bottled drinks can be resealed for later.

Her top tip for making beverages a profit center is to be very smart in the selection in order not to overwhelm visitors, along with offering beverages at different price points with a variety to offer something for everyone.

At the National Museum of the American Indian, a component of the Smithsonian in Washington D.C., the beverages offered are reflective of the museum experience. Beverages are available at the Mitsitam Cafe and Coffee bar. Richard Hetzler, executive chef at the museum, offers beverages linking back to native flavors where possible. The museum offers a full line of seasonal beer from microbreweries and wine from regions such as California and South America. Non-alcoholic drinks such as Agua Fresca and coffee he infuses with seasonal and native flavors and he changes up the mix and dynamics of the ingredients.  For instance, the Agua Fresco changes throughout the year incorporating fruit in season which allows for a higher profit margin, and is a popular choice at the café. The coffee bar will infuse seasonal and regional flavors and recently starting adding liquor such as brandy to coffee as an add-on because liquor is a small part of the business.

The café initially only offered half bottles of wine to test the market but due to increased sales are now offering both half and full bottles. The success of the Agua Fresco means it is now a big part of the menu and visitors are purchasing to “taste something different”.  He does admit that offering more unusual flavors such as avocado were less successful than the sweeter Agua Fresco incorporating cantaloupe or green apple. Offering lighter options than soda such as Honest Teas have also been popular.

His view for a successful beverage strategy is look at your clients and pull together an offering which works for them.  Realistic price points and a choice of beverages are other factors to balance the offering and ensure there are beverages that sell and “won’t break the bank.”

The Please Touch Museum located in Philadelphia, Pa., is dedicated to serving children ages seven years and under.  Kelley Maddox, General Manager at Brûlèe Catering, the food and service operator for the museum, is responsible for the beverage strategy at the Please Taste Café and museum catering.

The Coca Cola Corporation is a sponsor of the museum and offers fountain and bottled drinks. The museum also offers milk, coffee and tea along with boxed smoothies and an in-house milkshake machine. She said the top seller is fountain drinks due to the price point.

Maddox confirmed a trend towards healthier drinks over the past few years. The museum has introduced Odwalla smoothies in different flavors, Horizon organic milk and gluten and lactose free options such as Froose! and Silk soy milk. These beverages have been so popular “we can’t keep in them in stock.” She said the trend is towards adults feeling better about purchasing healthy beverages.

When looking at introducing new beverage options into the museum she looks for whatever is trending and at market research. For her market she observes what parents are buying at supermarket chains such as Whole Foods and Wegmans along with visiting museums in New York. She said that New York museums are “Ahead of the curve in presentation packaging and that cleanliness helps sell the product.”

The Milwaukee Art Museum in Milwaukee, Wis., offers visitors at their Café Calatrava, The Coffee Shop and events a full range of hot and cold beverages. The museum offers both canned and bottled soft drinks, juices (individual or by carafe), ice teas, coffee, energy drinks and freshly made yogurt smoothies, milk and ice cream drinks at special events.  The most popular drinks are coffee and wine at special events. Executive Chef Josh Stefanko said the popularity of these drinks is due to the maturity of the audience. They forged a partnership with local coffee shop/roaster Anodyne who developed a roast for the museum called “Calatrava Java” named for the architect Santiago Calatrava who designed the iconic building which houses the museum. This partnership allowed the museum to reduce the startup costs of opening the coffee shop in 2012 as Anodyne supplied their expertise with training, pricing and equipment.

The museum’s partnerships do not stop with coffee.  At the MAM After Dark, a monthly after-hours event for young professionals which includes a cash bar, food, live music, art and more, they allow beverage partners to promote their products.

The trends he has observed is more upscale audiences and the museum’s ability to sell finer wines at higher price point, along with families on the weekend and catering to their needs by offering smoothies, juice and organic milk.  His advice for a profitable beverage strategy is “First and foremost, have a holistic sense of what you are offering to bring visitors back to the museum and provide value but not at a premium.” Partnering with local beverage companies will utilize their strengths and support the creative selling within the museum. Also, maintaining a strong sense of portion control and internally good communications with other departments such as marketing to ensure the visitors’ needs are being communicated and served. Ultimately, the food and beverage area of the museum “is here to support the museum’s mission to provide value to their 400,000 annual visitors.” –

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