Few restaurant companies have the market penetration and name recognition of TGI Fridays. With more than 380 locations in the United States and 730 global outlets in 55 countries, Fridays is well-known in markets big and small for its Americana menu and its pioneering bar program. The beverage component has been a key part of the Fridays experience since the concept was founded in 1965, and it remains integral to the restaurants today. Within the bartending community, TGI Fridays is often viewed as a starting ground for future bar stars—people learn bartending basics and showmanship at Fridays through the company’s extensive training program and regularly show off their skills at TGI Fridays bartending competitions.
For Fridays executives, the bar is considered the core of each restaurant. The company aims to make its bars lively and approachable, and the venues boast extensive menus with nearly 30 cocktails and a varied selection of wines and beers, as well as specialty shooters and a roster of sipping spirits. The bar is a major revenue sector for Fridays, comprising about 30% of the company’s roughly $2.1 billion in annual sales globally. On average, each Fridays unit does $2.7 million in annual sales. “The bar is the heartbeat of the restaurant; it’s always the focal point,” says Randy Steinbrenner, who oversees marketing for bar and beverage. “The bar is the propeller that drives the energy in our restaurants. How the bar goes determines how the restaurant goes. We spend a lot of time and manpower behind the bar piece at TGI Fridays.”
TGI Fridays was founded in 1965 and the bar has been a key component since the concept’s first day. Businessman Alan Stillman opened the first restaurant in New York City, taking over a tavern on the East Side of Manhattan and rebranding it. Stillman has said he created the venue because couldn’t find a public cocktail bar where 20- and 30-something men and women could meet and mingle together; the chain has since been called the original singles bar. Fast forward 55 years and the bar at each Fridays is still a central meeting point for the restaurants, even as the chain has grown tremendously.
Over the course of its five-decade history, TGI Fridays has seen several management changes. Stillman started franchising the concept early on—in the late 1960s—and merged with his top franchise performer in the early ’70s to form a multi-city restaurant company. The brand was sold to Carlson Cos. in 1975 and returned to private ownership in the late ’80s; it has since been owned by several equity groups and embraced a large franchise model, as more than 80% of TGI Fridays global restaurants are franchised. In the United States, TGI Fridays corporately owns about 140 of its 380 units. Fridays readied again for public offering in late 2019, when it entered an acquisition agreement with Allegro Merger Corp. that would have made it a publicly traded company. But that deal was called off in early April during the Covid-19 pandemic, citing “extraordinary market conditions.” Still, TGI Fridays is looking for ways to innovate and stay relevant, offering expanded delivery and takeout options that include beverages in some markets, a move the company began experimenting with a few years ago.
“Fridays has always been known for being innovative and creative, and we continue to foster that belief,” Steinbrenner says. “We’re always striving to build up the beverage mix overall, to make it a bigger part of our business. That’s what we’re known for and that’s what we like to do. Growing the drinks business is huge.”
Cocktails dominate beverage sales at Fridays restaurants, followed by beer, and then wine. “We’re very mixology forward,” Steinbrenner says. “We focus on beverages and cutting-edge wines and beers. We make sure we have the best offerings for everyone. Our beverage mix is a lot higher than other concepts. It’s a big chunk of our business for sure.”
The company aims to be forward-thinking with regard to cocktails, offering a variety of mixed drinks, including classics and new innovations (cocktails average $10-$12, though Happy Hour specials start at $5). The menus have sections for Long Island Iced Teas, Margaritas, and tropical and tiki drinks. “The Long Island Iced Tea has been a longtime favorite for us,” Steinbrenner explains. “We didn’t invent it but we did perfect it. The Fridays LIT is our bestselling drink and the LIT section is still the bestselling portion of our cocktail menu. We sell more than 2 million Long Island Iced Teas a year across the United States.”
TGI Fridays Ultimate Long Island is made with Tito’s vodka, Bacardi rum, Bombay gin, Grand Marnier liqueur, and Coke. It’s joined on the menu by line extensions like the Ultimate Blueberry-Pom Long Island Tea, mixing Skyy vodka, Bacardi rum, Bombay gin, DeKuyper triple sec, blueberry-pomegranate juice, and Sprite, and the Jameson Irish Tea, blending Jameson Irish whiskey, Smirnoff vodka, Cruzan Aged Light rum, DeKuyper triple sec, honey, and Coke.
Following the Long Island Iced Tea, Margaritas do well at Fridays. The restaurants offer their signature version—the BFM (Best Fridays Margarita)—made with Patrón Silver Tequila, Grand Marnier, and fresh agave-based sour mix, as well as an Ultimate Margarita, upgraded with 1800 Silver Tequila, and flavor offshoots like the Frozen Tropical Berry Rita, mixing Patrón Silver with DeKuyper triple sec, and strawberry, passion fruit, and guava purées, and the Altos Strawberry Rita, blending Altos Plata Tequila, Cointreau liqueur, and strawberry purée.
“Our lead dogs are the LIT and the Margarita,” Steinbrenner says. “Our point of differentiation is the Long Island Iced Tea; we spend time on that and with its line extensions. We like mixology-forward cocktails and blend them with line extensions of our current drinks.”
Beyond these menu staples, TGI Fridays’ cocktail list includes island-themed drinks like the Bacardi rum-based Ultimate Tropical Berry Mojito and Mount Gay Eclipse rum-based Barbados Punch, as well as specialties like the Diddy On The Beach, mixing Cîroc vodka, Malibu Coconut rum, Red Bull Tropical edition, and blueberry purée, and the Flaming Frozen Lava Flow, blending Malibu Coconut and Sailor Jerry Spiced rums with strawberry, pineapple, and coconut syrup, topped with a flaming sugar cube.
Fridays has become one of the top-selling restaurant accounts nationwide for Hennessy thanks to two of its Hennessy-based cocktails. The Strawberry Henny, made with Hennessy VS Cognac, Grand Marnier, and strawberry purée, is a guest favorite. Fridays also recently entered an agreement with actor Ryan Reynolds to feature his Aviation gin brand at the bar, and the spirit is now highlighted in the Rickey Reynolds, mixing Aviation gin with St-Germain liqueur, blueberry purée, and lime juice. Other TGI Fridays cocktail highlights include a Crown Royal-based Apple Cooler, a Skyy vodka-based Lemon Drop Martini, and a Maker’s Mark-based New York Sour Crush.
The restaurants started a drinks promotion last year that highlights a monthly cocktail sold for just $5. Sometimes the drinks are from the standard menu and sometimes they’re new bartender creations. While many of Fridays’ cocktails are developed on a corporate level, the company welcomes bartender input and encourages its bar staff to have involvement in drinks creation. Bartender training is critical at Fridays.
Ultimately, Fridays drinks executives aim to have something on the menu for every type of guest. Because their restaurants are in such a varied and extensive list of markets, it can be a daunting task. But it’s one way Fridays excels at the bar. “One of our slogans is to be the best corner bar in town, whether it’s a big town or a little town,” Steinbrenner says. “We offer our guests opportunities and beverages that make sense to them and we make sure we have the best offerings and coolest drinks in our bars.”
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, Fridays had big plans for the bar in 2020. Steinbrenner was working on supporting seasonal events and holidays with an increased emphasis on themed drinks in the periods around St. Patrick’s Day and Mardi Gras, for instance, and the company was also committed to more cocktail innovation and market localization. Since the pandemic, TGI Fridays has increased its family meals and platter offers, and offers drinks-to-go where permitted, including the Friday’s Rita, LIT, and Barbados Rum Punch. The chain also now provides a contactless pick-up for its guests.
The company puts a visual prop in every unit to remind their staff of how important beverage is to TGI Fridays, hanging a plane propeller in each restaurant. “There’s a propeller in every Fridays bar,” Anzaldua explains. “The bar is the heart, soul, and engine of our restaurant and business. The propeller creates the energy that allows a plane to move forward and take off. Our bars are the propeller; they have to spin to create the buzz and energy people look for at Fridays. No matter where you go in the restaurant, the energy should start at the bar and move out through the space. As we look to the future of Fridays, we lean into the bar.”