The Battle for Restaurant Survival Begins
with Meaningful Service
by By Randy Caparoso
Originally published in Sommelier Journal, Jan. 2009
Imagine, if you will, if in order to be worthy of three stars, 19 points in Gault-Millau or 28 points in Zagat, every restaurant was compelled to offer the same basic dishes; like beef à la bourguignonne or veal alla Marsala. Nonsense. The culinary world started going beyond that over thirty years ago.
So why is it that, after all these years, restaurant wine lists everywhere are still rated on the basis of x number of vintages of château this, grand cru that, and the same well known brands of Napa Valley Cabernets, Italy’s rarest DOCGs and Spain’s coolest DOs , etc. – and lots of them (at least a thousand, if you want the “Grand Award”)? While chefs left culinary preconceptions behind long ago, it’s almost absurd that the wine segment of the industry is still in the same rut.
In these troubled times, is there any defense for restaurants presiding over such programs? Sure, you can say that the Grand Award is very important (I’m not going to argue that), and that it’s the public, not restaurants, who build these expectations. But let me ask you this: has there ever been a great artist, or memorable restaurant icon, who was buried with the epitaph, “he kowtowed to status quo… or, she only did the usual?”
If, of course, you have no thirst for greatness, or for being the best in your market or neighborhood, then fine – just keep on keeping on. But by all accounts, we all know what 2009 means for the industry: a battle for survival; and most likely, of only the fittest. The growing level of competition was bad enough for most of us; now we have to fight a combination of costs ballooning like never before, plus the parsimoniousness of recession battered guests.
As sommeliers, wine buyers or restaurateurs, it’s in times like these that we must ask ourselves: are we really doing as much as we can to
1. Provide the types of wines and service appealing to the most possible guests, and
2. Implement measures that specifically meet the needs of these increasingly sophisticated guests?
Some remedial food and wine for thought:
Refocus , Reload. The old approach of accumulating the biggest, most all encompassing wine list possible has, well, grown very old; and in cost-cutting times, is as useful as burning money. If you’re a steakhouse, focus on the red Bordeaux varieties your guests need for their steaks. If you’re Northern Italian, focus on the joyful variety of wines now coming out of Northern Italy and nearby regions like Austria and Germany. If your cuisine is regional or “New American,” focus on locally produced wines (yes, this means Virginian wines if you’re in Virginia) mixed in with the best of the West and East Coasts. If you highlight organic ingredients, highlight organic wines. Whatever you do, just focus on wines that give you the highest percentage chance of your guests saying, “this was the best dining experience I’ve ever had” – to heck with being everything to everyone.
Build Service Into Your List. In times of recession, delivery of improved service is the most cost-efficient key to success. You can kill ’em all day and night with this on the floor, but service also begins long before guests walk in; and in terms of wine programs, this means lists that enhance food, and are also readable and friendly. If you’re too lazy to offer descriptions of your best selections, too apathetic to add passages explaining the reasoning behind your selections, or so naïve as to think the majority of your guests actually enjoy wading through page after page of phone book-like listings, then you have only yourself to blame when you find yourself succumbing to this war rattling our windows.
Build Wine Service Into Food Menus. No matter what you may think of it, most of today’s guests prefer menus that come with wine suggestions because they appreciate the thought and effort; and because in these days in which everyone is seeking the most for their hard-earned money, they would actually like to know the best possible wine for each dish. So don’t just think of this as giving yourself an extra edge; think of it as giving your guests the edge that they’re scrimping and scratching for.
No Compromising on Glasses. For many of you, movement to varietal specific Riedel, Spiegelau or other crystal quality wine glasses might represent an additional expense that may seem daft at this point in time. I say it’s the single most important thing you can do to win this battle. Think of it this way: if your sensory pleasure of, say, a Pinot Noir is doubled in a Riedel Burgundy as opposed to a standard Libbey tulip (which it is!), then so would an average guest’s perception of his or her dining experience. Investment in proper glassware is practically the easiest thing you can do to improve service, and resulting sales, profits, and guest returns.
Right Temperatures . Apart from choices of glasses and selections themselves, the most sensible way of improving the quality of your wine service is by serving at proper temperatures. Everyone knows what the optimal temperatures are for perception of quality: between 62° and 68° F. for reds, and between 40° and 46° for whites. The evidence that perception of quality recedes some 50% for every 5° to 10° outside these temperatures has been with us forever. So how close or far off are you, and what are you doing about it?
More Wines by the Glass. Take a hard look of your percentage of sales of glasses vs. bottles. If, like most fine dining restaurants, your glass sales hover between 50% and 70%, yet you are still not offering increased variety of both choices (twenty to thirty selections minimum) and portions (2 or 3 ounces on top of 5 or 6 ounce pours), then you simply are not maximizing your service opportunities, not to mention sales and profits, in this area.
Guarantee Your Experience (and Tell Them You Will). In the retail business, the most successful stores know that the only return policy is no-questions-asked exchanges and money-back guarantees. If that’s not your attitude – wines and dishes happily returned at guest discretion's – then you’re only fighting prevalent consumer expectations, which is not advisable in this economic climate.
It’s not like you have the power to prevent the fewer guests crawling through your door from demanding more, ordering mostly wines by the glass, from preferring wine lists that actually communicate, or from enjoying their wines that much more when served the right way, in the best glasses. If the battle for survival is contingent upon improved guest experience, it begins with taking the bold, decisive, service oriented steps that have the most direct impact on the quality of that experience.