IN THE SERVICE OF WINE
How Good isYour Word?
Plotkin pushes pizzazz, Frost offers a guarantee, Seattle parties, and more.
One of my kids has a toy with a disclaimer on the side; in fine print it says, “HAZARDOUS IF BROKEN.” Well, duh. But we live in a litigious world, and a little self-protection is a good thing for most businesses. Sure, most people enjoy vilifying the lawyerly trade, but I prefer that to a world in which, say, people shoot each other to get even.
Disclaimers are a way of protecting your business in case the customer does something foolish or stupid with your product. So why have disclaimers been showing up on wine lists lately? One of the better restaurants in my hometown uses the back part of the wine list for “Reserve Wine,” all of which are older wines. “The customer purchases these wines at their own risk,” goes the disclaimer at the bottom of the page.
My hometown restaurant is not alone. I’ve seen numerous restaurants hide behind disclaimers such as, “Buy at your own risk.”
Is the condition of the wine truly the fault of the customer? Hardly. If anyone is at fault in this situation, it’s the restaurateur who has chosen a wine that may or may not be good. Why should the customer shoulder the blame?
An irritating aspect of the lust after larger and larger wine lists (fed by a nameless wine magazine) is that most of these wine lists contain wines that are clearly past their sell-by date. Pop one open, preferably to the Italian white wine page, and fantasize about the luscious character of a 1984 Orvieto. Don’t laugh; I’ve seen it.
Do we expect our customers to pay for food that is past its prime? I hope not. Instead, we address their concerns and replace the food, knowing that it’s in the establishment’s best interests to guarantee the quality of the product we serve. If we don’t, we’ll create an angry and vocal customer.
Certainly most restaurateurs are willing to guarantee the quality of cheap wines. But many balk at accepting the loss when the bottle costs hundreds of dollars. Sure, it seems too high a price to pay. But try to imagine how the customer feels if he or she has to pay for a wine they don’t like or think is bad.
Needless to say, that customer will not return. And a guarantee applies; I guarantee you that the customer will complain as loudly as possible to anyone who will listen. That sort of reputation is difficult to shake.
How different would the outcome be, if the restaurant graciously, even happily, assumed the cost of the wine? The wine cost for the month might go up by a few hundred dollars, but that customer has in all likelihood become an ambassador for the restaurant.
Imagine the message it sends to all your servers. A lot of servers are terrified by the arcane process of wine approval. What if the restaurant empowered the servers to simply accept back any wine, no matter the cost, without question? Might some of those servers feel more relaxed about recommending wines?
Server empowerment ought to be the goal of restaurant management. It makes servers and customers alike more at ease, and frees servers to sell as much food and beverage as possible. Since the restaurant guarantees everything, the servers aren’t risking anything; not their tips, not their reputations, not their status in the restaurant.
Even some establishments that guarantee all wines make it hard for servers; returning an open bottle of wine requires a manager, and might require a long conversation with that manager justifying the situation on a busy night when the server’s time could be better spent selling more wines.
One of the great Master Sommeliers in the business, Madeline Triffon of Detroit’s Matt Prentice Restaurants, has a brilliant manner for handling returned bottles. She graciously thanks customers for pointing out the problem with the wine. And then she says, “The case from which the wine came will be isolated and returned to the vendor.”
She has accomplished two goals. One is that she has thanked the customer for having the courage to complain about the wine. Most people, contrary to restaurant attitudes, don’t like to complain. They like to grumble to themselves and their dining partners and then leave without saying a word. It’s after they leave that they become vocal.
But the other trick in Madeline’s method is to subtly prevent the customer from re-ordering the same wine. Since “the case of wine is going to be returned,” she has prevented the customer from refusing the next wine simply because he or she doesn’t like it.
If it turns out that the wine is actually flawed, she’ll be able to remove the glasses and the bottle from the table, take it to the kitchen or side station, and discover the problem. Then she can bring a replacement bottle of the same wine, noting that this new bottle came from a different case, and no one’s ego is bruised.
But there is still that little matter of the cost of the wine. If the wine is bad, most vendors will replace it. If the wine is good, a clever restaurateur will recover at least some of the cost by pouring the wine as a special wine by the glass for the evening. My own habit has been to offer glasses of the rejected wine, assuming it was actually a good wine, to my regulars in the dining room as a thank you for coming in.
Those loyal diners were rewarded for that loyalty. And I wrote the cost of the wine off to merchandising, a small dollar line on my budget but a handy way to track my efforts to keep as many customers happy as possible. And nothing keeps them happier than good wine, as long as the customer thinks it tastes good too.
Doug Frost is a wine and spirits writer and one of only three people in the world to have earned the titles of Master Sommelier and Master of Wine.
PLOTKIN AT THE BAR
Pizzazz Injections for Your Bar
BY ROBERT PLOTKIN
Time affects bars as it does us all. It has a way of diminishing the shine, dulling the glamour and dampening the sizzle of even the glitziest of clubs. Bars and restaurants, like anything else, can lose their appeal, grow slack around the middle and slip into a predictable routine.
In the same way that a high-performance engine needs constant tuning, so does your beverage operation. No major over-haul just a few minor adjustments. Here are some suggestions to fuel the process:
* Drink Flourishes According to Bon Appétit, swizzle sticks have become “one of the coolest collectibles around” and they’re enjoying a renaissance in bars and nightclubs across the country. More than mere implements for stirring, swizzles are contemporary memorabilia for the taking, mementoes embossed with your company’s identity. Swizzles have function and provide a lot of impact for the buck.
“Hang-ons” have universal appeal. They’re those cute plastic chimps, lounging mermaids or blue whales that hook on the rim of a glass. The kid in us likes hang-ons (“You mean I can keep this pink flamingo fruit spear?”), while the operator in us appreciates their value-added aspect. You’ll never spend less raising a smile out of your guests than giving them a groovy plastic orangutan in their drink.
The smallest nuances can make a big difference. Such is the case with drink garnishing. Give your Martini drinkers something to talk about by garnishing their drink with vodka-steeped, anchovy-wrapped green olives, or pepper-infused, almond-stuffed green olives. Put some pizzazz in your Bloody Marys with a shrimp and scallion garnish. Embellish your Daiquiris with kiwis and serve a Slim Jim with every longneck Bud. Garnishing is an opportunity to add some sizzle to your drinks.
* Passé Product? No one said you have to offer the same bill of fare at your bar as does the competition. Anyone can make drinks: few can make drinks something special. Pizzazz behind the bar entails doing something unexpected, something out of the ordinary. The sales axiom “Don’t sell the steak, sell the sizzle!” is equally true here. If it doesn’t sizzle, who needs it?
If it’s true that the better the spirit, the better the cocktail, why not prepare all of your signature drinks with super-premium spirits? Energize your drinks and cocktails with a splash or two of Red Bull. Consider also preparing highballs with bottled mixers; they make crisper, cleaner tasting drinks.
* Secret Ingredients? Everybody loves secrets. Who’d have guessed that the secret behind the Flaming Moe of The Simpsons’ fame was a secret splash of cough syrup? During the golden age of bartending, homemade elixirs, potions, syrups and infusions were the rage. They helped distinguish one establishment’s specialties from the next. What if you followed suit and created your own orange bitters, honey-flavored simple syrup or rose petal tincture? The alchemy involved is uncomplicated. A little research on-line or at the library should be all that’s necessary to send you in the right direction. Once you devise a winning concoction, keep the recipe in your vest pocket and don’t tell a soul. Then let’s see the competition try to duplicate your recipes.
* Adopt a Spirit Spirit sales, especially the top-shelf brands, are soaring. Per capita consumption is steadily increasing back to the highs of the early ’80s. Now is the time to jump on board and leverage their popularity into greater sales. Choose a spirit and become known as a great bourbon bar, tequileria, or single malt haven. Educate your staff and expand your back bar selections to offer guests an interesting array of brands from which to choose. Also prominently feature your rums or vodkas, for example, in your signature drink program. Tap into your guests’ sense of discovery and you’ll be guaranteed success.
* Staff Gone Flaccid? If bartenders could be replaced by tuxedoed robots or drink-making holograms, someone would have done it by now. Fact is no machine, gadget or computer can provide the dynamics necessary to transform a body-filled room into party central the way a great bartender can.
A bartender with a genuine smile, quick wit and winning personality is a hot commodity. But wait, there’s more. Arm them with some basic flair bartending techniques and watch the magic happen. Guests are enthralled with bartenders who flip bottles, toss some glasses and fling a few mixing sets. It reinforces that they’ve selected a cool place to make their hangout. Flair bartending keeps people in their seats longer, which can translate into higher sales.
So when it comes to bartending, what’s really in demand is competency with panache. Want to add some pizzazz to your operation? Light a fire under your bartenders and turn them loose.
* Float Programs A Pi