Few of those restaurants perched atop America’s business and financial towers have managed to create beverage programs that match their elevated vistas. In fact, the sometimes fusty fine dining operations set way up there don’t generally exhibit the energy, imagination and verve needed to build either great food or beverage programs. So it’s ironic that the restaurant and bar with perhaps the most rarefied US location gets praise as often for its wine and beverage programs as it does for its cuisine. In the two years since their reopening, NYC’s Windows on the World and the Greatest Bar on Earth have performed stunningly well; while the panorama from the World Trade Center, encompassing New York Harbor, the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge, is often obscured by rolling clouds, it seems the beverage team’s vision has been picture-perfect.
Windows all-star beverage team (Sommelier Gillian Ballance, Beverage Director Andrea Immer, Beverage Manager Mark Coleman) have the world at their feet.
The numbers are as impressive as the views from the 107th floor; in fiscal year 1998, total beverage sales approached $8 million, with wine sales alone topping $4 million. That’s an increase of 30% over the previous fiscal year, impressive even when taking into account the powerful effect New York’s financial and tourism booms have had on such destination restaurants. It’s even more compelling when viewed in the light of the closing of one component; the ambitious, wine-intensive Cellar in the Sky.
The operational and financial achievements of Windows on the World present a sharp contrast from its state immediately after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, which shuttered the two-level, two-acre operation, then under different management. Windows returned to the hands of the late Joe Baum, whose vision was responsible for its creation in 1976. After a $25 million renovation, the new WOW reopened in the same dramatic setting, and with the same stupendous wine cellar, ranked among the best in the nation for its breadth and depth of selection. But that entire beverage program needed an infusion of ’90s sensibility, and management put in place a savvy beverage and wine merchandising and marketing program to match, in scope and customer-friendliness, the culinary verve of executive chef Michael Lomonaco.
Wine sales in the Windows on the World dining room are better than ever, even when the view isn’t as grand as above.
It fell to beverage director Andrea Immer and her associates, beverage manager Mark Coleman and sommelier Gillian Ballance, to whip together a world-class program in fairly short order. Their work has been rewarded, and not just at the cash register; the operations under their control took two of last year’s Cheers Awards for Beverage Excellence; for best independent overall beverage program and best wine program.
LAUNCHING A TOP-FLIGHT PROGRAM
Immer, beverage director for the B.E. Group, which until last month also operated New York City’s late, lamented Rainbow Room, has earned the Master Sommelier title from the Court of Master Sommeliers, one of three women to have been so honored. She was also picked as best sommelier by the Sommelier Society of America in 1997, and co-hosts TVFN’s “Quench.”
Her major challenge in reopening Windows may have been developing its extraordinary spirits, cocktail and cordial program. Windows has always been known for its wine selection, but dozens of bars and restaurants exist on ground level surrounding the World Trade Center. A world class program was needed to attract the casual imbiber, whose patronage was necessary for long term success, into the elevator for the two-minute ride to the 107th floor.
There were initial problems. The new bar design, expected to display dozens of carefully selected sprits, was jettisoned as unsafe and unwieldy; Immer and company were left with nowhere to display a huge inventory of ultrapremium, costly, rare and sometimes obscure spirits. “And we had this very presumptuous name, ‘The Greatest Bar on Earth,’ which really begs an inventory of that caliber. We asked ourselves, ‘How are we going to sell this stuff?'”
The Greatest Bar’s library list and menu (left) drive sales, while Windows’ fine dining reputation is enchanced by its stellar place settings.
The massive spirit selection, which includes plenty of well-known brand names, also embraces hand-crafted sakes, Brazilian rums and such specialties as Oregon apple brandy. As an example of the inventory’s breadth, the Greatest Bar stocks 16 cognacs and 27 bourbons, ryes or sour mash whiskeys.
“We decided we needed to develop a way to put our spirits in front of the guests other than just stocking them on a back bar,” says beverage manager Coleman. They focused on a merchandising list. “If you go into the bar at anytime, you’ll see a blue book, our library list as we call it, on every table. It’s not just generic spirits; it goes well beyond that, giving little anecdotes and explanations about the categories. Putting things where the guests will see them and not relying on someone looking at the back bar and spying the label is important. One of our biggest compliments is that people take the lists with them. We reprint them every Sunday because so many walk out the door; to us, that’s great.”
The list is a model of subtle promotion and customer experience enhancement. In addition to product listings and cocktail suggestions, the list briefly notes what constitutes sour mash, why the new American pot-still brandies may someday rival cognacs and why Irish and Scotch whiskys differ in flavor. Overall, its lively approach and fun tone reflects the Windows staff’s enthusiasm.
“Everything we do is with the intent to speed the transaction, at least the non-personal part,” says Immer. “We want them to read the book and enjoy it, and then our servers can more easily sell them. The importance of having that book in front of the customer can’t be overestimated, especially in a place that can do 1,400 covers on any given day. Its great that the guest has a chance to get a sense of what we had before the waiter even gets there.”
PRICE IS RIGHT
Prices, however, are not correspondingly high, especially considering the neighborhood and food prices (appetizers run between $9 and $55, entrees between $26 and $35). “The level of product quality and selection is comparable with the best anywhere, but priced to be consumer-friendly and to promote a level of accessibility,” says Immer. “Once you’re in here, the decor and the feel of the place might not make you think that you’ll find well-priced cocktails; you might expect to get gouged, particularly because it’s a destination restaurant for the world, not just the local market place.” Local customers don’t generally return unless they get value for their money, she argues, and wouldn’t make a place like the Greatest Bar a regular stopping point unless they’re welcomed. “It’s very much a philosophical thing; people feel like they’re wanted when the prices charged aren’t like an admission fee.” Beverage check average in the bar is about $13.50; about 65% spirits, 20% wine and 15% beer.
Although they were prepared to purge slow movers from the list, it hasn’t happened. Some of the more esoteric spirits that are popular with the staff become fast movers. “I’m constantly surprised by the way they all sell,” says Immer. “I expected some of the single malts from the classic distilleries to be strong, but we consciously picked some sipping and luxury products just to see what would happen, while also trying to make something happen. Looking at the kind of dollars you can tie up in almost 1,000 wines and an excess of three dozen single malt scotches and a profusion of products in almost all other sectors, none of us feel we can justify having all of that laying around unless it’s paying. We don’t want to have an extraordinary list that’s a museum piece or ego collection; the philosophy is that we offer an abundance and also develop merchandising methods to get it in front of the guest.
The staff’s ability to hand-sell in the location like this is a function of Windows’ dedication to training. “We’re trying to get the staff involved in what they’re selling. They can taste what we have, we give them background knowledge about where the products come from and how they’re made, and they get excited about it because they see the turnaround and the customer reaction,” says Coleman.
Art-Deco design touches and tidy busy bars highlight the greatest bar on earth.
One way they’re building business is the Spirits in the Skybox program, where occasional classes in single categories sell out. “People come here pay us money to learn to be good guests,” says Coleman “After we do a class, the sales of that spirit all of a sudden take off.” For about $25, up to 40 guests sample appetizers while hearing about the category and then try three or four of bar’s best spirits (Immer says a glass of each generally sells for about $20.)
SHORT AND STRONG
At its opening, Windows was celebrated for its wine selection, but that was during an era when wine and beverage programs weren’t thought to offer a competitive edge. “Most restaurants just said ‘We have wine, if you want it, let us know,'” says Immer. “That doesn’t cater to today’s typical customer; they want to know the world is their oyster in terms of what they could choose from, and they expect you to help them.”
To do so, the staff at Windows has created a short version of their full list, about 80 wines with an average bottle price of $35, from nearly 850 selections. The short list is meant to create a comfortable atmosphere for the casual wine drinker. “The main point is, we don’t want someone to have to page endlessly through a book to see wine. The big book makes people shy away. We like them to be able to see selections immediately and give them an invitation to participate in the wine experience,” says Immer.
The design promotes customer satisfaction and sales. Arranged by varietal and within each category listed by style, from lightest to fullest rather than price, the list promotes easy cues for harried servers as well. Customer ordering the lamb? The more robust cabernets are at the bottom of the group. Easier to use, she argues, and servers are less likely to avoid wine sales when they know they don’t have to tote a massive compendium of vertical vintages. The same is true for customers who know they prefer cabs to zins but need a little guidance. “Guests don’t have to open a book or wade through many pages to find good choices,” she says.
The list, as much a training tool as a selling device, helps the servers as well as the customers, says Ballance. And it helps build credibility for the server with the guest.
“It’s also great for large parties of 15 or 30,” says Ballance. “We don’t have to worry that they’ll order off the extended list and wipe us out of a particular wine. We buy large quantities for the short list, which also makes it good for catering events.”
Windows has also bumped up their wine-by-the glass sales. “We saw a big blip when we expanded the by the glass selection into more upscale stuff,” says Immer. “Originally, it was more limited and moderately priced wines. But we decided to see how it would go to have more upscale selections that people might not normally buy by the bottle because of the price but would buy a single serving. That was a major boon in by-the-glass sales, AND check average, because people love to be able to get a taste of something excellent.”
“A lot of deuces will come in, and one will like red wine and the other white,” says Ballance. “If there’s nothing exciting on the list, they may not get anything and just have cocktail, but if you can offer one a glass of Kissler Chardonnay and the other some Chalk Hill Cabernet, everybody’s happy.”
Windows’ beverage training program, built on its three-tiered wine program, has the more important impact on their beverage success, say Immer and company.
“I don’t know of any place that devotes the amount of professional time, energy, money, supplies, wine, hours and payroll dollars, not to mention our time to teach things,” she says. The estimated cost in wine alone is perhaps $6,000. Immer, Coleman and Ballance spend about 40% of their working hours directly teaching or working on materials.
The program makes wine sales easier, because the staff is armed with the correct tools, Coleman says. “It satisfies the guests and can end up putting money in the staffs’ pockets as well,” he says.
The Windows course has three levels: a four-hour “must” course that introduces wine sales and service; a 10-week wine captain’s certification course at which Ballance manages tastings of about 100 wines from the list; and the crown jewel, the wine boot camp, five four-hour sessions, limited to captains, sommeliers, sommelier candidates and front-of-house managers that includes tasting of approximately 200 wines from the extended list.
“When we run the two more significant trainings, they’re not mandatory, and we’re not required to pay hourly wages,” says Immer. “And we don’t have to because people are ready to come on their own time,” says Ballance. “That makes it a real shared commitment and a source of tremendous pride for us. They see the value and ask us for it. Everybody’s going to move on and not stay at this restaurant forever; when they leave, they’ll have a great tool to put in their back pocket–more wine knowledge than a lot of restaurant managers they’ll be working for.”
“I’ve always had an aversion to places with a huge wine list that have the audacity to just throw their waiters to the wolves and say ‘Go, baby, here’s a great wine list,’ without training them,” says Immer. “It’s ridiculous, and the wait staff will reject trying to make wine sales and instead will settle on pushing big brand names they know.”
The Greatest Bar on Earth, highly designed and busy all hours of the day, is a beverage program laboratory.
Three certified sommeliers cruise the dining room and 10 servers have completed the captain’s training. “It makes our jobs easier to have such a high level of expertise” says Coleman. “Our captains have wine knowledge equivalent to some of the best wine people in the country.
The pay-off of all this training shows in what Immer calls the classic contemporary default wine order: white zinfandel.
“This is especially true for someone uncomfortable ordering wine in the restaurant situation. Ordering white zin is an easy default and eliminates the need for interaction and risk-taking. But our staff finds something else to get in front of that customer instead. They know the products, and so comfortably and with utter self-confidence and enthusiasm, they can suggest an alternative,” says Immer. The servers get a chance to up-sell, and the guest gets that rarest of birds, quality wine attention in the restaurant setting. “They get the whole thing; the ordering, presentation, tasting and drinking experience, with all the showmanship and personalized attention that entails, rather than a couple of glasses of pink stuff on the tray,” Immer says. Their upgraded wine experience may interest them in a broader range of wines, winning them over to the category, the operation and the server. “It’s one of the ways the investment in inventory pays here.”