No Salesman Need Apply
How to manage the supplier-restaurant partnership
By Alice Feiring
Having bad thoughts about your wine and spirits salespeople? Maybe they’re not so happy about things themselves.
Trapped between belligerent buyers demanding tightly allocated wines or abusive discounts, and their companies’ upward-ratcheting goals and tightened commissions, it’s no wonder they sometimes have a self-image problem. The current sommelier at NYC’s Jean-George, Patrick Bickford, gave up a career flogging wine for a living when he realized he disliked the seamier side of sales. “I’m not just any kind of whore,” he once told me; “I’m a wine sales guy.”
No matter how passionate about wine, salespeople often bear a stigma; as with real estate or automobiles or any other commodity, they are inevitably associated with the worst practitioners of their trade. And whether it’s the cheapest beer in town or Chateau Petrus, selling beverages is still a commodity business, where the big sale is far more important than the best wine.
As in every other field, there are good sales people and there are bad, just as there are honorable buyers and sleazy ones. The wine sales/buyer relationship can be hard to manage, but developing a good one is worth the effort. At its best, the seller/buyer relationship demands give and take, with room for improvement on both sides.
ORGANIZATION & PROTOCOL
Johnna Sachen, divisional wine buyer at Lettuce Entertain You Enterprise’s Shaw’s Crab House in Chicago seems to have a handle on how to get what she wants from the many sellers she deals with, partially by treating them with respect. Whenever she gets a new salesperson (“I hate when they change on me — it’s like having to start all over again with a shrink!”), her initial move is to set up a meeting to explain what sort of service and treatment she’s looking for. “I want them to be as organized as I am. I don’t want to have to call a distributor or wine person and hound them to come here and taste wine with me; That’s their responsibility.”
Keeping a regular schedule is important, she says. “I’m appointment-only. Once a month is just the right amount to keep me up-to-date with new items, package and vintage changes, or special close-out deals.” Like with so many buyers, she finds off-schedule calls infuriating and simply bad business. Of course, she’s not inflexible, making exceptions if an important wine maker is in town, or if a hard-to-find wine is available for tasting on a one-time-only basis. That’s the sort of opportunity most buyers would regret missing, if only to get a shot at discovering what all the fuss is about.
At the Rhode Island outpost of the popular Capital Grille, regional director of operations John Martin echoes the need for reliable organization on both sides of the market. For him, like Sachen, cold calls are a no-no except under very special circumstances, but even those examples still should require calling ahead.
As organized and professional as beverage buyers want sales people to be, their own organization is equally essential in building steady relationships. Calls from panicked managers on Friday at 2 a.m., begging distributors to deliver a few cases of wine the next morning are absurd, but not unusual. In many instances, with warehouses miles away and often closed until Monday morning, these calls can create havoc. The saintly salesperson may be forced to use up favors with other accounts or wine stores to ‘borrow’ the required wine, if it can be found, and then must hand-deliver the wine. Unbelievably, these heroic efforts don’t often get rewarded and can end up creating a soured relationship.
Not so at Capital Grille. Martin says, “We don’t make last minute calls on Friday night begging the purveyor to break into the warehouse and bring us a few cases of wine. I’d rather have them owing me then me owing them. If I’ve got advice for operators, it’s to look over inventory on Thursday morning to see if you’ve got enough bottles to go through the weekend.” It can avoid putting buyers and sellers in a tough spot.
Sellers do score points with Martin when he sees them supporting his restaurant by holding functions there, having a drink at the bar or even dining. “We don’t like to deal with those who sit at our bar and bug you every single day. But if they’re willing to do their business in our restaurant….if they’re good to out staff, we’ll do more business.”
Rob Armstrong, general manager at Morton’s of Chicago in Baltimore, spent nine months on the road as a salesperson. “I hated it. It wasn’t for me.” He learned that rewarding relationships can be key. He believes that, when it makes business sense, helping good salespeople make their monthly numbers is good for both sides. But he recalled one incident when his good intentions were abused.
“I was after a certain premium wine. My salesperson informed me that to get it I’d have to buy two or three more items from the portfolio. I was already on their top five customer list! They were holding this one wine hostage so they could sell the rest of the book to me.” But Armstrong found a way to put a stop to that. “I called up the winery and the brand was removed from their portfolio.” Morton’s national buying power may have been a decisive factor, but no winery likes to hear their thoroughbred product is being used to drag along some donkeys.
What really gets Sachen’s back up is salesfolk who mess up her bookkeeping. “One time a sales guy dropped off a bill with a bookkeeping error in among a bunch of sales sheets and never told me it was in there. We’re actually seven accounts — but we’re charged as one — so if one bill doesn’t get paid it’s devastating.”
“But I’ve been lucky,” she says. “Sometimes they make my life easy. There was one woman who was totally on top of everything. She caught mistakes before I did, then before I’d know something was wrong, I’d get a call that a credit was already in the works. I just love that.”
“Hey, Joe, can you help me out? I really would love to have a pour of some of my less expensive wines.” This is not outrageous but the insensitive wine buyer might get huffy the first time they hear this.
If you like this salesperson and the wine is decent, is there really a problem? Remember, a pour is essential to the lifeline and income of the salesperson who is often only working on commission.
This relationship is two-way: your salesperson does staff training, brings you the good stuff, teaches you some wine tricks and gives you inside scoop in the industry and gives you leeway on pricing. They should get rewarded and be allowed to make a living. Johnna Sachen believes in this. “Because I buy for many other restaurants in the Lettuce Entertain You group, it’s easy for me to help them out. If they say, I need support on this item, and if I can, I come through.” She takes it one step further. “At the beginning of the year we talk to the distributors and find out where they’re headed. I want to know what they’re pushing and if I can help them out — great!” But everyone knows that some people aren’t so scrupulous. There are ways to ask and then there are ways to annoy.
The following is a true story. Names have been changed to protect the guilty AND the innocent.
The wine buyer — call him Jay — at a high profile French brasserie in NYC’s Soho told an accommodating saleswoman, “I don’t taste with salesfolk. I need samples dropped off.” He then asked for some expensive burgundies. Desperately wanting the business, this owner of the small fine wine import company reluctantly approved giving him the samples without a chance to discuss or represent the wines in person, a salesperson’s ultimate opportunity.
A heavy box of samples were hand-delivered, and two weeks later, the sales person made her follow-up call. She asked Jay what he thought.
“Sorry. Didn’t like them.”
She was a little stunned; these were drop-dead, knock-out wines she believed; maybe his bottles were corked or cooked or otherwise mishandled.
“Can you tell me why you didn’t like them?” she asked in disbelief. “It’s impossible for me to get a good idea of your palate unless I get some feedback,” she coached.
“Sorry. Can’t remember,” he said. End of conversation.
The disheartened salesperson went back to her boss and, feeling abused, told him the story. A few months later, the importer overheard a conversation between parents of his daughter’s friends. “I was talking to Jay last week,” one said. “He told me about this great scam he has; he requests all these samples for ‘tasting’ for the restaurant where he works, and they go directly into his wine cellar.”
When her boss told her the story, she said, “It made me nauseous.” She still wants this guy’s important and high-profile business, and so bites her tongue whenever she visits his restaurant.
Morton’s Armstrong has heard similar horror stories and warns salespeople and wine buyers alike that asking for samples, unless a solid relationship already exists, looks suspicious. But then, he prefers the old-fashioned way of doing business anyway. “Actually, I love to see salespeople, they have a lot to offer me.”
If you want an importer to drop off samples, buyers must earn his trust first — like tasting with them a few times first or building business by buying some of his wines. Then, with an ongoing relationship established, seeking bottles to taste alone won’t seem exploitative.
HOW TO FIRE YOUR SALESPERSON
Some buyers may be wary about firing your salesperson. Sachen, like most people, doesn’t look forward to it, but at least one time it was unavoidable.
“The salesperson didn’t return calls and didn’t take care of credits. In this circumstance, it was easy to call his boss and ask for someone else.” Of course, if you ring up $8 million a year in wine and liquor sales like the units under Sachen and you represent one of the biggest wine and liquor accounts in the city, it’s easy to feel entitled. Nevertheless, as a buyer, size shouldn’t matter too much; all clients are entitled to a certain professional and reliable service, no matter what your sales are.
Armstrong fired a salesperson only once. “This man pushed and pushed a product that I told them I had no interest in. He wouldn’t give up. He felt it was appropriate to my business and I didn’t think it was. He must have tried three or four times. One day I came back from a day off and there, on my desk, was another sample. I called up the guy’s boss and had him taken off my account. Don’t these people realize that forming a partnership is where they’re going to be successful? I hate it when they don’t seem to care what they sell me and are just focused on making their monthly numbers.”
Of course, making their numbers is as essential for the seller as it ultimately is for the buyer. But at operations where beverage decisions are treated seriously, strong-arm tactics can kill the relationship. And in the end, in the hospitality business, whether between customer and server or buyer and seller, it’s the relationship that can make or break a deal.
LIFE ON THE CHAIN GANG
Pizzeria Uno may be typical of chain restaurants that attempt to build a solid wine program. As wine lists need to remain stable for six months or so at a time, beverage managers and executives make buying decisions only about twice yearly.
Alan Gibson, Uno’s VP for food and beverage, says that since wine sales are the lowest percentage of the company’s beverage sales, chain wine buying can be a bit passionless.
“We’re trapped by price point,” he explains. “Our guest has about $5 in their hand to spend on a drink. They could get one of our best shots or beers but for $5 they don’t get a very good glass of wine.
He has no complaints about wine sale forces, but has a thing or two to tell the industry in general about why wine sales are shaky in casual US restaurants. “Contrary to the beer or spirits industry, the wine people have a poor track record with promoting and advertising wines to a national audience.” It’s one of the reasons that, playing Cassandra, he believes that “the wine market is dying out.” Nevertheless he’s proud of his list at Uno.
“Some of the wines we sell are sold in the New York Plaza for less money and we pour 7 oz. instead of their 5oz.”
But he’s got one concern that rings true with everyone in every wine buying situation. “What also drives me crazy? When someone who comes here and shows us things that have nothing to do with us. I hate it when they don’t do their research. What I like? When people know what we’re about, understand our vision and help me get a great wine at a great price.”