The SOMM Journal

August/September 2014

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{ }  51 { bottom line } HERE IN 2014, WE MAY BE A FEW YEARS removed from the worse of the recent economic downturn, but we're not out of the woods yet. At least according to Sandy Block MW, a Vice President and Corporate Wine & Beverage Director of the 36-store Legal Sea Foods res - taurant group, who was recently quoted to say in an industry seminar, "Customers don't just want to eat and drink, they want to be enter- tained, and cocktails and draft beer are more entertaining to them than wine." Block—who can speak authoritatively about his markets, located up and down the Eastern Seaboard—reported than average restaurant wine sales are currently around 19% of volume sold; down from 23% in 2007, just before the last recession. To Block, these small declines are "early warning signs." After 2008, "We realized we were in a different business than what we thought we were in. Restaurants are no longer temples of gastronomy. We may say, 'Wine is best with food,' but it isn't what our customers are telling us." Don't we know it! Every competitive restau - rant is now stocking up on craft beers, all the Scotch, bourbon or tequila brands they can find and hiring guys with full-body tattoos or girls who sleep with cats to mix the most imagi - native drinks possible. It's a chore, because many of those cocktails take three, four min- utes apiece to mash, shake or stir; multiply that by an average of 3.1 guests per a table, and you've got a recipe for irritation. Oh, how we all long for ten-second pours of $16 Chardonnays by the glass. Who can stop the madness? My guess: any sommelier or restaurant owner with an imagi - nation. What is unimaginative is stubbornly sticking to formulas that worked in the good ol' days, but getting us nowhere today. Most of it is content—what we do, and how we do it—but some of it is still as basic as pricing. For going on 20, 25 years, for instance, most restaurants have been stuck on markup systems designed when "wines by the glass" meant a choice of Burgundy, "Chablis" or vin rosé. That is to say, steep 3.5 to 4 times markups on glasses, and kinder 2.5 to 3 times markups on bottles. Sure, this is a great way to maintain margins while stimulating bottle sales. Problem is, to get a decent wine by the glass by today's standards—meaning, wines that are a little bet - ter than what you can pull off a supermarket or discount store shelf—guests are forced to spend a minimum of $14 a glass, and well over $20 for anything special. When, for $8 to $12, you can get a fresh, original cocktail twirled by a Tom Cruise or Zooey Deschanel look-alike, why go for the wine? If anything, the recent trend in even the fin - est restaurants has been an increase in glass sales, and a decrease in bottles. Which means that the old formula of marking up bottles less than glasses no longer has relevance—guests aren't noticing, or don't care. What might make more sense is taking care of the guests who do care by leveling off markups: Charge the same for glasses as you do for bottles. By doing that, at least you are addressing the needs of the majority of wine customers, who aren't even looking at bottles. One thing we know: Americans' per capita wine consumption has increased by 2% to 3% every year since the mid-1960s—a ridiculously steady record of growth. Yet today, what Americans are reluctant to do is increase their wine consumption in restaurants—mostly because they are no longer as stupid as many of us still think they are. They know the price of good wine, and they know who it is who has been slow on the uptake: Restaurant wine prices are simply too high. Keeping Guests Entertained in 2014 by Randy Caparoso

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