Tag Archives: Hospitality

Has COVID-19 caused lasting damage to the Restaurant Sector and will it ever truly recover?

The short answer is yes, it will recover, and it will do so in a way that will bring pride to the entire nation. This might seem a little unwarranted, but I do need to point out at this early stage that I am an eternal optimist. What makes me so confident, put simply: I believe in the people involved. Our industry is built around the people that work within it; whether it be the visionary owners, the tireless managers or the charismatic front of house team that make our frequent visits so memorable. It’s the People that give me Hope.

I am writing this article a couple of days after the second lockdown to our industry was announced. Like thousands of operators around the country this came as a crushing blow. I woke up the following Monday morning, took the kids to school and my journey home took me past the large stainless steel vats of the Wiston winery on the A24. Let’s just say that the wines are far better than the location! For some reason I made a quick decision to pull off and see if the head winemaker, and my good friend, Dermot Sugrue was around. Not only is Dermot one of the country’s leading winemakers, he’s also a force of nature. Spending time with him is like getting a shot of adrenaline, and it just so turns out that on this morning he was just the tonic I needed.

Over the next 30 minutes he danced around the various vats and barrels extracting base samples from a tap or, in some cases, a large syringe. He was not worried about our current plight, he was excited about the eventual bounce back and what the customers would make of his new vintage – ‘The Trouble with Dreams’ 2015. For the time I was with him I completely forgot about COVID. It was a brilliant impromptu Monday morning and without me sounding too corny, my wee Irish friend gave me hope.

I then got home and started to think about our industry and what else should give us optimism for the future. One important fact to remember is there are huge swathes of the population who can’t cook restaurant quality food at home (and long may this continue)! Restaurants, when allowed to open, will always be busy because guests crave that unique experience, don’t they?

Another reason for optimism is seeing how the trade has adapted during the pandemic. During the first lockdown some of our customers turned their restaurants into wine shops and started peddling wine across their local community. We have one such customer from Winchester who ended up doing up to 20 deliveries a day out of the back of his estate car. Absolute madness, but utterly inspiring!

The ‘finish at home’ concept was also born, which enabled customers to create restaurant quality dishes in the comfort of their own kitchen. Even Michelin starred chefs such Michael O’Hare got in on the act – I am sure that some menus were easier to finish than others! Sunday Roasts also got the delivery treatment. I mean, come on, what is wrong with people…? They must really hate doing the washing up.

Zoom was also being beamed straight into customers’ homes in the form of online tastings and live cookery classes. The ability to diversify was inspiring, but was any of it profitable? Absolutely not, but it really wasn’t about that. The aim was to keep their brands alive and stay within the head space of their customer base.

Seeing this unfold gave me immense hope, so when the trade reopened on the 4th July I wasn’t nervous, I was excited. And the bounce back didn’t disappoint – it was huge. Central London aside, the population of this country turned up in their droves to support their local pubs and restaurants. I think we were all proud to be a part of our fantastic industry.

Then the tier system crept in and literally took the wind out of people’s sales! Tier 2: welcome to no man’s land – you’re open but who’s coming in? You’re hoping for a Valentine’s Day style service every night of the week and then good old family time at weekends. It’s just never going to happen, so maybe the second lockdown, with furlough support, is the lesser of two evils?

How much more can the hospitality industry take and has permanent damage been caused? You have to say for those unfortunate operators that haven’t survived, absolutely, but for those who have it’s probably made them stronger. Operators have had to really look at every facet of their business and how different aspects can be streamlined, therefore making them more efficient. Longevity has to be the common goal.

One thing is for sure. When this has all been put to bed, the hospitality industry will enter a boom period like no other. A period that is prolonged steady growth, rather than the boom and bust cycle we often see. In my opinion this industry is just too dynamic to be held down. The general public’s love affair with the restaurant sector appears to have been galvanised, which I hope will continue for a long time to come.

Absence definitely makes the heart grow fonder

– Joe Wadhams,
Business Development Director

Are the days of long lists numbered?

Jon Harris, Hallgarten’s Director of Scotland and NW England has pondered the future of long lists and just what a short list would comprise of.

First up, I agree the question is quite ambiguous – the answer really is dependent on the kind of venue you are talking about; however for this piece I am considering a long list being one that is 60 bins or so.

In my opinion there are still some places where a wine list should be a leather bound tome, covering every country, region and producer imaginable – the type of wine list you can happily spend a few hours flicking through. Wine is hugely emotive and romantic for many, and the UK market is one of the most exciting and diverse in the world. It is vital our top sommeliers and buyers keep this tradition alive. 67 Pall Mall is the shining beacon of this.

All that being said, for a huge proportion of the UK On trade it is simply not a sensible option. With a move to a more casual cooking and dining style (just look at Nathan Outlaw’s announcement in June closing his 2-star Michelin flagship restaurant to replace it with a ‘more accessible’ dining option) it is important the modern wine list keeps pace.

I am sure some of the traditionalists even within my own business will disagree, but I believe you can build an exceptional, balanced and exciting list in under 40 bins. Here’s how it could look:

  • 3 or 4 sparkling wines. You can cover entry-level, an interesting upsell or Rosé and a Champagne
  • 10 to 14 whites and reds. Anything less than this and you run out of room for the more esoteric wines, certainly once you include the “must haves” (Sauvignon Blanc, Malbec, etc)
  • 3 Rosé allows a range of styles and regions to suit customer pallets and price points
  • 2 or 3 sweet wines, including fortified – unfortunately a declining category but essential for a quality restaurant. Try adding them to your dessert menu as well as or instead of the wine list.

There are a number of benefits of a shorter list. Firstly this approach allows a range of list design options, from the more traditional by price or alphabetical by country, to a modern style-based model. I am a big advocate of a list constructed by style/flavour profile: it forces the customer to read the list to find what they actually want to drink, rather than purely selecting by price or grape variety. It also makes sure the list’s creator is offering an even(ish) balance of styles, not simply what they like to drink.

Having a more concise list also allows you to include and give focus to some exciting and esoteric wines at key price points. On a larger list these quirkier wines can often get lost as customers search for something they recognise, or rely on a Sommelier’s recommendation. Here they are front and centre.

The shorter list gives you the opportunity to offer a large majority (or all) of the list by the glass. This not only has margin benefits, as the GP on glasses is usually higher than by the bottle, but offers the customer the chance to experiment and experience the range.

A shorter list by no means removes the need for a Somm or buyer; in fact, it arguably makes their role more important – shorter lists need to be regularly changed, usually seasonally, in line with food menus. This means the link between food and wine is more important than ever, and any decisions must make real commercial sense and not purely be whimsical.

An important financial consideration is stockholding value. A more concise list will automatically help control par levels and stock management. In the On trade where margins and cash are almost always tight (particularly at the moment), it is vital not to tie up too much in stock.

Finally team training. This has become increasingly important over the years and can have a huge impact on wine sales. A couple of years ago, one large national customer of ours was able to attribute a 7% growth in value and volume directly to our training programs. A shorter list makes training easier, and opens it up to all the team, not just a select few wine specialists and Sommeliers. If all your team are selling better wine, it will drive incremental margin.

I understand that for the purists out there having a list with just one or possibly no Bordeaux or Burgundy mentioned will simply not cut it, but for much of the trade I believe an exciting, regularly changing, concise list is absolutely the way forward, not just financially but predominantly to enhance the guest experience.

The Blink Effect

Do customers really make decisions on wine spend that quickly?

As I write this article we are all in Lockdown and the industry in which I ply my trade has been shut down. These are uncertain times, but I’m hoping that by the time this article is released the worst of this pandemic will be behind us. Let’s all hope for a bounce back of monumental proportions!

I can’t remember the first time I heard the term ‘The Blink Effect’ but at the time I remember thinking, this all makes a lot of sense. From then on I’ve pretty much made this concept the basis for my sales patter over the last ten years, but is it real?

The premise behind my theory was that a consumer will make a very quick decision on what they are willing to spend on wine within seconds of entering an establishment. According to Malcolm Gladwell’s book ‘Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking’, “spontaneous decisions are often as good as, or even better than, carefully planned and considered ones”.

So if consumers are going to make a really quick decision, I wanted to make sure all my customers were armed and ready. Let’s just say I was an unequivocal believer and ready to spread the word!

So what are we talking about here? What can we change in an establishment to increase the average spend on wine? It’s becoming increasingly difficult to get more bums on seats, so increasing the average spend has never been more important.

Firstly I want to acknowledge that the concept of any establishment has the biggest influence on wine spend. For example a restaurant specialising in burgers will undoubtedly have a lower average spend than a restaurant serving up rare breed steaks cooked over coal. It’s the little details that I want to concentrate on. My theory is that when you add up the effects of all these little changes, the positive impact on spend far outweighs the level of investment needed. I realise I’m starting to sound like Dave Brailsford (former Director of British Cycling) and his Marginal Gains philosophy, but I’m sure you get my point.

In my opinion, one of the key influencers on wine spend is stemware. It’s a simple concept: if you see a decent glass on the table you’d be more inclined to want to fill it with something good. If I go somewhere and see glasses that would be more at home in the Queen Vic, I maybe unfairly presume that wine isn’t a focus for their business. You’re hardly going to drop a Barolo into it! Is it really this simple though? Put out sexy glasses and watch sales sky-rocket! My colleagues have often asked me if I have proof that this actually works and to be honest I haven’t – but it has to make a difference, doesn’t it??

The actual visibility of wine in the outlet is another area that I like to explore with customers. It’s something else that customers can see, or not as the case may be, within seconds of walking into a restaurant. Again for me it underlines how serious an establishment is about wine. Now this could just be a simple wall display using dummy bottles, or budget permitting, display fridges on show in the restaurant. For me, any visibility should be seen as positive. I remember one customer asking me why wine sales had dropped and I could see three newly installed beer vats over his shoulder! It’s pretty clear to me, if you don’t show people that you sell quality wine, why would you expect them to buy it?

Place settings – now there’s something that keeps me awake at night! On one occasion I had to remind myself that I was supposed to be selling wine, after I’d spent the best part of an hour obsessing over salt and pepper mills with a customer. As a customer if you sit down at a table and everything just looks right, I believe this can have a really positive impact on wine spend. If I see salt and pepper pots that don’t match, I’m grabbing my coat and sprinting for the nearest exit! When a customer walks in, one of the first things they’ll see are the tables, so making sure they send the right message is vital.

I suppose what I’m saying is everything the consumer sees influences the average spend on wine. The reality is most of what I’ve outlined can be seen within 5 seconds of walking through the door. So if the Blink Effect is real and we only have a few seconds, let’s make them count.

-Joe Wadhams, Business Development Director

Featured in issue two of Assemblage.