The restaurant business is notorious for having a revolving door. The staff come, and they go, but sometimes, just sometimes, the good ones stay. Capturing them can be akin to netting a unicorn, for the truly good ones can be game changers for your business. Nowhere is this more important than for those who have a hand in the beverage sales of the operation.
Keeping a keen eye out to identify strong talent is the first step to master. And next, and much more difficult, is learning how to lay out a strategy that will retain them. There’s no set formula to retention of great beverage talent, but often it becomes a personalized approach that includes a mix of tangible incentives, encouragement, and challenges.
“A skilled and informed beverage team is an essential part of the whole parcel,” says Joe Printz, owner of three concepts, The Grape D’Vine, DVine Wine Bar and DVine Pie, in Sparkill, N.Y. “The qualities I look for from a star employee are a detailed knowledge of what they are selling, and a personality that conveys their knowledge without seeming like they are selling. They have to be quietly, and casually confident, as it eases the guests into any suggestions they may make.”
Erik Segelbaum, former corporate beverage director for Stephen Starr Restaurants, who now runs his own consulting business Somlyay, encourages owners and managers to look at everyone who interacts with the guests to identify true talent.
“Never underestimate the power of your servers and bartenders. They have far more influence in beverage sales than most realize, and it’s important they know how valued they are,” said Segelbaum. “Share some of the perks with your top team members — you’d be amazed at how far a bottle of great wine left over from a sales call will go to reinforce your appreciation. If you are going to an educational event/seminar/walk around tasting, etc. and you have the opportunity to take them with, invite them. Not only will you be rewarding them for great work, but you might be mentoring the next generation of sommelier in your restaurant.”
When you look at what the psychological and financial needs of your top employees are, this can give you a guide to what will keep them coming through your door every day ready to bring it.
“First and foremost, take care of your people and keep them engaged,” said Constantin Alexander, beverage director for Hakkasan Restaurant Group. “What’s worse than educating someone and having them leave your company? Not educating them and having them stay. Their financial needs are of concern, sure, but the cultural needs are most important. Money only becomes an issue if it’s well below comparable situations, and there are other ways to compensate people. Quality of life, passion for the job and staying relevant are a few. Let them carve their own path as much as possible. There will always be times where we all have to hunker down and work, but let’s not forget to stop and remember why we got into this business in the first place. We have to enjoy what we do. Education is the single most important part of making people stay engaged and happy.”
Education can take many forms, be it wine classes, mixology basic training, meeting producers firsthand, or even organizing field trips for your staff. Many restaurants or bars will pay for exams or classes for employees to expand their skills and knowledge. Tours of local breweries, distilleries or wineries give your staff firsthand experience that can be shared with guests.
“It’s important to work in a place where you are proud to say you work,” said Printz. “We have an atmosphere of camaraderie and insouciance that keep the staff on their toes without riding them hard. The manager sets the standards and leads by example. And after they've been trained, we don't micromanage. Yes, we correct obvious problems when they arise, but largely the staff know exactly what's expected of them.”
Incentives for staff members can also go a long way in creating interest in the products, and therefore enhancing sales and engagement with guests.
“It’s important for everyone to keep learning and on their toes,” said Heather Smith, general manager at The Grey Plume in Omaha, Neb. “Once they feel static in their position, they tend to get bored or start thinking about other opportunities. We do an incentive program where they can get a free bottle of wine if their name is mentioned in a good review, which goes a long way for morale. It also motivates them to read the reviews, which keeps them all on the same page as to what guests are saying, and they can make their own adjustments if they read something that is less than satisfactory. Reviews have been at an all-time positive since we’ve been doing this.”
At the most basic level, assuming their financial needs are met, retaining great staff members comes down to how they feel they’re treated and supported.
“It’s about feeling valued, first and foremost,” said Segelbaum. “People will stay loyal if they have respect for you and your organization, and they feel that respect is reciprocated. Taking the time to ask them about their career aspirations and then helping them lay down a plan for the future shows you are investing in them and valuing them as people. A good mentor then checks in with them regularly to see where they are on that path. Remember your staff are people. Take time to connect with them. The best salesperson won’t go above and beyond if they feel their efforts are not appreciated.”
David Flaherty has more than 20 years of experience in the hospitality industry. He is a certified specialist of wine, a certified cicerone and a former operations manager and beer and spirits director for Hearth restaurant and the Terroir wine bars in New York City. He is currently marketing director for the Washington State Wine Commission and writes about wine, beer and spirits in his blog, Grapes and Grains.