As 2019 comes to a close with a vigorous holiday crescendo, restaurants are simultaneously hanging on for dear life and also beginning to reflect on the past year. As in both business and life, reflection is the key to finding the themes that knit together our challenges and successes. Whether it be risk taking, having the courage to create the team you deserve, or chasing the ever-elusive goal of work/life balance, restaurant beverage managers are finding a lot to learn from after what proved to be a very robust year of change and growth.
“2019 was certainly an interesting year for us,” said Charlie Deal, managing member and wine director of Juju, Jujube and Dos Perros restaurants in North Carolina. “Sales and profits were vigorous in general, but my biggest accomplishment this year was turning around our wine, beer, and sake program,” he said. “I had to remove a key employee from their position and assume their role in the short term, which carried a lot of learning. My former employee was making things needlessly complicated and esoteric which resulted in a program that nobody could keep up with. There was just so much inventory lying around! I gave all my reps the bad news that orders weren't going to be happening for a while until I made my way through all the redundant stock. By focusing on moving product and positioning them appropriately, immediately our numbers improved drastically. It was a revelation for me as my heightened attention bled over to the beverage lists I was managing at our other restaurants.”
Cara De Lavallade, beverage manager at the Enchantment Resort in Sedona, Ariz., was also tasked with decreasing a wine inventory of $300,000 and streamlining the program.
“Knowing how to reduce inventory is so important to maintaining a healthy wine program,” she said. “You stop looking at all the shiny new wines you can acquire, and start paying attention to what you have and how to make it work for you. I show wines to the staff, I share stories, try to get them motivated. And when I do buy, it's for a very specific need. In the end, the list will be very intentional — wines that we know and love to sell, and those that our guests can't live without.”
Toxic employees are a universal problem shared across all industries, and dealing with them swiftly is key.
“There's an axiom that has never let me down: It's never a bad time to fire someone who has to go,” Deal said. “It sounds obvious, but it's not. How many times have you paused because you realize you're removing someone who fills a very important role and you're not exactly sure who will fill it. Here's the thing though: If you know they need to go, you're not the only one who knows this. So when you do, invariably people step up to take on more responsibility because they're saying, ‘Finally! Thank you!’”
Staffing is, and will always remain, a challenge to operators. Knowing how to identify strong talent, and nurture their success, should be a fundamental focus for all.
Isabella Fitzgerald, beverage manager at Momofuku Kawi in the Hudson Yards complex in New York City, found herself not only opening a restaurant in an unknown location, but needing team members who could roll with the constant changes.
“Things were unexpected at every step of the way,” Fitzgerald said. “I really wanted my newly hired beverage team to recognize that the job isn't all about shaking drinks and tasting wine. It's about keeping things clean and organized, knowing your service steps and taking care of the guests. I knew our customers wouldn't know most of the producers or wines on our list. Our staff is able to guide them by truly believing in what we’re offering. And because I’ve invested so much energy in ensuring they’re learning, growing and engaged, almost all my original bar team and sommeliers are still here.”
It’s always healthy to analyze what strengths your team has, and also what deficiencies you may have in your leadership style.
“This year, we had record beverage sales and profitability,” said Tim O’Brien, beverage director at Salty’s Seafood Grills, which has multiple outlets in the Pacific Northwest. “Early on in the year, I realized that my sales staff are better at sales than I am. So, in addition to holding monthly beverage classes to focus on education, I also made sure that I set some goals and expectations for them to hit.”
But new directives can’t just be given to staff, and then forgotten.
“My biggest learning this year is to not assume the implementation of anything new is enough to deliver results, no matter how simple or complicated,” O’Brien said. “Any change of approach is not going to happen without constant practice and follow-up by management — everyone must be held accountable.”
Restaurant professionals are also constantly chasing the oft elusive goal of work/life balance, in an industry notorious for long hours and last-minute demands.
“The biggest lesson I learned about work/life balance is to make plans in advance to take care of yourself,” Fitzgerald said. “Weekend getaways, vacations: Commit so you have to go, or else the vacuum of work has a very strong pull and I usually lose the fight.”
And when faced with a risky gamble, sometimes it's best to jump into the unknown. De Lavallade left a premier restaurant management gig in Washington State to travel to Arizona to start a new adventure. She soon landed the job at Enchantment Resort and learned, “to endorse the idea of getting out of your comfort zone, disrupting your life, trying something new or scary, even in the smallest way. The world is too large and life is too short not to.”
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.