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Taking stock: Beverage directors reassess after the busy season

Education and training are priorities for 2019

Life in the restaurant industry requires riding an endless series of waves that rise and fall in size and velocity, sometimes without warning, but sometimes in ways that can be predicted. One such predictable change is the transition from the end of year into January, which often feels like washing up on shore after months of thrashing in turbulent waves. January is a chance to look back at successes, address challenges with the thought they deserve, determine priorities, and to take stock of one’s own career, especially after giving so much energy to others during the holiday season.

“With a busy October, November, and December behind us and some exciting system changes over the past few weeks, I’m looking forward to getting back to what we do best,” said Carlie Nesgoda, beverage director at Pizza Man Wine Bar + Kitchen in Milwaukee, Wis. “And looking at the year ahead, I’m eager to re-up my focus on staff education, set up new wine events, and create more online content to bring it all together.”

As business booms during the holidays, and demands on staff increase, longer-term projects, such as training and education, are often forced to take a back seat. Getting them back in the spotlight as soon as possible, however, is imperative.

“I know January and February can be viewed as quiet or boring in comparison to the rush, and great sales, of the holiday season,” said Monique Wise, sommelier at Marta restaurant in New York City, part of Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group. “But having extra time to build up a foundation of wine knowledge is what makes the servers’ wine sales stronger when the cover count begins to rise again. I’m lucky to work in a group that prioritizes wine education. As things slow down in the new year, we get to spend time on the basics, breaking down varietals, wine regions, and winemaking decisions. Every single day a sommelier speaks to the front-of-the-house team at lineup for 15-20 minutes.”

2018 brought many challenges, particularly on the legal front, with many states enacting new minimum wages that directly affect the hospitality industry. One such city currently adapting to those new requirements is Seattle.

“The scope of the industry has changed and it’s a learning process to integrate existing business strategies while working within the new laws,” said Katelyn Peil, beverage director for Heavy Restaurant Group, which operates nine different concepts in the city.

“I have seen [the changes] shutter doors of amazing concepts, seen an influx of often uninformed opinions on public forums, and have seen a struggle for concepts to find quality help. The industry is feeling the squeeze of these new policies and we’ve needed to adapt so we can continue to offer the best hospitality we can while maintaining equal benefits for all employees of our company. It’s about being more creative to find ways to show hospitality in unexpected ways. ‘Creativity, quality and consistency’ is my mantra for 2019,” she said.

Many top beverage directors are also seeing the new year as a chance to refine their own skills through studying for beverage certifications, and by staying active and connected in their industry communities. In addition to working on the service team at Bateau restaurant in Seattle, advanced sommelier Nick Davis began his own company in 2015 called Medium Plus, which focuses on elevated wine education and events for beverage students.

“My challenges for 2018 were based on taking on too many projects at times, leading to feelings of being stuck or disorganized,” he said. “Exercising the ability to decline certain tasks is a discipline that I plan on developing more this year, so I can focus on the true essentials. Our goal is to help students gain personal confidence though elevated beverage education, and community is a big part of that.”

The idea of community is a necessary support system for those in the beverage industry, especially when so much time is spent in the insular worlds of their own operations. Finding like-minded colleagues becomes an important motivator for many, and often entails traveling to wine regions around the world to bring the academic learning to life, and to reinvigorate the day-to-day work.

“I’m super-grateful that I was able to travel twice for my job this year,” Nesgoda said. “Both trips helped me to contextualize my daily work – helped me fill in some gaps in the narrative of a vine to wine. A bit of rest and relaxation, and a splash of inspired hospitality along the way, sent me back to work with an excitement to share my passion.”

Katelyn Peil also finds travel and study to be necessary components for achieving balance in a notoriously demanding profession. “I am always making goals to increase my knowledge of wine, be it through tastings, reading, or travel. I’m constantly learning in this industry, and, sure, I could talk about curating creative, non-self-serving wine lists, and using financial discipline to run profitable beverage programs, but the experience of wine is so much vaster than that. I’ve been fortunate to have some great experiences, and I’m looking forward to those coming in the year ahead.”

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.



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