One unique thing about the beverage business is just how many people move between roles within the overall industry. You may meet a rep who sells artisan spirits one day, and the next time you see them, they’ve switched to importing boutique wines from Corsica. And oftentimes, these winding, lifelong career paths start in restaurants. Talented servers become managers, managers become buyers, and then after a few years of gaining experience running beverage programs, they make the leap to the sales side, selling to restaurant buyers whose roles they know intimately.
By flipping the script a bit, and learning the needs and responsibilities of their salespeople, restaurant operators and buyers can better maximize the relationships with their reps to everyone’s benefit. Improvements in communication, understanding of business strategies, and trust developed over time, can ensure that the buyers and their sales reps are aligned for success.
“I think the biggest thing I learned as a buyer [for restaurants] that has helped me in my new role as a sales rep, is that sales are all about relationships,” Kaitlyn Duke, Sales Consultant for XXI Wine & Spirits in Tampa, Florida, said. “Developing a strong relationship with your buyers is so important. I definitely bought more from the sales reps who I favored, which were the ones who communicated best with me, understood my vision for my beverage program, and who were problem solvers. The ones who gave me headaches, who I always had to chase after, missed out on a lot of opportunities.”
Restaurant buyers often have misconceptions of what their sales reps do on a daily basis, and what they are responsible for.
“A buyer’s main responsibility is to the health of the restaurant and the service of their guest, whereas a sales rep has to juggle the needs of their company, the needs of the producers that their company sells, and the needs of their customers,” Matt Stinton, associate director of national sales at Skurnik Wines, said. “Many, though not all, sales reps are purely commission based, so their compensation directly relates to how much they can sell, and they need to be able to balance the needs of all of their customers in order to survive. Selling that one case of Puligny Montrachet does not pay the rent. They need to balance that one case with a customer who buys a lot of inexpensive Montepulciano, and the one that takes ten case drops of sparkling wine for mimosas. Then, a California producer comes to town, and you need to shift to do a full day of market work, focusing on only their four expressions of Chardonnay. It’s pretty dynamic, and some buyers simply don’t understand how much work and planning goes into putting together a tasting for a specific buyer. And, on top of that, a good rep will never let the buyer know how much work it all is, so being flexible and understanding is key.”
While there can be various needs and responsibilities pulling salespeople in different directions, many of them also have the ability to sit down with buyers and discuss not just the next new wine they should try, but what the long-term goals and strategies are for the restaurant’s beverage program.
“My advice for buyers is to let your sales reps in,” Tim Vasile, account representative with Vehrs Distributing, a wine and spirits wholesaler based in Seattle, said. “You could be surprised what an outside perspective could add to your program. Give them the time to work with you and let them know what you need, and see what they come up with from there. Buyers should know that good reps care and want what's best for you and your program.”
A good sales rep can be identified by those who do their research on the restaurants they’re targeting. “A successful salesperson will take the relevant time to understand and anticipate the needs of the buyer,” says Alisha Blackwell-Calvert, above, a wine consultant from St. Louis, Missouri. “They’ll get to know the buyer's personal tastes, familiarize themselves with their wine lists, and even patronize their restaurant to get acquainted with the cuisine. These are the primary steps to take in presenting appropriate wines to individual buyers.”
Good communication is key between buyers and sales reps, particularly when it comes to laying out one’s goals clearly.
“The more specific the buyers can be about their needs, the better,” Stinton said. “Many times, a rep can have dozens, if not hundreds, of options. Giving a rep as much information as possible will allow them to narrow down the options and increase their chances of a successful tasting. A successful tasting is a great use of everyone’s time. And be flexible, particularly now — there are 1,001 things that can happen outside of a rep’s control, from warehouse issues, or delivery trucks breaking down, to global logistics congestion, ill-advised tariffs and glass shortages.”
In addition to finding the right products that meet the restaurant’s business needs, there is also an opportunity for buyers to be educated by their sales reps, and to be introduced to new items that can be quite profitable as consumers’ interests shift. What non-alcoholic options are out there that can pique a guest’s interest and prove profitable? Is there a Sauvignon Blanc that is currently on discount that can replace a current offering on your list and make you a bigger return? Opportunities can happen when trust is high, and the interests of both the buyer and the seller are understood.
“My goal as a sommelier was not to sell the most expensive bottle that I could,” said Duke, above. “It was to sell a bottle that I knew the customer would love that also fits their budget. If they give you a profile they like and a $75 budget, I'd recommend a $50 bottle if I knew they would love it. That's how you gain their trust. Before you know it, they come back and ask for you time and time again, and you've got them buying a bottle for $130 because they trust you. It's very similar to being a sales rep. I try to bring my customers wines that will fit their program and make them money. I'm not trying to sell as much as I can, or the most expensive wines. Sure, I make commissions, but gaining the trust of my customers is how I generate more business and more loyalty to me and my company. If you're making money, I'm making money! In other words, I'm not successful without your success.”
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.