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beverage-director-davod-flaherty-nrn.jpg Owen Franken / Corbis Documentary
With the effects of COVID-19 devastating the cash flow of many operators, bringing in a skilled consultant to pinch hit can be a worthwhile solution.

When a beverage director is out of reach, a consultant can fill the gap

With income down at most restaurants, freelance drink experts can help keep the bar profitable

It’s no secret that restaurant managers work long hours, deal with constant stress, and often eventually seek more lifestyle-friendly work. A natural thought progression for any beverage professional who has spent years working in the restaurant business often leads to: “How do I transition from working the floor to something else? What do I do next with my career?”

For many of the intrepid ones, they’ve developed themselves into beverage consultants for hire that can leave the daily grind, but still circle back and offer their expertise to restaurant and bar operators.

For many, beverage consulting has become a path to make use of some of their top skills while also bringing immense value to their clients. And while there is no substitute for the benefits of having a full-time beverage manager on staff, those professionals don’t come cheap, and many restaurants can reap quick rewards from the help of a consultant.

Particularly now, with the effects of COVID-19 devastating the cash flow of many operators, bringing in a skilled consultant to pinch hit and help create a profitable, efficient beverage program that reflects the times, can be a worthwhile solution.

Chris Tanghe 2.JPG“When run properly, the beverage program is the largest grossing revenue stream by a large margin, enabling the other aspects of the restaurant to flourish,” said Seattle-based Chris Tanghe, left, interim executive director of GuildSomm, a nonprofit organization focused on education and development of wine professionals. In addition to his work with GuildSomm, Tanghe also successfully transitioned into a consultant position after working myriad roles in the business.

“I ran restaurant beverage programs for over 10 years, in addition to holding GM positions, which gave me insight on the financials of a restaurant and how impactful an efficient beverage program can be for the bottom line,” Tanghe said. He has worked with 15 different restaurants, which varied in size, scope and focus, but all of which shared a common understanding that they needed to ensure the maximum potential of their beverage programs.

“A good consultant listens to the needs of the operator first and then proposes implementation that is best going to serve those needs,” Tanghe said. “I, too often, see consultants just build programs that are based on their own likes/dislikes and they often end up being a hindrance more than a help.”

Tanghe begins all of his projects by first doing an evaluation of the core aspects of the restaurant. How many seats are there? How many services per week? What kind of demographic is the operator targeting? What’s the projected check average? What budget is set aside for inventory and management of the program?

Based on that initial assessment, he begins to conceive a program that not only dovetails with the philosophy of the operator’s approach (a focus on local wines, for instance), but also one that aligns with the culinary team’s approach and the identity of the restaurant. Ultimately, Tanghe said, “It’s all about making the most of one’s buying power to increase margins.”

That includes all aspects of the beverage program: Many operators overlook the opportunity that thoughtfully sourced items like coffee, tea and soft drinks present to quickly increase check averages and elevate the guest experience.

In St. Louis, former beverage director Alisha Blackwell-Calvert has jumped into the consulting game after years of working the restaurant floor, as well as having stints in sales and distribution. Her work has benefited operations that are too small to have a full-time beverage person on staff, but also restaurants that are trying to maximize their offerings in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Blackwell-Calvert’s ongoing work with one client, Katie’s Pizza and Pasta Osteria, has been particularly beneficial in adjusting to the current business climate. She was consulted to streamline the wine list to help reduce overhead costs, but also to ensure that quality level and profitability remained high, and that the focus on small Italian producers stayed intact. The direction of the new list has been successful in increasing wine sales, maintaining usability for the staff, and garnering positive customer feedback.

Alisha Blackwell-Calvert 2.pngBlackwell-Calvert, left, works in many capacities, and offers both short-term solutions (one-time wine list creation, for instance), as well as long-term solutions (continued staff education, cost tracking and cellar management, for example).

“A consultant will have experience with wines available in your market to reflect the vibe and atmosphere of the operator’s establishment, as well as to pair well with the food menu,” Blackwell-Calvert said. “And one who is also versed in spirits will have working knowledge of products available to create cocktails that maximize profitability. Additionally, the consultant will be able to train the staff on the selections and will understand cost structures that can perform within the operator’s overall budget.”

Understanding costs, including tracking, pricing and budget forecasting, just may be the most important skill a consultant can offer.

“I'm too often shocked by how many businesses run their programs by the seat of their pants without a real idea of what their COGS (cost of goods sold) are, or a plan for weekly purchasing,” Tanghe said. “Operators need to make sure there are processes in place for costing out both the goods that are sold, and managing inventory in a way that is going to maximize profits for a restaurant.”

Simple things like training staff to pour precise amounts of wine each time, as well as ensuring that bartenders are measuring their spirits consistently can lead to much better financial results.

Mandy Sparacino.jpg“Prior to COVID-19, I ran a $1.5 million wine program,” said Mandy Sparacino, left, former wine director of Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse in Los Angeles. “I was proficient in keeping COGS in line, as well as understanding P&L statements, and worked closely with my general managers to meet the overall goals of the business.”

Now she’s venturing into the world of consulting and has found that her many years of experience not just running beverage programs, but also having worked on teams to open large and small restaurant concepts, give her a leg up with potential clients.

The benefits of beverage consulting can be a win-win for both operators and consultants, as long as the end goals are clear and agreed upon in advance. Things such as profitability targets, staff training plans, and fee structures should all be determined at the onset. And then, as the successes follow, they can be tracked and adjustments can be made.

“Ultimately, the more smart beverage programs we have out there, the more likely restaurants are going to survive the brutally thin margins,” Tanghe said.

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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