Visit any fine-dining restaurant, wine bar or craft beer joint, and you’ll often enjoy interacting with the beverage director. Wow, what a sexy job, you might think. These people travel the world’s vineyards, taste the rarest liquid delights and hobnob over culinary delights with the finest producers.
But, like many facets of the restaurant business, this exciting surface hides job demands that guests don’t see: long hours, maintaining detailed inventory and sales reports, and managing ever-changing distributor relationships. Beverage directors are not only required to create compelling beverage programs that mesh with the menu, but are also tasked with ensuring their profit margins are hitting correct numbers.
Along with this challenging set of responsibilities has come a proliferation of technology designed to make beverage management easier, faster and more exact.
In my days as a restaurant manager, there was a daily parade of salesmen showcasing the next great software or app that could solve all problems and make the workday effortless. Many were useless, and often created by developers with no restaurant background, while others were smartly designed, wildly creative and offered an efficient path to get the job done. So whether they are online ordering systems, inventory management programs, beverage preservation devices, invoice tracking software, or simply a quicker way to see what products are available, there are many new technologies to investigate.
Jarred Roth, beverage director at Riverpark Restaurant in New York City, has seen many of these offerings flood the market.
“Since moving into buying positions in New York about eight years ago, there has been a substantial increase in technology offerings that accomplish myriad applications. But while some people love them, some can do without,” Roth said.
While a number of his colleagues have adopted online inventory and accounting programs, for instance, Roth hasn’t exactly taken the bait.
“Personally, I’ve never needed these, as I have created or taken over programs that were either small enough to not necessitate them, or the systems were already established in a more traditional manner, with good old Excel,” he said. “I could not do my job without a well-laid-out spreadsheet. For me, it’s clean and easy to look at, and quickly shows me consumption, on-hand quantities and latest sales numbers.”
Roth said he does monthly inventory by hand and finds it invaluable to “get into the cellar and touch every single bottle,” both to familiarize himself with the layout of the cellar and to visually track how wines are selling each month.
He has found some value in adopting the use of SevenFifty.com, an online database offering access to local distributor portfolios, as it allows him to have a quick reference guide for pricing and availability.
In Seattle, Katelyn Peil, wine director for the Heavy Restaurant Group, oversees three locations and has found a mix of new technology and tried-and-true methods that work best for her.
“The advancement of technology has greatly increased the efficiency and accuracy of my position,” Peil said.
In addition to using email and text messages to communicate with her sales reps, she recently adopted BinWise, a cloud-based platform that allows her to submit weekly orders, convert invoices directly into her accounting system, and help better manage inventory.
“Ultimately, it gives us a snapshot of our day-to-day financial picture of our beverage program,” she said. But that has not replaced the old-school method of hand-counting bottles, which her staff does daily.
“Once the restaurants are physically counted, I load all that information into my computer. Then, BinWise gives us a picture of what is going on with our day-to-day inventory. When we load our physical inventory into the system, it produces a theoretical versus actual inventory report, and it allows me to manage a large program in the most efficient and profitable way,” she said.
Like Roth, Peil also finds power in simple tools, like an Excel spreadsheet to organize countless selections she’s tasted and liked, but hasn’t purchased.
“Sometimes I don’t have a spot on my wine list for a wine I greatly enjoyed, so I can search and filter my Excel sheet, then reach out to a vendor later to revisit the wine,” she said.
Finding what works
Sean Cummings, head sommelier at Nice Matin in New York, also chooses to keep his technology simple and streamlined.
“I use SevenFifty.com, as it's useful for double checking what distributors carry, but it isn't always accurate and up to date. For me, simply organizing my emails and keeping a folder of hard copies of distributor portfolios of wines I've tasted is essential,” Cummings said.
Relationships that are created face to face are one of the aspects of buying Cummings enjoys most.
“As far as distributors being progressive with technology, I am more a fan of salespeople who are proactive, and who regularly bring wines for me to taste,” he said. “If you don't show your face, it's doubtful you will receive many orders from us. If you are just a mystery person on the other end of an email chain or text message, you basically don't exist to me.”
But for internal communication, email remains the strongest tool his team uses.
“We have a very large program, and, honestly, the biggest benefit we see is from total communication between the sommelier team. We are emailing each other all day. Fancy scanners and iPhone apps won't help in the least if we are all not on the same page. I like that our whole beverage team can be cc'd on orders, so we all know what is being delivered and when,” he said.
Darren Povero, general manager and sommelier at Kent & Co. Wines, a wine bar in Fort Worth, Texas, has embraced technology to make his job easier.
“Five years ago, I was using simple, time-tested items such as paper, pen, phone and calculator,” Povero said. “Even though there were computer programs and systems available to assist me, I didn’t trust the technology enough to risk using it.”
Today, Povero has come full circle, and is using a suite of platforms that allows him to expand his offerings, increase communication between managers, and get a real-time look at the service floor when he is halfway across the country. He also references SevenFifty.com to consult distributor portfolios and wholesale pricing for easier ordering, but he doesn’t stop there. Utilizing the Accubar Inventory Management System, which links to his point-of-sale software, he can track each wine that was purchased and sold, to identify any variances, which he credits with reducing his inventory errors by 30 percent.
He also has an app connected to the POS system that allows him to look at all guest checks in real time. But it also includes additional information, like the time the table was seated, what the guests are drinking, the outdoor temperature at that given moment, labor cost, tips, comps and voids.
Povero can act on this information in real time. He often instructs his managers to relay messages to servers about the table based on what he’s seeing. Additionally, he uses both Coravin and Perlage devices to help keep open wine bottles fresher longer, as well as a walkie-talkie style app called Voxer that allows the management team to send voice, text or pictures to each other instantly.
That’s a heck of a technology leap forward in only five years, and he’s seeing major benefits. In the case of the wine preservation devices, for example, “They allow us to pour wines by the glass that five years ago would have been purely fantasy,” Povero said. “We have over 260 wines by the glass, with a majority being poured using these new technologies.”
Ultimately, a great beverage director prizes strong communication, accurate data and obsessive organization above all else. Yes, a keen buying eye is important, but having real-time sales numbers, accurate inventories, and being able to pivot approach based on that information are the essential tools that allow them to achieve their ultimate goal: higher profitability.
Today’s savvy professionals can assess what technology may be appropriate for the restaurant, their individual working style and what problems are being solved by adopting them. Whichever tactic is taken by the director — technological or traditional — the main hope is to free them up to spend more time on the floor, where they can connect with guests and enhance their experiences with some truly memorable bottles.