Off-Nights to On All the Time: Gettin’ Bodies in Seats with Somms

by Sean Kenniff
Antoinette Bruno, Héctor Lozano, and Jorge Llaguno
August 2014

Restaurant

  • Wit & Wisdom
    200 International Drive
    Baltimore, MD 21202
    (410) 223-1456
    www.witandwisdomtavern.com
  • Cru, The Little Wine Bistro
    Av. de la Industria No. 300, Local 18, Punto Central,
    San Pedro Garza Garcia, Nueva Leon 66220
    (81) 19379002
    cru.com.mx
  • PUBLIC
    210 Elizabeth Street
    New York, NY 10012
    (212) 343-7011
    www.public-nyc.com

Off nights offer endless opportunities. A quirky or experimental idea executed well on a slow night can transform not only that evening’s service, but business overall by engaging a wider audience. And if the event falls flat? No biggie. It was an off-night, anyway. Even a minute uptick in traffic is a boon on a Monday or Tuesday. The StarChefs team is at restaurants every night of the week. We’ve seen it all—every off-night promotion, theme, and deal. Lately, we’ve found beverage professionals, especially somms, doin’ it well (as LL Cool J would say).

“We adapted our [off-night] idea from our sister property, Bourbon Steak, in Washington, D.C. Julian Mayor, their lead sommelier, does something called 'Flight Club.' He invites
sommeliers, and the competition with pairings ensues. He gives his opponents access to his wine list first, and the menu is also given well in advance. Both somms present their wines with the dishes and the guests vote each round for which they think is the better pairing,” says Sommlelier Julie Dalton of Baltimore’s Wit & Wisdom (also a two time Somm Slam runner-up, 2012 and 2013). “We decided to do a similar battle: ‘He Said Beer, She Said Wine.’ I'm always competing against a male. This was beer versus wine, and I was competing against my lead bartender.”

Sommelier Julie Dalton of Wit and Wisdom – Baltimore, MD

Sommelier Julie Dalton of Wit and Wisdom – Baltimore, MD

Chesapeake Bay Fluke Sashimi, Cucumber Ponzu, Sriracha Ice Cream, Pickled Onions, and Radishes paired with Cinsault Rosé, Château des Deux Rocs, Coteaux du Languedoc, France, 2013

Chesapeake Bay Fluke Sashimi, Cucumber Ponzu, Sriracha Ice Cream, Pickled Onions, and Radishes paired with Cinsault Rosé, Château des Deux Rocs, Coteaux du Languedoc, France, 2013

Wit and Wisdom – Baltimore, MD

Wit and Wisdom – Baltimore, MD

Wit and Wisdom – Baltimore, MD

Wit and Wisdom – Baltimore, MD

Piedmont Ridge Bone Marrow “Oscar”, Mushroom Jam, Old Bay Chips, Hollandaise Whipped Cream, Royal Glasage, Jumbo Lump Crab Meat, and Garden Soil paired with Chardonnay, Blanc de Blancs, Diebolt-Vallois, Cramant, Champagne, France NV

Piedmont Ridge Bone Marrow “Oscar”, Mushroom Jam, Old Bay Chips, Hollandaise Whipped Cream, Royal Glasage, Jumbo Lump Crab Meat, and Garden Soil paired with Chardonnay, Blanc de Blancs, Diebolt-Vallois, Cramant, Champagne, France NV

Chef Zack Mills of Wit and Wisdom – Baltimore, MD

Chef Zack Mills of Wit and Wisdom – Baltimore, MD

Hudson Valley Foie Gras Torchon, Peanut Butter Crisp, Strawberry Cassis Gelée, Pickled Strawberries, Spiced Peanut Butter Mascarpone, Strawberry Gel, and Micro Celery paired with Pinot Noir Rosé, Alexana, Willamette Valley, Oregon, 2012

Hudson Valley Foie Gras Torchon, Peanut Butter Crisp, Strawberry Cassis Gelée, Pickled Strawberries, Spiced Peanut Butter Mascarpone, Strawberry Gel, and Micro Celery paired with Pinot Noir Rosé, Alexana, Willamette Valley, Oregon, 2012

At Cru: Little Wine Bar in Monterrey, Mexico, Sommelier Ludovic Anacleto starts brain storming off-night events “as soon as the figures aren’t showing the monthly growth we’re forecasting. The idea at Cru has always been to grow the wine culture in our region (northern Mexico). Off-night wine events have been a great way to drag people in on Mondays and Tuesdays.” Ludovic offers what he calls “Master Classes,” where he features high-priced wines and only charges cost. “We use those events as hooks,” he says. “About 75 percent of people [participating] in those master classes stay for dinner. This is when we bank.” Ludovic measures success in seats occupied. Some events, like when they do “a vertical of great Bordeaux or a horizontal of Burgundy,” just break even. But the increase in covers compared to a normal off-night is huge: “We can have 100 percent occupancy in our 8pm shift, when we normally have 20 percent,” he says.

In New York City, Jesse Webster is the Beverage Director for the AvroKO Hospitality Group and oversees the monthly members-only wine program at PUBLIC that delivers wine to your personal PUBLIC mailbox. (Yes, members have a mailbox for wine in-house, similar to how old-shool beer halls store your steins for you.) A members' benefit called Wine Mailbox Socials was added to the program in Spring 2014. Members are invited to the two hour event, importers or distributors are often asked to participate, canapes are passed, and wines area tasted (and drunk!). "The Socials have multiple benefits," says Webster of the off-night events. "The PUBLIC Wine Mailbox Program (WMBX) has a 10-plus year history and we have some members who've been a part of this journey since 2004! That said, it's challenging to keep something like this fresh and relevant, so, we brainstormed earlier this year and the Social is one of the new arrows in our bow. They have become a part of the expected WMBX culture and experience."

Member feedback at PUBLIC has been encouraging and Webster sees the return on investment in the Social program in the long term. "We measure success by member response rather than revenue. On that front the Socials are a resounding success. We've seen some membership-related interest from (non-member) guests and we see a member or several from each Social decide to join us for dinner as the festivities wind down. So, there's a direct and growing financial component. We've had a range of attendance, from a scant few to about 20 people, and this has worked well, bringing a welcome energy to the bar on an early mid-week evening" says Webster.

Dalton defines success as “anything that brings people in the door!” Wit & Wisdom is in the Four Seasons, so Dalton gears the He Said/She Said wine series toward their regulars and the locals. “Some people who’ve attended have never joined us before and some are regulars. Doing these events is never about the money. It's about exposure for the restaurant, for Chef Zack Mills's food, and for the somms and bartenders. People always ask when the next one will be. The chefs enjoy it, too, because they get to come up with fun ideas for food, off the menu.”

Sommelier Ludovic Anacleto of Cru, Little Wine Bistro – Monterrey, Mexico

Sommelier Ludovic Anacleto of Cru, Little Wine Bistro – Monterrey, Mexico

Cru, Little Wine Bistro – Monterrey, Mexico

Cru, Little Wine Bistro – Monterrey, Mexico

Cru, Little Wine Bistro – Monterrey, Mexico

Cru, Little Wine Bistro – Monterrey, Mexico

Cru, Little Wine Bistro – Monterrey, Mexico

Cru, Little Wine Bistro – Monterrey, Mexico

Cru, Little Wine Bistro – Monterrey, Mexico

Cru, Little Wine Bistro – Monterrey, Mexico

Cru, Little Wine Bistro – Monterrey, Mexico

Cru, Little Wine Bistro – Monterrey, Mexico

Cru, Little Wine Bistro – Monterrey, Mexico

Cru, Little Wine Bistro – Monterrey, Mexico

Ludovic’s Master Classes took time to develop and perfect. They started off as wine pairing dinners. “They worked well, but it’s a huge logistical [event],” he says. “We found that our clients would come only once a month, not three times a month. We needed to find something else, and decided to do wine classes. We had every type of guest, from those with a slight interest in wine, to the ones who own a 6,000-bottle collection. We couldn’t blend them well, so, we decide to move on to master classes.” Those classes have lower attendance but are higher priced and give Ludovic a chance to pop some rare and ritzy bottles. “The idea behind that is, besides filling the restaurant, we improve our wait and wine staff as they use those master classes to train and improve their skills. The guests are also very happy because we pop open rarities or wines from regions they’re unlikely to ever get to: Bandol, Jura, or Languedoc.”

For marketing regular events like the Master Classes, Ludovic finds that sending invites through Cru’s CRM [Customer Relationship Management/Marketing system] is the most useful tool at his disposal. But if, “we bring in a chef from a different state or city, we’ll want to promote it to a broader audience. So, Facebook is our main way of communication.” At Wit & Wisdom, Dalton spreads the word with paper announcements in check presenters, promos in a neighborhood newsletter as well as the social media triumvirate: Instagram, Twitter, Facebook. Websters prefers "direct email and personal contact with guests," and says "word of mouth [about the event] has been another great benefit of the program."

“Adapt or Die,” says Ludovic. “I really believe in building our own niche and sharpening it the most I can. In Mexico, wine pairing dinners are the past. Cru is full of introductory courses and tastings. We must invent new concepts to bring in people and keep them with us.” He’s grown the Master Classes into anticipated monthly events. Memberships are offered that come with other weekly benefits, especially for lunch.

“People love competitions,” says Dalton. “He Said/She Said is a very interactive way of getting the guests to participate in the pairings and to engage with others. We set a large communal table and it forces interaction. It’s a fun and different way from the typical wine dinner to explore food and pairings.”

PUBLIC – New York, NY

PUBLIC – New York, NY

Beverage Director Jesse Webster of PUBLIC - New York, NY

Beverage Director Jesse Webster of PUBLIC - New York, NY

PUBLIC - New York, NY

PUBLIC - New York, NY

PUBLIC - New York, NY

PUBLIC - New York, NY

PUBLIC - New York, NY

PUBLIC - New York, NY

PUBLIC - New York, NY

PUBLIC - New York, NY

“After a very tough first year, trying to compete with bigger units, the [off-nights] decision paid off,” Ludovid says. “Without a doubt, the empty Mondays and thin Tuesdays made us work harder and with a great deal of imagination. Sometimes there was disappointment. But now, our Tuesdays are as important as our Fridays. Sundays are stronger than Saturdays. Wine and food sales have increased overall. We make connections between off-nights and the rest of the week, linking wine maker dinners to other events, for lunch on Thursday. And we offer free corkage for the wines presented on Monday for all week. If we organize a vertical, that specific winery will be sold at cost for the rest of the week.”

Through his off-night events, Ludovic has trained an entire client base to be ambassadors for Cru. And a loyal crew of restaurant diplomats active in the community is priceless. “We want them to bring us new guests,” says Ludovic. “Before opening Cru, I worked the floor—and still do—for 15 years. I know for a fact that an empty dining room is devastation. Being bored as hell and penniless isn’t good for nobody.”