A SOMMELIER ON THE FLOOR INCREASES RESTAURANT WINE SALES 32% COMPARED WITH WAIT STAFF HANDLING WINE
by Andrew Chalk
Everyone is familiar with the sommelier system of restaurant wine service where a dedicated and specially-trained person presents, discusses, and serves wine. They are also familiar with the system where the restaurant leaves wine sales to the regular waitstaff, and they incorporate it into their service of food.
The former system entails an extra hourly, salaried, or commissioned person on staff, so it is only financially viable if the sommelier sells more wine. Enough more to offset their cost.
STUDIES OF SOMMELIER PRODUCTIVITY
Hitherto, I was not aware of any studies that had actually measured this, to give restaurateurs guidance on how best to handle wine sales. Now the situation has changed. Restaurant and hospitality analytics company Eat & Drink Profits (E&D) has conducted exactly such a study with cooperating restaurants in New Jersey.
The restaurants all had a wine list of at least 28 selections and used waitstaff to sell wine before the experiment began. They agreed to allow an E&D employee with extensive sommelier training and experience to work the floor selling their wine list on Friday and Saturday night, every other week. This test period continued for six months. By the end, on one half of the weekends in the test period there was a sommelier (on both nights). On the other half there was no sommelier on either nights.
The results were stunning. Wine sales for the weekends with a sommelier averaged 32% higher in dollar terms, and the increase accounted for more than double the wages of the sommelier involved. John ’Red’ Hamilton, who directed the experiment for E&D gave an example. “In simple terms, restaurant X had average nightly pre-somm wine sales of $1,500. So, if they had the average increase in sales of 32%, that was $480 per night. Not all that is profit of course. They had to buy the wine. Assuming a 3x multiple on wholesale their gross profit increase was $320 per night. If the somm was paid hourly at $25 per hour for an eight-hour shift they cost $200. Therefore, the restaurant made a profit of $120 per night just by adding a sommelier. That amount is 8% of the pre-somm wine sales, and is on top of whatever profit they were making without the somm. That gain is also before the somm does what any good sommelier will do. For example, customize the wine list. Add a captain’s list. Introduce high touch items like dessert wines and digestifs.”
As a result of the experiment most of the restaurants added sommeliers, some of them using E&D as a trainer or as a contract sommelier service. Under this, E&D took over the wine list, provided a sommelier on weekends and other nights as requested, and even began a series of wine dinners for the restaurant’s staff.
Red agrees that one can quibble with the numbers but comes back to the main point of the experiment. Try this in your restaurant. It can be the case that spending money will actually make you money.
All the above is fiction, except that John ‘Red’ Hamilton really existed (he was John Dillinger’s sidekick). I wrote it because we have just seen a virus and public policy response decimate the hospitality industry. Sommeliers were among the hardest hit. When we ask why, it was because they were seen as less essential than servers or bartenders. But were they? If a somm brings in a profit every weekend night then it costs the restaurant to not have them.
I asked over 50 colleagues in the wine business if they were aware of an experiment like the above being used. Not a single one knew of a specific example, although some said they thought restaurants with large wine sales (for example, steakhouses) did them internally. A request to The Court of Master Sommeliers as to whether they had done any research on this question did not receive a response.
Chef Graham Dodds, of Dallas and Ojo Caliente, New Mexico, said it accords with what he has seen from the kitchen, as a server has to manage a lot of other things as well as the wine selection. Long time Dallas chef Kent Rathbun, now involved in several ventures including Rathbun’s Curbside BBQ concurred. Adam Jones, owner of Grace in Fort Worth, said he saw exactly this increased sales effect in his days at Del Frisco earlier in his career and at Grace.
Mark Hyman, President/CEO of Llano Estacado Winery, made the valid point that there were hybrid systems. For example, a restaurant may employ a somm to teach waitstaff how to best sell wine.
G.M. "Pooch” Pucilowski, a wine judge currently residing in Lodi, California, recalled how he used to offer free sales classes to the waitstaff of the restaurants that bought wine from him. Sales would spike “substantially” for the next 30 days but then recede. However to a higher level than prior to the classes “They were a great sales aid…” he adds.
The biggest takeaway of all was astonishment to find that there was not a mountain of studies showing “somm productivity”. Many layoffs and demotions hang on this calculation and, it deserves careful calculation.