Depending on the type of establishment, a restaurant's wine list can range from the rudimentary to the encyclopedic, but it is always an effective tool for the generation of high margin revenue. Getting your FOH staff to utilize it effectively, to drive maximum sales, can be a difficult task. Because our industry attracts such a diverse workforce, we cannot expect a universal level of wine knowledge from our employees. A good wine training program is essential for those operators who wish to turn cellar inventory and maximize profits.
While higher end restaurants with extensive lists and huge cellars can afford to hire a full-time sommelier, as well as expect their hires to arrive with a certain level of conversance, the vast majority of restaurants cannot. Geography and the state of the economy can play a role in this. Depending on where in the country you are located, and the strength of your local job market, your FOH staff may consist of restaurant veterans or novices, or a mixture of the two, all of whom possess differing levels of knowledge about the product they offer. You can't expect a 22 year old college student to have the same level of wine knowledge as a grizzled 50 year old professional waiter. And even if you do have the good fortune to have a sommelier on staff, they cannot service every table in your establishment that wants a glass or a bottle. Sure, they come in handy for getting a customer comfortable with dropping the big bucks on a bottle from the Captain's List, but they can't talk about every glass of Chardonnay that goes out of the bar. Having wait staff that can answer questions, make recommendations and speak with a fair degree of intelligence about your offerings is crucial to making your guests comfortable, and getting them to spend money. In order to help your staff find the right bottle or glass to suit a customer's price range and preferences, they need to know their list, and that requires training.
Because the world of wine is so broad, and can be so intimidating for many, an effective wine training program works best if it is a continuing process, and is broken down into small, easily digestible bites. A lengthy and intensive single session "Boot Camp" approach may work for new hires already familiar with the subject, but will be overwhelming for a novice. It also does nothing to reinforce the knowledge of long time employees. With time, even your better employees will forget their impressions of a wine, or disremember facts. By making wine training an ongoing, continuous process, the learning never stops; new hires are brought up to speed, and seasoned veterans stay sharp.
We can't expect everyone on our staff to have an equal passion for wine, but having a good working knowledge of what you offer is not too much to ask. It is our responsibility to give our staff the tools they need to do their job. By incorporating ongoing training into the weekly routine, information is more easily retained by your staff. A great time to do this is during pre-shift meetings. By focusing on specific subjects, and doing controlled and limited tastings (small pours and spit cups required!), your waiters will remember concrete talking points that they can relay to the guest and use to sell your list.
These sessions should vary, so as not to become dull, and can include a variety of approaches. Discuss a single wine, and some clever facts about the producer (why is a French winemaker working in Chile? why is there Braille embossed on the label?), do a compare and contrast of Old World and New World wine styles (Chablis vs. a California Chardonnay, Shiraz vs. Syrah) or focus on a particular region (What are the dominant grapes in southern Rhone wines? German Riesling 101). You can also do a quick and dirty guide to pairing a dish you offer with a couple of different selections from your BTG list. The possibilities are multitudinous, but should focus on short, concrete and easily retained factoids that your staff can communicate to your guests. Many times, your wine reps will be happy to give you fact sheets, shelf talkers and other educational materials that you can use to educate your staff. They may even be willing to come in and conduct some of these sessions themselves.
We often lose track of the fact that our service staff is really our sales staff. Their primary responsibility is to take care of the customer, but they should also be maximizing your profits by separating customers and money, and doing it with a smile. Higher check averages result in more money for you, and more money for them, and the wine list is one of the most effective tools they have to drive sales. A confident and informative server will always sell more than one who simply points to the most expensive item on the list. By arming our staff with knowledge we can put the guest at ease. A server who can communicate pleasure in a wine and do so confidently will translate into a customer confident that they have been guided to the right wine for them, and ultimately pleased with their selection.