Chicago-based sommelier Jon McDaniel is the founder of Second City Soil, a restaurant wine consulting company that fills the gap between buyers and sellers. Jon was one of Food&Wine Magazine‘s 2018 Sommeliers of the year and also on Wine Enthusiast‘s 2017 “40 Under 40 Tastemakers” list.
In this podcast episode, Jon says the wine selling process is not just outdated, it’s broken. He explains how it can be fixed, and, he gives tons of tips on how to create a wine list, motivate and train waitstaff, and bring value to a restaurant as a sommelier.
Being a Sommelier
First off, Jon talks about how a sommelier needs to be his/her own best PR agent, to both promote oneself and the establishment, and it all begins with creating content.
Content begins with the wine list. It should be creative and fun. “I’m trying to make wine fun for my guests,” he says. Jon laments that the wine industry is very slow to catch up to the rest of the beverage world in terms of fun and creativity. Wine can be seen as boring and uppity, so it’s important to make it fun and accessible.
As for what type of content should be created, Jon suggests that you ask yourself what are you doing in your restaurant that is different from what’s being done at the restaurant across the street.
He also points out that today, the sommelier is similar to the chef of a restaurant, in that he/she is kind of a celebrity — guests come in and want to talk to the somm.
Motivating and Training a Waitstaff
Most restaurant servers are not looking to spend their entire lives in hospitality service — they’re trying to figure out life, get through the week, and pay the bills. Keeping that in mind is key to motivating and training a waitstaff.
Begin by talking about wine as an ingredient. For example, how might a glass of Sauvignon Blanc make a dish taste better or worse? Wine should be a positive addition to the experience.
Motivate by helping waitstaff understand in simple terms how they can put more money in their pocket. As Jon says,
“It’s impossible to get someone to order an extra cheeseburger or another steak, but they can get a second glass of wine.”
If a server can sell 20 extra glasses a week, that’s $200, which is an extra $40 in their pocket, and over $2000 a year. Put into those terms, and the light goes on inside a server’s head. So, the first thing Jon says when he walks into a restaurant for a staff training is, “if you listen to me, I will get you a free month of rent … there’s no other revenue stream in the restaurant that can sell and can earn them as much money as selling wine”
Jon emphasizes that servers need not be wine experts. In absence of a sommelier, they have the menu to “back them up.” They need to feel like they are just one step ahead of the customer when it comes to knowledge of specific wines. Arm them with the few words they need to describe a wine and why it goes with certain dishes. Start with that as the foundation and they’ll learn more and more as they gain confidence.
Further, Jon recommends that you get the service staff excited. He talks about a sushi restaurant where the staff got excited about a wine from Verona, Italy, called “Ferdi.” It’s the staff’s most popular wine and, Jon says, “they sell it like they invented it.” It’s that kind of excitement that leads to the staff connecting with the guest and selling more wine. “If you can get the service staff hooked on something, then they can hook the wine drinker that is also learning as well.”
As for developing an eclectic wine list, Jon discusses the importance and process of gradually adding unusual, lesser-known wines to the list. The thought should be moving someone 10% away from what they know — you can’t jump someone off the deep end because if they don’t like it, it creates tension at the table that the wait staff has to deal with, so they stop selling the wine, and then the wait staff stops trusting you. You need to earn the trust of your guest and earn the trust of your wait staff.
On What Young People Are Drinking
What are the millennials and Generation Z drinking? Jon states flatly, “They don’t want to drink what their parents drink.”
Perhaps because more young people today did a semester abroad and/or have done more traveling than past generations did by their age, they better understand that wines come from everywhere and are more open to trying wines from non-traditional places.
Economics of Restaurant Wine Service
Jon talks about the important balance between providing what the customer wants and what you as a wine person want to offer, while being profitable.
“Once you understand, in building a wine list, what the guest cares about, then you can take advantage economically of that and start to build in profit from that so that you can then pepper in those things that are a little bit more unusual or more exciting for you as a wine person that you have to go a little bit shorter on your margins. But you have to build in these wins that you know no matter what, you’re going to make money on.
If you don’t have those things and you just average everything out of saying, “Well, my list is every wine is 27% cost,” or whatever it is to get that magic number. You have to have things that are 18% and things that are 32%. You have to look at the end of how you get to that goal is by mixing those things in and by pouring things that are money makers.
If you are looking at your rosé by the glass and you have this really cool Cotes de Provence producer that is just amazing, the reality is that during the summer, people just want something that is pink and dry and light and delicious. So if you’re paying $12 instead of $7, it’s really just your fault of why you’re not making money because the reality is that the guest in most concepts don’t care about the same things that you as a wine person cares about.”
The Future of the Sommelier
Jon says “…the job of being just a sommelier is not going to exist in five years.” He explains why that is how the job is already evolving and becoming more complex. It’s more about economics and bringing value to the restaurant.
How To Fix the Process of Selling Wine
Jon points out that how distributors sell wine the exact same way they did it 15 years ago, and it’s an old, broken model. It doesn’t take into account that the buyer is younger and has more responsibilities than the distributor may realize and needs a more efficient buying process. Jon offers one solution that compares favorably to the current, inefficient three-hour winemaker lunch.
Additionally Jon talks about wine sales from the supplier side, particularly how some smaller-production, non-priority SKUs are a challenge and how his company Second City Soil fills the gap, helping to solve much of the dysfunction in the current sales model.