The immediate post-main course service mood in many restaurants and eateries can be staggeringly unpredictable. At worst, for both customers and waiting staff alike, it is almost a race to the exits. Everyone wants either their tips or their bill and a taxi home. On better nights, healthy tables might linger over wellworn anecdotes and their last five millilitres of red wine, perhaps even ordering another glass each. In such cases, restaurateurs stand around doing the maths on penalty rates.
No matter what situation you are presented with, however, you might as well make the most of a sales opportunity. That’s because after the main course, there are strategies to help you massage as much profit as you can out of this time of night. There’s no sure-fire guarantee that you’ll avoid the worst of this potential flat service period, but by being positive and participatory, you can send the right message to your customers who, if nothing else, will leave with a sense of your goodwill.
This is the obvious angle, and it works. Whether it is desserts and sweet wines or cheese and various wine flights, there are time-honoured traditions to evoke and encourage. It is certainly an area where cheese can really come into its own. Blue cheeses and Sauternes, or Sauternes-style wines, are a taste sensation, backed by proud culinary tradition. Importantly, this expanded approach prevents cheese from becoming a mere semi-frozen add-on that gets doled out as soon as the main course plates have been cleared.
Certain cheeses suit the post-dinner scene better than others. As mentioned, blue cheeses and sweeter wines can be a good alternative to a dessert course for those customers who aren’t pudding addicts. Roquefort and Sauternes; Gorgonzola Dolcelatte served next to slices of pear and accompanied by some Vin Santo; Stilton and good port—Late Bottled Vintage Port—is another winner. Here, the foods and the wines balance one another, unlike many cheese-and-wine arranged marriages that only clash. A selection of washed rind cheeses to help clean up the cabernet sauvignon only makes everything taste metallic.
“After the main course, there are strategies to help you massage as much profit as you can out of this time of night.”
Of course, if such effort is put into this course, it obviously needs more attention paid to it on the menu, and via the floor staff. One case in point: in order to boost sweet wine sales post-dinner, a sommelier simply changed the menu description. ‘Sweet Wine Flight’ became ‘Vins pour le Fromage’. He reckoned it worked a treat.
Speaking of sommeliers, after dinner is a good time to ramp up the informed professionalism. Having the opportunity to garner and glean as much information from your customers over dinner, now is the time to use it to spruik a bottle of cellared red for the aged, hard cheese, or a Barsac for the crème brulée. Such expertise can be used effectively if the marketing and communication of such a bottle of wine is tightly focused and targeted.
Half bottles can be useful tools here, too, as they invoke a sense of luxury and sophistication within the overarching formality of moderate consumption. Regarding expertise and after-dinner wine sales, the point is straightforward: anyone can—once again—hand a customer who has just finished the Wagyu Kiev the 28-page wine list, but few can make a well-timed and targeted wine suggestion for the cheese or dessert.
Much of this success depends on not selling, of course. On the basis that waiters should never be seen to be ‘selling’, and that customers should never feel as if they are being ‘sold’, there’s a strong need at dinner’s end to use the knowledge you’ve built up about your customers over dinner to help them make the next enjoyable step.
There’s an art to this sort of service, and it’s why good wine floor staff are in demand. Finding out what sort of things your customers like, or want, makes it easier for you to give it to them. After all, that’s why the customers are in the restaurant. They want things to eat and drink. Which is why, as soon as I’m given a menu or a wine list, I keep it, sometimes putting it under my chair or even sitting on it. I’m sick of waiters taking away the menu or wine list.
Quality not price
One of the immutable laws of the wine list is that while it might contain 14 different chardonnays from all around the world, the customer will always order the second cheapest one. That’s why you need to promote quality on your wine list and not price.
There are neat ways to do this. Recent studies by the CIA (the Culinary Institute of America) suggested that the exclusion of the dollar sign in front of the price of wines on your wine list increased sales of more expensive wines. If you are not doing so already, it is also wise to list ideal wines with the dishes mentioned on your cheese and dessert menus. Similarly, in the dessert wine part of the list, recommend dishes that suit each wine, referring to such combinations as ‘classic’, ‘traditional’, or ‘inspired by the hills of Gascony’.
Aiming high is a good strategy with wine quality at dinner’s end, particularly with your by-the-glass (BTG) wines. Wine storage systems—while soaking up an initial and hefty cap-ex cost—can be a real boon in this regard. A bottle of Château Mates-Maison at $350 to table might do nothing but sit on the list, but if it’s under inert gas in your wine storage dispenser at $35 per 75ml, then it’s a post-dinner treat so much more attainable.
The high-quality post-prandial glass of wine is suddenly an affordable luxury, which is what wine should be all about.