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Spotlight: Wine Training Critical to Success

June 1, 2010 By: Alissa Ponchione


When it comes to ordering wines, most patrons and servers often stick to antiquated notions like red with meat and white with fish. But by training your servers on the nuances of varietals, helping them understand different regions and showing them tips that garner consumer confidence, your venue will see higher check prices and increased profits. From upselling brands to sharing anecdotal information about a wine to asking questions and listening to guests, servers can learn about wine while building revenue. We went out to some chains succeeding with wine to find some surefire wine-training tactics to help increase wine sales.

The Melting Pot
Staff at the Tampa, Fla.-based fondue chain The Melting Pot go through the E. & J. Gallo Wine Academy. The training, coupled with on-the-job training and on-premise wine tastings, gives The Melting Pot servers an expansive depth of wine knowledge. Kendra Shier, vice president of branding, says the key to selling is knowledge. “It’s no secret that servers will sell more of what they like or have a personal knowledge of.” Some other practices at the chain’s 135-plus locations:
•    The Melting Pot teaches staff to use simple wine terminology when interacting with guests. In fact, a wine tasting mat is placed on each table in order to spark interest and start a conversation about wine.
•    The steps toward making a sale at The Melting Pot are: listening to guests, determining what the guest wants to learn about wine and proceeding based on that level of interest.
•    Prior to each shift, staff members taste select wines,  and the E. & J. Gallo Wine Academy is open to all servers to help complete their training.
•    In order to upsell and create higher ticket prices, servers are trained to pair specific wines with entrees and to suggest specific wines that might otherwise be overlooked.
•    The Melting Pot relies on promotions such as special wine dinners, ladies night out and “Wine Down Wednesdays,” a popular wine flight program that features local wineries, to promote educational experiences to both servers and guests.

The Melting Pot

Flûte
At Flûte, with two restaurants in New York and one in Paris and plans to franchise the concept, Hervé Rousseau hires staff based on their willingness to learn. The sparkling wine bar concept urges staff to communicate with guests about what they like and what to order while also understanding what the guest is willing to learn about wine. Flûte also requires staff members undergo an intense wine training (described below), which, ultimately, is profitable for Flûte.

Flute Wine Room
•    Wine and Champagne manuals, wine tastings, downloadable brochures and a wine master — a compilation of 100 Champagne and wines with essential descriptions — are used to educate the staff about what to sell and how to sell it.
•    The Champagne Academy, three days of intense training, takes place at the opening of every new Flûte restaurant to fully train the staff. After a location’s opening, every new member receives this training within the first few weeks of being hired.
•    In order to get guests to order wine, Rousseau role plays with staff and also teaches them to keep a low profile when they approach a table. He says it’s important to put guests at ease and advises against servers acting elitist or using hard core wine terminology.
•    “Make it personal,” Rousseau advises. A good story or personal anecdote will make the guest comfortable and more likely to try new varietals.
•    Rousseau says two things can sell any wine at Flûte: listening to your guest and knowing the product. If servers do this, then the restaurant and server will see it pay in dividends.

Wyndham Hotels and Resorts
The wine program in place at Parsippany, N.J.-based Wyndham Hotels and Resorts focuses on increasing guests’ overall wine experience as well as server sales. Through WineQuest, the progressive wine list and e-learning system, Wyndham stays ahead of trends and establishes itself as having a highly successful, simple and effective wine program.
•    Using a progressive wine list, Wyndham organizes wines by flavor profiles, an approach that has proven to be Wyndham’s most powerful tool in upselling wines; this format increases server knowledge and sales while enhancing the guest experience. WineQuest training helps servers grasp concepts and engage guests in wine education, enabling both to develop knowledge about wine flavors and aromas.
•    Wyndham’s training format is an entirely e-learning based system. Fernando Salazar, vice president of food and beverage, says employees learn more through interactive online training. In fact, WineQuest is accessible to all staff, who must score 85 percent or higher to pass the course.
•    Servers are taught to keep things simple, focusing their attention on the progressive wine list to identify the wine that suits what the guest wants.

Hyatt Hotels and Resorts
Although online training is readily available, Barry Prescott, corporate director of beverage at Chicago-based Hyatt Hotel and Resorts, says learning about wine firsthand is the real secret to success. “The retention rate of a live, interactive session is much higher than online seminars,” he explains, “because servers can ask targeted questions. It’s also best to let the servers make up their own minds about the wines.”
•    Prescott recommends keeping wine training “simple, live and interactive.” In fact, Hyatt holds weekly and monthly wine seminars. This achieves a higher information retention rate because servers enjoy the hands-on approach and the ability to ask targeted questions.
•    Hyatt’s main training strategy: “We train our servers to discuss wine in a natural way, not too pushy, but to make suggestions when asked and to recommend particular wines with specific foods,” Prescott says.
•    At Hyatt, servers are trained to ask the guest questions, listen and teach when appropriate. They focus on flavor profiles over detailed information about wine origins. If a server can gauge the guest’s interest in wine, then the chance of upselling increases.
•    Prescott says wine training is best when it’s conducted over a period of time.  “Too much information is wasted as retention is always a challenge.” Exploring new wines and gradually building server confidence keeps Hyatt servers on top of their game.

Hyatt Wine Room

The Oceanaire Seafood Room
The Oceanaire Seafood Room, headquartered in Houston, Texas, takes its wine training seriously. Managers at each location must be at least Level 1 Sommelier, while some are Level 2. For The Oceanaire Seafood Room, wine training keeps servers selling and keep guests happy.
•    New team members are encouraged to participate in new-hire wine training and monthly educational classes and tastings, not to mention daily wine tasting training that often leads servers to achieve Level 1 Sommelier certification.
•    Each restaurant has wine cut sheets with information about all the wines the restaurant carries. Additionally, every two weeks, video training is required alongside live wine training.
•    Tim Whitlock, senior vice president of operations, says the real revenue booster for Oceanaire comes from the interaction between servers and guests. Servers are trained to suggest specific wines with specific seafood but also to explain why the wine profile pairs well with guests’ selections.
•    Whitlock says servers are sensitive to each guest and their interest level in wine. If a guest is interested, servers provide information, but if a guest shows no interest, then a server knows only to provide a brief recommendation. It’s important at Oceanaire that servers never upstage guests.


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