Romano’s Realigns Wine and Food
Weekly, it seems, restaurant operators hear how wine’s role in American dining is increasing, especially among younger consumers who have embraced the idea of wine as an everyday beverage much sooner than previous generations.
But restaurant chains have been slow, generally, to make major changes, preferring instead to tweak lists at the edges, bringing in newly popular varietals like malbec and moscato, rather than aligning wine with their dining concept.
But on taking over the 185+unit Romano’s Macaroni Grill this year, the Ignite Restaurant Group decided it was time to realign the food and beverage concept more in line with the basic Italian dining philosophy of wine matching food.
Specifically, the changes in the wine menu have meant trimming the list by about fifty percent and establishing a list that is almost entirely Italian and American, taking a risk that customers will connect with the enhanced Italian attitude and choose them from among the competing Italian-oriented chains.
Take the late summer promo, in which Romano’s featured 13 of their new wines at half price during its Annual Crush promotion. Named after grape growers’ term for the fall harvest season, the promotion included some steals, including Barbi Brunello di Montalcino from Tuscany and Pertinace Barolo Nebbiolo from Piedmont.
In taking over the beverage program in May and rolling it out by August, the senior manager of beverage innovation Megan Wiig brought in hundreds of wines and conducted blind tastings to gauge opinions. Once the wines were narrowed down and chosen for the new menu, she conducted full-day sessions with area and regional directors so the staff could provide guests with new information about the varietals, regions and specific wines. The early promotion was used as a launching pad for the new wines, many of which are paired with menu items.
“This is definitely a major change not only in the wines but also in the philosophy fueling our food and wine,” says Wiig. Changing both food and wine from more Mediterranean and international to something resembling the original Italian American dining experience, the culinary team set out to create a more trattoria-type menu. Wiig addressed the weak performance in wine, where the house pour out sold anything else by 500 percent. After cutting the list of 45 wines down to 30, with 15 of those new, and organizing the list progressively from light to full-bodied, Wiig crafted the new list as an educational tool for staff and customers.
She trimmed by eliminating similar wines – the list offered eight Tuscan wines – and offering one clear example from each region. Only one wine – an Argentine Malbec – was irreplaceable.
“I feel the average dinner might be intimidated but wants to discover these wines, and we had the same problem with servers,” Wiig says, and to remedy that she added tasting notes and food/wine pairings. “In suburban America a little hand holding goes a long way; I like it when a restaurant makes pairing suggestions and I’ve been in the business for more than 12 years. We’ve seen an incredible lift in wine sales since the program began.”
There’s still much education to be done, but the early results have been encouraging as Wiig aims to help make Romano’s a wine destination. The swiftness of the changes and the equally fast results show that changing a wine culture may not be as difficult as has been suggested; though there was much disruption getting the new list established, the results may indicate that a little conviction goes a long way.