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August 29, 2018

Host a Wine and Beer Dinner

Wine_dinner_inlineBy Piet Jones

If only every night could be Friday or Saturday filled with reservations, people willing to wait to grab a table, and strong check averages. Sadly, you’ve got Tuesday every week with empty tables and your well-functioning staff stuck in low gear looking for something to do.

In the past, you could save money by trimming a few hours here and there but with such a tight labor market, cutting hours is a sure way to watch your expensive training investments update their resumes and search for a more stable gig. There’s got to be a way to pump up your volume, so to speak, and get enough guests in your seats to make the soft spots in your week less of a drag on the bottom line.

Why not wine and beer dinners?

Maybe you’ve tried them in the past and they didn’t work out for you, but things have changed in the last couple of years, and it may be time to give them another chance. First, people are looking for a little something more from their dining experience. The explosion of local craft breweries, cideries, and wineries has people clamoring for evenings where they don’t just enjoy a meal but also have an immersive experience in the food and drink they’re enjoying. Second, social media sites like Facebook and Instagram have made getting the word out easier and more effective than ever. As a bonus, you can sell tickets in advance through these sites, giving you the opportunity to better plan and prepare for the big night.

Equally important, local breweries and wineries have recognized how advantageous these special nights are and have prepared accordingly. They often have trained staff ready to help you plan for the event - including tips on pairing and complimentary foods for their products. Dependent on ABC laws, they’ll even bring their own product to sell after the event and give you a cut of the sales without you running the risk of getting stuck with product that you bought up front.

Remember that not everything has to be local either, try speaking with your beer and wine reps to learn more about their offerings. Internationally famous beer and wine makers tour regularly and snagging one of these people can be a real feather in your cap. Maybe it will even lead to an annual event that people will drive to from surrounding cities for a chance to partake.

Possibly the biggest challenge you might face is menu planning. The easy way would be to select a few complimentary dishes from your regular menu but there are some advantages to taking other routes. Diners can tire easily if your menu is too static and your regulars may not stay regular forever. A wine or beer night is a great way to experiment with new dishes, get feedback, and refine them before rolling out as a regular item.

It’s also the perfect time to reward hardworking BOH staff, a sous chef or line cook for example, by letting them step up to create and execute their culinary vision. This will help foster loyalty and expand their horizons while giving you a glimpse of some of their skills beyond your executive chef’s set menu.

Wine_dinner_inline2A one-off menu may also be the opportunity to use scarce, seasonal ingredients and local vendors - things you may not normally add to your menu because there isn’t the supply to accommodate your volume. Think things like fiddlehead ferns, hand foraged mushrooms, or that small lamb farm just outside of town that everyone can’t stop talking about.

Wine and beer dinners could also be the right opportunity to let someone else take over your kitchen. Pop-ups are huge right now, nomadic chefs are working and refining their proof of concept while wooing investors to fund their projects. Often the wandering restaurants have bigger buzz than actual brick and mortar restaurants and command a large enough following to fill your restaurant to the brim with a waiting list. While they often have a full kitchen compliment, there’s an advantage to be had by scheduling some of your own staff and giving them a chance to expand their culinary knowledge and skills with new ideas and ethnic influences.

Will every wine and beer dinner be a huge success that sells out days or weeks in advance? No. Does that mean it’s a failure? Also, no. The pictures you post online, before and after the event, have staying power. Even people who don’t attend will see those and be influenced by them, possibly bringing new people to your doors and regulars back after an absence. This is a benefit that will last long after the night is over.

Finally, what do you do with a few scattered single tickets left the day before the event? Simple, convert them into media passes and offer to your local food editors, writers and bloggers. Some of these people are well enough known that their presence will create excitement at the table, plus whatever blurb they might write about their evening with you will be well worth the now tax-deductible price of the ticket.

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