Reading Time: 4m 10s
US restaurants are discovering that Covid has changed the nature of their businesses.
Sommeliers have left the profession in favor of better paid jobs.
Top restaurants are looking to recruit.
The need to wear masks has led to an increase in customers using their phones to place orders and a reduction of the ‘ceremony’ of wine service. Will this be the ‘new normal’?
Wine lists are shrinking.
Wine now increasingly has to compete with other beverages.
Like flocks of birds settling back into the trees and onto the lawns after a major storm, customers are coming back to eat and drink in restaurants that have survived the tempest of Covid-19. And professionals who serve them food and wine are also alighting, even though storm clouds continue to rumble through and even as many members of both flocks have flown off elsewhere.
Both customers and restaurant staffs in the United States, it seems, have stopped pondering when things will ‘get back to normal’ and are instead finding ways to get back to dining out on a regular basis. After two years, both find themselves fully in the DC era – During Covid - while reminiscing about the BC era – Before Covid – and wondering if ever they will get to AC – After Covid.
“It’s a brave new world out there,” says industry veteran Evan Goldstein, master sommelier and head of Full Circle Wine Solutions, “and for sommeliers adjusting to protocol has been the biggie – wearing masks full time while tasting, evaluating, pulling that cork past your nose as you remove it from the bottle.”
Diners are also having to make adjustments. “Many guests now refill their own glasses after the initial pour,” Goldstein notes.
After having to adjust, yet again, to a new Covid variant – Omicron – American restaurants and their patrons are getting used to the new reality if not yet a new normal
According to U.S. Department of Labor, 4.5 million Americans quit their jobs last November, the most recent data and a reflection of a continuing trend. Most sommeliers lost their jobs, at least temporarily, when restaurants were forced to close, so many found jobs elsewhere – often within the hospitality industry as online educators and entertainers, winery staff or in wholesale and retail sales and marketing. Others quit after returning.
“The pandemic gave people a chance to rethink what they were doing,” says Emily Wines, board head of the Court of Master Sommeliers. “Sommeliers are often low-paying jobs, and Covid gave sommeliers an opportunity to consider the tradeoffs between low pay and doing something they felt passionate about.”
Some were asked to assume additional managerial or food service duties, says California sommelier Haley Moore, then “decided they didn’t want to work 70-80 hours weeks anymore.”
As a result, sommeliers – who, in major cities. may make $90,000 - $120,000 in salaries (no tips allowed) – are actually in demand. “We have Michelin-starred restaurants in San Francisco looking for sommeliers,” Moore says. Wines notes that the Court’s training classes are full, and somms still seek Court certification.
Adapting Table Service to the Pandemic
Somms are making changes in the ceremony of wine service, both for safety and to save time. Mark Guillaudeu, beverage director at Commis in Oakland, now opens and pours at a side station – “pulling down my mask for just a second” – before taking wine to the table. Tonya Pitts, sommelier at One Market, says she keeps her usual routine, “but I do less of the ‘dance and dialogue’ with customers that I used to do.”
While spending less time with unmasked diners, somms are performing additional tasks. “We are still checking customers’ vaccination cards,” says Stefanie Schwartz, sommelier at Crown Shy in New York City. “There are nights where I will take over [serving in] a section, and right now I’m working as opening bartender,” Guillaudeu says, then adds, “But sommeliers should be able to fill in for anyone up to the manager.”
Customers Become more Hands-On
Diners now have quieter conversations as fewer tables means they are no longer elbow-to-elbow with other customers. In some places, Moore says, “they may be given a menu “with QR codes so they can order wine from their phones,” part of a continuing trend of automation within restaurants to deal with staff shortages.
“Many restaurants now have guests refill their own glasses after the initial pour,” Goldstein says. They may also have to wait longer for service. That may be why Guillaudeu says more customers are ordering more wine by the bottle, but “I really haven’t figured out why.”
Some customers handle these changes with grace and patience. Others do not. “I heard from so many restaurant people that customers are stressed, rude, anxious and lacking compassion,” Goldstein says, “taking it out on already strained and stressed service staff via reduced gratuity and mean interactions.”
Supply Chain Headaches
Wine lists are being pared down partly to reduce inventory costs and partly because of a broken supply chain. “All of a sudden a wine I’ve just put on the list is gone,” Pitts says, “and I find it’s stuck somewhere on the boat or at the pier. It’s happened to me multiple times.”
Rob McMillan, who heads Silicon Valley Bank’s wine division, says it is not just an import problem. “American producers are having problems getting corks or bottles and everything else that’s in the supply chain. Some are now ordering supplies for 2023.”
But John Jordan, owner of Jordan Winery whose wines are popular with steak houses, sees things getting better. “When beverage directors reduced the number of stockkeeping units (SKUs) on their wine lists during the pandemic, they put emphasis on cutting higher-end wines because of the uncertainty of foot traffic,” he says. But now, “We’ve seen a nice comeback because restaurants have gone back to buying wines that ‘move.’”
Rethinking the Restaurant Wine Experience
“Wine is losing its exclusive status in restaurants,” McMillan warns. “They used to have wine and food pairings and wine dinners. Now many have replaced their wine lists with a single sheet of paper that’s now the ‘beverage list.’ You find $15 cocktails competing with $20 wines by the glass.”
Noting that both wine drinkers and wine producers flocked to virtual wine events during the early days of the pandemic, Pitts thinks that expertise in educating and entertaining the customer and all at the same time selling him wine, can be transferred back to restaurants.
“We can again bring in wineries to redesign hospitality programs,” she says. “Overall, we need to redesign the restaurant wine experience.”