When you think of the word trust, I’m sure a plethora of things come to mind. I could regurgitate a cliché diatribe about any number of dictionary definitions of the word, but ultimately, the human experience we all share is in many ways the only platform to comprehend what that notion truly means.
When hearing or thinking of the word and its correlative sentiment, I would imagine most non-industry folk don’t understand the role that trust plays in a restaurant setting. To many, eating out is simply a means to whet their appetite and satiate their hunger. I, for one, grew up in a home that put little to no value on the experience of hospitality outside the walls of our own home.
That being said, the modern diner has evolved into one that is well educated on not only various culinary offerings, but also the way in which a truly memorable service should be delivered. And, as the general public has become progressively more privy to the workings of restaurant finances - in specific, mark ups on alcohol - the duty of service staff to provide fair and sensible guidance on the matter is beyond paramount. It is within these moments of service that one’s ability to generate trust in a guest is critical.
Allow me to digress with an anecdote.
A few years ago, I was working in a high-volume restaurant in Yorkville. The mantra was simple: affordable food in a trendy but casual setting that offered reasonable service at a reasonable pace. However, despite the food program’s approachable price point, the wine program boasted selections in a range far exceeding that of its edible counterpart. To illustrate, the most expensive entrée was priced at $32, while the most expensive wine (in a traditional 750ml format) was somewhere in the vicinity of $850. Keep in mind, the average bottle of red hitting each table cost in excess of $85, with $120-$250 bottles of wine being commonplace across the dining room.
As a younger part of the management team, I was often designated the in-house wine guy, especially on nights when our sommelier wasn’t present. And in this role, over the course of a year, I learnt how important trust really is when dealing with guests.
On a seemingly mundane evening, a gentleman entered the restaurant and sat at a table waiting for his counterpart. He was dressed lavishly head-to-toe, and the diamond-laced timepiece on his wrist indicated that he was most likely there to spend some good coin. I approached the table cautious but confident.
“Good evening sir. How are you?”
“Caymus. The 2012. Thanks.” He said, nonchalantly tossing the wine list aside.
There was nothing abrasive about the gentleman. In fact, his demeanor was smooth to the touch no matter how abruptly he may have dismissed me to retrieve his bottle from the cellar. Soon after, I was back at the table, decanting his $240 purchase while doing my best to develop some level of rapport with him.
Turns out his name was Angelo, and in the coming weeks, I’d see him two or three times a month. Each time he came in, the service was routine – a short exchange of pleasantries, a nod here, an encouraging laugh there, and most recurring of all, a bottle of Caymus. He would dine with his daughter or wife, for some reason never at the same time, and without fail, Angelo never left a dry decanter. Sometimes, it was a gesture of kindness – a few divine liquid ounces of charity to stow away for the end of my shift. But more often than not, he and his guest simply did not want to or could not finish the wine.
In my personal opinion, Caymus is a gorgeous and opulent red from California riddled with all the notes one would hope for in that style of wine. However, I always believed that at our price point, it failed to provide value for our guests, and to the chagrin and frustration of others, my bias kicked in. I had to wonder: did Angelo not know of other offerings that were comparable in quality but also cost half the price? Was he attached to the brand? And more than anything, was this an opportunity to gain a loyal customer for the foreseeable future?
I tested myself.
The next time I saw Angelo, we commenced our interactions with all the usual practices and courtesies. But this time, I cut him off short as he motioned towards the wine list, placing my hand atop the cover.
“I know you love Caymus, but I wanted to ask if you’d trust me to make a recommendation for something else. It’s half the price, and although different, I think you’d like it.”
He thought it over for a moment, and eventually indulged me. I knew that it was my time to shine. With that I went to the cellar and retrieved one of my favorites , a Rosso Piceno from Marché - sophisticated, mature, delicate and ethereal.
I brought the bottle over and opened it, and my nerves were definitely toiling about in my gut. I poured a taster, and as Angelo swished the wine around in his mouth, I saw that expression that every wine-service professional hopes to see – unadulterated joy, levity, a real eureka moment. Trusting my gut had done me well.
At the end of the meal, he called me over to the table, slyly shaking my hand whilst gracefully sliding a crisp $100 note in my palm.
“I’m giving you what I would have spent,” he said with a labored grin, as on that night, for the first time, the decanter was dry.
Trying new things isn’t everyone’s cup of tea (or glass of wine, if you will), but sometimes, it takes the suggestive and educated prowess of a service pro to act as a platform for not only a new sensory experience, but enjoyment within the parameters of value.
I could have kept on opening bottles of Caymus for Angelo, but I truly believe that putting forth a different recommendation that he ultimately preferred while also saving him money was the right thing to do. From that night onwards, he trusted me, and that trust translated to visits at least once a week from a very desirable customer. Customer retention is the most essential component of restaurant business, and acquiring that trust takes time, patience, honesty and audacity.
Excellence and preference in offerings is inevitably a partisan opinion, open to the interpretation of the masses. Some people love the taste of a $15 magnum of Bambino sparkling while others wont even look at a bottle of wine or spirit that doesn’t fall under the “premium” umbrella. However, it is impossible to deny the fact that we as service professionals have the ability to affect change.
So to all the servers, somms and service pros out there, I implore you to think outside the box and present your guests with value before anything else. I’d rather have a return customer spending $200 a night twice a week than a one off big shot. And furthermore, developing that trust on the basis of value opens the door to being able to present guests with recommendations far exceeding their typical spending allowances. Case in point – two weeks after the Rosso Piceno, Angelo was drinking $600 Sassicaia. He never would have done so if I hadn’t established that trust. And once again, on that night, the decanter was dry.
Here are at GDL we empower and encourage our staff to share their passion for hospitality.