Many of the beverage industry’s top positions never make it to formal job-search listings, but when you do spot a job opening that you’re interested in, having a personal contact with the owner or hiring manager can make all the difference. “The beverage world is all about word of mouth,” says Natasha David, the co-owner of the New York City cocktail bar Nitecap and the consulting firm You and Me Cocktails. “I’m pretty sure I’ve gotten every job I’ve ever had—either behind a bar, consulting, or brand work—through meeting someone or being a friend of a friend.”
The somewhat vague concept of networking, however, is rarely discussed in concrete terms in the beverage industry. How can sommeliers, bartenders, and other beverage professionals develop networking skills in order to build relationships and further their careers? SevenFifty Daily asked networking experts and top beverage professionals for their tips on making connections to do just that.
1. Network selectively.
“I see too many people thinking that they always have to be social butterflies,” says Bobby Stuckey, a Master Sommelier and the cofounder of Frasca Food and Wine and Pizzeria Locale in Boulder, Colorado; Tavernetta in Denver; and the Scarpetta wine company. “They’re always networking, and that’s not the best thing.” While some people like to pass out business cards like candy, networking selectively tends to build stronger relationships in the long run. Alice Cheng, the founder and CEO of the hospitality networking and job-matching site Culinary Agents, says it’s a good idea to “have a goal for yourself, and to look for opportunities to meet someone that can get you to that goal.”
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2. View networking as a two-way street.
Many professionals feel awkward about or intimidated by networking, but a simple adjustment in perspective can change those feelings. “During the conversation, actually listen and think about how you can help the person you’re talking with,” Cheng says. “People will be more likely to help you if they think you can help them.”
3. Follow through by following up.
When you meet another professional in the beverage industry, Cheng suggests that you “ask for their card and follow up.” Including something specific or adding to the conversation is even better. For example, you may say something like, “I noticed that you’ve been exploring South American wine more recently—have you read this article about Chile’s new DOs?” Just don’t let the connection go by the wayside once something is sparked; continue to nurture it. “Not following through,” says Cheng, “will hurt relationships.”
4. You’re always onstage, so act accordingly.
In the beverage industry, alcohol goes hand in hand with professional settings that involve potential employers and colleagues. Even if you aren’t setting out to network, those around you will still notice your behavior. “If you’re being a beverage professional at a professional event, be professional,” Stuckey says. “I see too many young people going to events, drinking too much, and not being professional—that’s the wrong type of networking.”
5. Save networking for off-the-clock hours.
Working in a great spot means that high-level somms, bartenders, and restaurant owners are likely to stop in for meals or drinks, but be respectful about networking while on the clock. “Remember that anyone in your restaurant that night is there for their time off,” Stuckey says. Restaurant guests most likely don’t want to talk about work on their night off, but if the rapport is there toward the end of the meal, there’s no harm in dropping your card off at the table or asking for theirs. Follow up in the next day or two to ask about connecting via email or in person.
6. Be strategic about when and where you network.
Although any night out can conceivably be a chance to network, read the environment and don’t force a networking situation. “When I’m working, I don’t want someone to try and network with me,” David says. But she doesn’t mind a guest asking for a business card in order to connect later. Stuckey notes that exams often provide great networking opportunities, so he would recommend a study session over a shift drink for preparation.
7. Pay it forward.
In a relatively small industry, what goes around comes around. “If someone helped you advance your career or improve your skills,” Cheng notes, “keep an eye out for how you can help someone in return.” Not only will this continue to improve the beverage industry, but it may boost your reputation and career as well. As the people that you’ve helped then progress in their careers, your network grows as well.
8. Above all, put in the work.
All the networking in the world can’t substitute for skills and experience. “The greatest way to network is to do your job really well,” Stuckey says, “and great things will happen.” That’s the right way to turn every guest into a potential professional contact, without forcing the relationship. It’s also a great way to create stronger relationships with current colleagues and supervisors, some of whom could become vocal advocates for your future career. “Show up on time, pitch in, and be a leader on your shifts,” David emphasizes. “This is what people will notice, and it will lead to opportunity.”
Courtney Schiessl is a Brooklyn-based wine journalist, educator, and consultant who has held sommelier positions at some of New York’s top restaurants, including Marta, Dirty French, and Terroir. She has written for Forbes.com, VinePair, and Wine Folly, among other publications, and she is currently pursuing the WSET Diploma in Wines and Spirits. Follow her Champagne-fueled adventures on Instagram at @takeittocourt.