During the holidays, the most in-demand reservation is the private dining room, or PDR. Not just a great revenue driver for a restaurant throughout the season, a private dining room can serve as a marketing tool for the establishment. Events in the space provide an opportunity to introduce the restaurant to a new clientele. Well-executed dinners can also establish good relationships with clients, which in turn can lead to repeat business throughout the year.
But managing a large party, whether it’s a corporate dinner or a family get-together, while still overseeing a normal night of service can be challenging for any beverage professional. For many, wine packages are an essential tool for guaranteeing a quality experience in the PDR. SevenFifty Daily spoke with wine professionals around the country to get their tips on how to build successful—and profitable—wine packages for private events.
Create Tiered Options
Developing a slim menu with tiered options helps simplify choices for the host of a private event. “I find that the number one thing the [host] is interested in is pricing,” says Kathryn Coker, the wine director for the Rustic Canyon family of restaurants and a partner in Esters Wine Shop & Bar in Santa Monica, California. “So first establish the budget. Second, determine what kind of event it is.” Coker explains that she organizes Esters’ wine packages into tiers with titles that “play in to the sort of night the host wants.”
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The tiers include the Savvy Sipper, a standard offering, the Adventurer, which features “fun and cool wines,” and the Collector, which is geared toward a high-end clientele. “Generally,” she says, “the guests trust us to choose the specific wines within each package. However, I always make sure to ask if they have favorites that we must include.” The description for each package lists sample wines, but Coker says she often finds herself changing those out, especially when “the [host] wants one of the usual suspects—Sancerre, Chablis, Pinot Noir, or a red blend.”
Working with the event’s host to preselect wines helps set the stage and tone for an event. “You want to make sure that you have the right glassware, you have enough bottles, and everything is ready,” says Jack Mason, MS, the wine director for Pappas Bros. Steakhouse in Houston. “A lot of times, the people in charge [of the event] may not show up right away, or they’re distracted talking, and the rest of the group is just kind of waiting for something to happen,” so planning ahead, says Mason, and being able to offer guests a drink right away makes for a smooth welcome.
Choose from Stock
When organizing private events, most beverage directors focus on using what’s in stock. Mason says that at Pappas Bros., the staff uses bottles of the wines featured on the by-the-glass list as “a good starting point, because we’re always going to have quantity on most of that stuff.” Coker, who says storage at Esters is extremely tight, uses her private-event list to show examples of the types of wines included in various packages, but it’s not until the host selects a tier that Coker creates the final menu. “I’ll go into the cellar and see what works for the list,” she says. “It’s really flexible, and I can use product I already have.” At larger venues, like Merchants in Nashville, Josh Halper, the manager and wine buyer, also purchases event-only wines to have on hand, which allows him to accommodate last-minute party requests.
Manage Special Requests
Beverage directors are generally open to working with hosts who make special requests for items that aren’t normally stocked by the venue. But there are caveats, says Zach Jones, the wine director at Pacific Standard Time in Chicago. “It’s just a matter of communication,” he says. For example, “I would want to know a clear number of guests [to expect]. What you don’t want to have happen is overordering—then you’re stuck with it or you have to return it, and no one’s happy.”
Hosts who request to supply their own wine for private events are often obliged, but a corkage fee is typically added (if legally allowed). However, requests like these may mean that the guest won’t meet the minimum food and drink spend required for a private booking. Although BYOB isn’t allowed in Texas, Mason has fielded this request at restaurants elsewhere. In such cases, he says, it’s better to encourage the host to order wine from the restaurant’s list in addition to bringing some of their own. He would rather the host’s budget “be used in the experience” and not put toward a pointless room fee, which, he says, is a black-hole line item where money goes simply to ensure that the restaurant makes a profit. With this approach, wine directors can offer hosts tangible evidence of how their budget was utilized to the fullest.
Go Beyond Basic Packages
Straight bottle purchases don’t have to be the only option for a large group. “Some people like to do wine pairings,” says Alessandro Piliego, the wine director at Ai Fiori in New York City. For private events, he says, “we offer this [option] both for a four-course tasting or the full, seven-course chef’s tasting.” He adds that “normally, we offer two tiers: the classic and the sommelier selected. The classic is mostly what we would offer by the glass, while the sommelier selected is usually from our Coravin list.”
Offer Something Extra
To kick off a private event, Ai Fiori offers a cocktail package with half an hour of sparkling wine or a cocktail for a slight per-person upcharge. When hosts want to elevate the experience even further—or prefer to go beyond a standard dinner format, Mike Neff, the owner of The Cottonmouth Club in Houston, offers two options. “For a bespoke cocktail experience,” he says, “we have a mixologist on hand to make unique cocktails for guests. We also offer a Founders Package, where one of the [bar’s] founders will personally be on hand to either make bespoke cocktails in person or deliver a top-flight whiskey tasting.” Educational experiences like the latter can also be easily translated into sommelier-led wine sessions on, say, how to blind-taste, or a guided tasting of a particular wine region.
Pacific Standard Time’s Jones notes that private event wines can support the rest of the business year-round. “Cost-wise, [event wines] are in the range of $7 to $9 a bottle [wholesale],” he says. “So what we typically charge is $10 to $13 a glass, which rolls into a bottle charge of times five that; our pour is five ounces, so five glasses in a bottle. That’s a significant margin to make. But in turn, it helps with the overall cost [of the venue’s wine program] and allows us to do really interesting things.” Jones can take less of a margin on wines that may be harder to sell in the main restaurant because event sales in the PDR make up the difference.
The most important thing, say wine directors, is to keep the wines familiar and approachable and not inundate event hosts with too many choices. The best gift to give—or receive—this holiday season is a stress-free, festive celebration.
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Shana Clarke is a freelance wine writer based in New York City and a PR/Marketing consultant for the wine and restaurant industries. You can often find her drinking BYOB Champagne at dim sum brunch. Follow her on Instagram or visit www.shanaspeakswine.com.