How to Hone Your Job Interview Skills

As hiring ramps up across all three tiers, drinks professionals and recruiting experts share strategies every job seeker needs to shine

Photo credit: iStock.

Interviewing for a job in the drinks industry, whether at a restaurant, wholesaler, or importer, is a little different right now. While many interview skills will never go out of style (don’t be late, do your research, show enthusiasm), many employers are looking for additional skills today. From technical and financial expertise, to soft skills such as adaptability and resilience, businesses are hunting for talent using new metrics, and it’s up to you to effectively communicate why you are the right person for the job.

Be Prepared for New Interview Questions 

Many hiring managers have adapted their line of questioning. Career coach Jillian Lucas points out that because the workplace has evolved faster than ever this past year, “employers need to see that you are adaptable, flexible and resilient—that you can handle changing priorities.” Employers want to know how you respond in a crisis: Do you complain? Shut down? Try finding solutions? 

Cynthia Cheng, the director of human resources at Cote in both New York City and Miami, calls adaptability a “vital skill,” and her interview questions reflect this priority. As restaurants have had to work with pandemic restrictions and fewer staff, people need to demonstrate that they can work in a constantly evolving environment.

Also, come prepared to talk about how you spent your time during the pandemic. Ian Downey, executive vice president at Winebow Imports, says he wants to hear “key learnings about yourself professionally from the past year’s experiences.” Candidates who can “provide examples of how they adjusted and innovated their approach to customer service and sales in order to respond to the market changes of the past year,” are most likely to be hired, he shares.  

Ryan Hardy, chef/partner at Delicious Hospitality Group, which includes New York City restaurants Charlie Bird and Pasquale Jones, says there is no right answer to this question, but he pays special attention to candidates who explain that they tried something new or took a chance on something they’d never done before during the past year.

Show Entrepreneurship

Importers and distributors are seeking team members with strong business acumen and initiativeparticularly around how to improve the bottom line. Candidates should ask about pricing and margin strategies, says Thomas Vogele, vice president sales at Folio Fine Wine Partners. “Questions around underlying profitability, vineyard sourcing, the cost of glass, cork, and capsules would also play into a credible understanding of the business side of winemaking,” he says. 

Provide specific examples of situations where you impacted the bottom line, says Josh McCullough, global talent acquisition director at Sazerac. “Candidates should detail exactly how they achieved an increase in business and profitability for past employers,” he advises. 

Ian Downey. Photo courtesy of Winebow.

“I’m looking for people who show the ability to use data to absorb and anticipate market responses,” says Downey. His ideal hire will demonstrate an ability to “prioritize time and show efforts to exploit new opportunities” for the business. Downey recommends candidates research the “categories and types of wines and brands that performed well during the previous year, and develop insights as to why.”

One strategy is to come prepared with a 30-60-90 day plan or portfolio, says career coach Chris Taylor of the Occupation Optimist. This format could outline, for example, how you’ll get up to speed in 30 days, build key relationships in 60 days, and make a measurable impact by 90 days, Taylor explains.

Restaurant hiring managers are also looking for people who bring new ideas for boosting margins and increasing business, whether through innovative new wine list promotions, by the glass strategies, or special events. Mikayla Cohen, who recently started virtual wine tasting business GoAved Wine Consulting, says applicants “still have to understand the inner workings of the restaurant” as well as “the intricacies of finance and budget and operations,” since many restaurants simply can’t afford to hire as many people right now. 

Past successes and operational expertise are often more important than industry experience for many roles. Hardy, who is open to recruiting non-industry people, says it’s okay if candidates don’t “scream hospitality,” but if a person is seeking an operations role where budgeting and profitability are critical, he is going to be looking for language that shows competence in financials and an ability to transfer skills to a new setting. 

Embrace a Customer-Centric Mindset

Wholesalers building back their on-premise sales teams are prioritizing customer service right now. “We want people that care,” reports one senior executive at a large wine and spirits distributor (who prefers not to be named). “Sales reps that focus on the health and welfare of the account,” are the most essential to his business, he says. “If the account trusts the sales rep, we are able to eventually make huge strides in ensuring we can partner on programs like wines by the glass and signature drinks.” 

Reps that do the unglamorous work of supporting an account, such as “picking up unsaleables, fixing incorrect billing, bringing a last-minute delivery, these are the reps that go far,” he adds.

Downey agrees, favoring candidates who emphasize their “customer-centric approach” and ability to “anticipate customers’ needs in the current and evolving landscape.” Communicationwith customers and team members—in “new and varied ways is more important than ever,” he stresses. 

Neal Rosenthal. Photo by Maurizio Gjivovich.

Rosenthal Wine Merchant’s president and CEO Neal Rosenthal, who is hiring for multiple roles on his growing team, reports that he is looking for “people who have the ability to educate their clients and offer a significant service to the clients.” While he hasn’t changed his hiring methodology much, his company is seeking “passionate, intelligent people who understand our kind of wine and who buy into the way we operate.” 

What Your Smart Questions Say About You

Candidates should ask hiring managers how the organization handled business during the pandemic. Downey appreciates when applicants ask him “what changes have been—or are being—incorporated for the benefit of employees, based on what that organization has learned over the past year.” 

Lucas says candidates would be wise to prepare targeted questions around how the company has adapted to the changing industry. Some examples include: “If this will be a remote (or partially remote) position, how does the company support remote workers? How has the culture changed with a full or partially remote staff?” 

Mikayla Cohen. Photo courtesy of Mikayla Cohen.

Likewise, Cohen suggests asking questions about the company culture: “What is it like here? How would you describe the culture?” She also recommends asking a hiring manager to describe the company’s management style. 

Hardy recommends job seekers spend at least 30 minutes researching the organization they are interviewing with—homework that will prove essential when it’s the interviewee’s turn to ask questions. They might ask the interviewer about their motivation in opening a restaurant. “I’m always impressed when someone has done a little bit of research on us,” says Hardy. “When someone asks: ‘I saw you moved here from Colorado ten years ago. What has your experience been like in New York City?’”  

Even in a Job Seeker’s Market, Passion is King 

The widely reported worker shortage—particularly for restaurants—has undeniably changed the game in job seekers’ favor. Sazerac’s McCullough reports that the company “had to get creative and offer candidates incentives like sign-on bonuses, as an example, for jobs that are normally routine to fill in order to stay competitive.”

This shortage presents unique opportunities for career growth, Cohen says. “This is the moment to take on a role you might not necessarily be qualified for yet. People are going to take a chance on you,” she believes. “And expressing passion and excitement for restaurants will be welcome and refreshing—and a critical part of making you stand out for positions that may be a stretch for your resume.”

On-premise operators are facing high turnover, so expressing a desire to grow with the company is important: Come prepared with ideas for long-term career goals and how they would map out in the organization. 

Ryan Hardy. Photo by Ricky Rhodes.

Hardy says passion is more important than relevant experience these days. He is posing questions that attempt to get to the core of what a job seeker is interested in and values. If the interviewee has no restaurant experience, Hardy might ask: “What’s a great bottle of wine you had recently?” He’s not looking for wine expertise, per se, but passion in the responses. 

Candidates can show their zeal in other ways, too, says Nancy Batista-Caswell of Caswell Restaurants in Massachusetts. She recently hired an employee who’d come in to dine in the restaurant prior to their interview the next day. “They just had a drink and an app but the effort showed that they were investing in making the right decision for themselves and us,” she shares.

Wholesalers building back their on-premise sales teams are also looking for enthusiasm and commitment, reports the senior executive at the large wholesaler. “We are prioritizing passion for the industry above many other attributes,” he says, adding “job hoppers need not apply.”

And don’t shy away from asking about money, he advises: A “desire to earn” is something his hiring team is looking for. Many candidates don’t mention money as a motivator, but he points out that this can be perceived as a “a trigger that they [in a sales rep role] won’t ask for an order.” While the playing field may have changed, the value of grit and hustle never goes out of fashion. 



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Stacey Lastoe writes about food, wine, and travel for CNN Travel, Wine Enthusiast, Food & Wine, American Way, Modern Farmer, and The Toronto Star


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