January 4, 2022

Why sommeliers are important

Wine is so important in a hospitality setting and having someone who is knowledgeable is a real game changer, writes Hayley Cooper.

The wine industry has taken a big knock in South Africa with the alcohol bans that were in place for much of lockdown. Wine is so important in a hospitality setting and having someone who is knowledgeable about your wine list and wine in general is a real game changer for the industry.

After the chef, a sommelier fulfills one of the most important roles in a restaurant. Yet many restaurants consider sommeliers to be unnecessary or expendable.

Sommeliers were typically the first to be cut from a shift pre-pandemic. Operators believe that because sommeliers tend to earn higher salaries than other employees, cutting them from payroll will improve profit by reducing labour costs. 

While this seems intuitive, the opposite is true: Capable sommeliers improve the financial position of a restaurant even if they don’t touch every table. This misconception stems from a misunderstanding of a sommelier’s true value.

Multifaceted FOH experience

Not only are sommeliers some of the most experienced hospitality workers on the floor, they are also hyper-specialised in maximizing revenue in the category with the highest profit potential. This has never been more important than now.

Many five-star lodges also use sommeliers and this really adds an additional layer to the guest experience.

As experienced hospitality professionals who have worked their way up the front-of-house (FOH) chain, sommeliers can – and often do – perform every front of house job while on the floor. They help seat guests, run food, reset tables, and, of course, sell wine. While all restaurant positions are important, this multifaceted experience adds to a sommelier’s value as part of the FOH team.

Yet a sommelier’s true contribution is far more significant than mere task versatility. Restaurants must understand that behind the wine-geekery, the tastings, the rote memorization of vineyards and laws, sommeliers impact the highest gross revenue and highest gross profit items in a restaurant. Their ability to do so comfortably and consistently is what can keep a restaurant financially afloat. In essence, sommeliers are uniquely equipped to maximize revenue and profit.

True value underestimated

Wine comes with very little cost outside the acquisition price of the bottle. Wine bottles have no prep costs, few yield variations, and minimal labour requirements. No special preparation is required, and wine is nowhere near as perishable as food. The result is high gross profit percentage and dollars. It is, therefore, surprising that more operators do not understand the true value of sommeliers. 

Compare the wine department to the pastry department, for example. Most restaurants have a pastry programme, which could include an executive pastry chef and sous chef. At best, pastry provides 5 to 10 percent of a restaurant’s gross revenue, yet costs are extremely high: Ingredients are expensive, prep is time-consuming.

Desserts are also the most common item for a restaurant to comp, whether for a special occasion, a VIP, or to recover from a service issue. Therefore, the true return on a pastry department is generally under three percent gross profit for some of the least expensive menu items. Despite all of this, restaurants are far more willing to budget for labour in this department than they are to the wine team.

Create extra revenue

Sommeliers create extra revenue for restaurants in countless ways, whether they upsell a guest from a glass to a bottle or consistently elevate the average bottle sale price by 10 to 20 percent.

A sommelier’s potential to boost revenue and profit doesn’t stop at the sale, though; the application of specialised wine knowledge and creative strategy to to-go sales, for instance, has been a lifeline for some restaurants during the pandemic. Sommeliers are also uniquely able to recognise and take advantage of deals, discounts, and close-outs from distributors. Because they are also in desperate need of cash flow, inventory liquidations and deep discounts are occurring regularly. 

As the wine industry struggles to step out of the shadows of Covid-19 lockdowns and alcohol bans, it is vital for restaurants to have sommeliers leading them into the light.

Water Sommeliers!?

Also, have you heard that some hospitality establishments hire water sommeliers!

A water sommelier is someone educated on the properties of water and the elements that affect it. Training includes identification of the terroir, which is the manner in which the geographic region affects the flavour and properties of the water before settling in the location from which it is sourced for drinking. Different terroirs produce varying levels of minerals such as Calcium, Magnesium and Sodium. These minerals, which are present at different levels based on geography and other factors, have a marked impact on the taste and mouthfeel of water.

Different kinds of water pair better with different types of food, just like wine. Additionally, the quality and type of water used in coffee and tea have a significant impact on the taste of the beverage and can also alter the taste profile of a glass of wine or an entire meal.

Having the expertise of a sommelier is an experience that is really worthwhile and we are sure more establishments will hire them in the future. 

* Information from Erik Segelbaum and Jessica Altieri.

About the Author: 

Hayley Cooper is the Founder, CEO and vegan expert at Wild Dreams Hospitality. Find out more on www.wilddreams.co.za or follow them on Facebook or Instagram: @wilddreamshospitality. To contact Hayley, email hayley@wilddreams.co.za.

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