Remember that time you were sick and Googled your symptoms, and walking into your doctor's office dropping jargon as if you'd all the sudden gone to med school? In the age of Google and smart phones, our guests are more "educated" than ever before — even if sometimes they don't really know what they're talking about, they think they do. That means that we need to up our game when it comes to training our staff to have strong menu and product knowledge!
Servers and bartenders that don't have strong menu knowledge, we know, is an age-old problem. Guests are more curious about wine that ever before. There is an article from FSR Magazine from back in 2011 where the hilarious Saucy Sisters highlight some of the mistakes restaurants frequently make regarding their wine list and service. From the guest perspective, guess what was the first mistake on their list...
Lack of Server Knowledge
It's no surprise to see that the first and most common mistake fell on a lack of menu knowledge. When guests come into your restaurant, oftentimes the server or bartender is the only person they really speak to, except for a brief moment with the host team, if you have one. This is why it is crucial that your service staff, the ambassadors of your brand, know some basic information about the wine list. There is so much out there and we only have so much time to train and learn, because our primary job is to get through a smooth service. The question is, especially with wine, where do you even start?
Stuff vs. Fluff: A Careful Balance of Knowledge and Confidence
Many of us are eager to learn all about wine and food passionately. There are many of you reading this who aren't or have staff that aren't career servers, bartenders, or sommeliers that are eager to learn about wine making and how the juice makes it into the bottle. That's okay! The basics like producer, region, vintage, and some tasting notes are enough. Even if you don't know all that much about how wine is made, armed with just those four elements, a server or bartender should be able to confidently talk about the wines. If you know enough stuff, a talented salesperson can fluff it up and confidently deliver a suggestion:
Guest: "I'm looking for a red to go with the red snapper. Any suggestions?"
Server: "Absolutely, the Schiava from Northern Italy and is the lightest we have on the list. It's delicious, but light-bodied so it won't overpower the subtle flavors of the fish and complements the tomato reduction nicely."
Guest: "I've never even heard of Schiava, but I'll trust you!"
Stuff = How to say "Schiava" (Skee-AH-vah); from Northern Italy (Alto Adige); light-bodied and lightest of the offering
Fluff = why it is a good choice with the dish and what they can expect
That isn't a lot of information. They didn't have to know that Schiava is also known as... or that it also grows in... or that the soil is... or the producers Grandmother's cat's name was... All they needed was training on the right pronunciation, four basic elements and one or two pairing suggestions. With just that, you'll see sales skyrocket as fast as you can say "terroir."
Okay, but how do I do that? Training!
People learn differently, and it's important to cater (pun intended) to the different styles to achieve successful training outcomes. Here are two different training methods you can integrate immediately. I would highly recommend you use these techniques together because they support each other. Just make sure that you use your Pre-Shift Meetings to reinforce any printed or online training materials you provide your staff.
I am an experiential learner : I have to see the bottle, hold it, and of course taste the wine. It's most certainly a great way to learn, but make sure you are asking the staff to repeat the producer, region, vintage, along with tasting notes. I fully support the article's recommendation to have a tasting during pre-shift meetings because you can engage in dialog with the staff, which is reinforcing the dynamic they have with guests.
As well, it is very helpful to compare wines side-by-side! Taste the California Pinot Noir and the Bordeaux or the Cabernet Sauvignon from South Africa against the California producer. This helps an experiential learner understand the differences in context, because that's how their brains will retain the information. Comparing/contrasting a wine someone knows to a wine they don't often a good way to explain to guests the difference between various wines on the list.
Many of my friends that are certified Sommeliers are "read and recall" learners: They can pick up a text book and recall details about flavor profiles and styles just from reading about it. Tasting the wines is more effective if they can be referred back to, read about in detail, and examined.
Having handouts that the staff can take notes on is really helpful. You can use the swag purveyors and salespeople leave behind, or you can develop our own cheat-sheets. I know first hand that putting together the right information, with photos can be a real pain and very time consuming. This is why we created Restaurant Reason's Menu Modules™ with Level Learning™. Our system is designed to make it super easy to add your entire wine list, include pictures, and detailed descriptions! The fact that it's all online makes studying possible anywhere, and you can print note-taking sheets or learning packets. During service, the staff can reference Restaurant Reason quickly and get back to the table confident in their new knowledge.
Lack of knowledge has the short-term consequences of missing a sale. The guest maybe wasn't sure if they wanted wine, and the server failed to convince them. The server, because they didn't have the confidence, didn't suggestively sell a glass that would pair with the dish. These are just two of many scenarios in which servers miss the sale.
However, the worst of it is that lack of knowledge has long-term consequences! If the staff can't answer guest questions confidently or offer exciting recommendations, the guests lose confidence. More than ever, guests have many choices of where to dine; if the experience across town or down the street is more engaging and they get better service there, why would they dine with you?
Selling wine is a high-profit strategy worth taking advantage of, but the profit only comes from closing the sale. Train on basic wine information, and you're already ahead of the pack.
Remember: Creating exceptional guest experiences is key to increasing sales.