If you value customer experience, keep your wine list.

The customer always defines value. No ifs, no buts, no maybes. Whether it be a process, product or service, the voice of the customer must, at its core, be the driving force in defining the end-to-end value stream. Whilst restaurants may vary in their individual approach to the customer experience, common elements almost always remain, access to a wine list is one of them. Serving not only as a functional tool but also as a source of excitement, conversation and fun, the wine list plays a key role in the overall experience of many diners. Recently, a small number of restaurants have, for various reasons, decided they will no longer offer diners access to a physical wine list of any sort. Instead, diners will be required to discuss all wine choices with the front of house staff. Regardless of motive, this decision risks unnecessarily alienating customers and makes little practical sense. Whilst restaurants are of course entitled to make changes suited to their own ethos they ought not throw the baby out with the bathwater. This kind of absolutism redefines value from the perspective of the restauranteur, not the customer. Recently, I polled 187 wine lovers, capturing their feelings toward wine lists, judging whether they consider proposed replacements suitable, and ultimately asking whether they think removing a diner’s choice is a good idea or not.

Hospitality asks you to think of the other person always. It can never be about yourself‘ – Bobby Stuckey MS

97% of people polled said they look forward to reading through a wine list with 84% saying they would be disappointed if there were no physical list to look through. The decision to remove a wine list is clearly out of touch with a large number of customers, whatever reasons are used to justify the decision, they are not centred on these customers, they are industry-centric and benefit the restaurant, not the diner. So, what are the motives?

Guests don’t pay to watch staff cleaning wine lists

In the post-CV19 landscape, restaurants are understandably concerned about cross-contamination, particularly relating to menus, which are shared frequently between guests. A wine list may span many pages and while cleaning them may be an inconvenience, who decides what guests do and don’t pay for?

There is a whole host of tasks essential to running a restaurant which guests do not necessarily pay for, but are fundamental to the experience. Simply asserting that guests do not pay to watch waiters cleaning a wine list and therefore rendering the list not an option, perhaps speaks more of a restauranter’s own desire to work in a particular way than it does to their desire to shield guests against unwanted costs.

One London restaurant has stated that suggestions in light of CV19, suggestions in the industry are that they should now be ‘wasting time sanitising endless plastic pages‘ Let’s be clear if a physical wine list constitutes an essential function in many diners experience, time spent facilitating this element of the experience is not wasted, it’s essential.

One could also argue that guests do not pay for sommeliers to spend excessive periods of time reeling off the entire contents of a wine list to every single guest, for that guests to potentially choose a G+T, that time having being wasted. Operationally this is a total nightmare, an impractical allocation of resources given the clear inclination of many diners to prefer a physical list.

70% of people polled said that a wine list creates a conversation with their friends at the table when out dining. Whatever your own opinion about cleaning said wine list, it’s clear that this time spent cleaning that list is certainly not a waste. This being said, were time spent cleaning the list a genuine concern for restaurateurs, they could simply offer a reduced list for a period of time post-CV19, this would immediately reduce time spent cleaning, would allow FOH staff to engage more with guests and would cut down on paper usage.

Furthermore, dressing the removal of a wine list up as an effort to keep diners safe, to then replace that wine list with an extensive, close-quarters conversation with a sommelier could be argued as somewhat counterproductive. One could make a perfectly good case that if the transmission of CV19 is a major concern, there are in fact many inherently safer options which lie between wine list and no wine list. These could include a PDF list on an Android tablet, blackboard pricing, or chalked up bottles behind the bar, as is the case in Noble Rot.

Restauranteur’s pay staff to talk about wine

In my opinion, this is a stark misconception, restauranteur’s don’t pay staff to talk about wine, they pay staff to manage wine service, whatever form that service may take. Removing the wine list and shifting service solely to an interaction between the front of house staff is not an innovation, not an improvement, it’s an ill-thought-out regression which removes options.

Frankly, as pointed out by an industry friend of mine, staff should already be engaging with customers, regardless of there being a list. A good sommelier tailors each experience around the individual diner or table, they read the diners to the best of their ability and shape the service around them. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, this is core to a strong FOH. Removing the wine list does not inherently improve the experience, in fact, it may inhibit the ability of the sommelier to tailor the experience accordingly, giving them only a single tool to work with, a tool which simply cannot satisfy all guests.

To frame this objectively, 60% of people polled said that talking to a sommelier does not serve as a suitable replacement for a physical wine list, with 80% saying they thought it was a bad idea to get rid of the list and have all guests talk to the somm.

I spoke to Alex Frank Smith, Sommelier at Michelin-starred Carters of Moseley, where their engaging, well-thought-out, and balanced approach to wine service has been met by diners with open arms. Alex thoroughly enjoys talking to diners face-to-face; however, he recognises that this simply is not what each diner desires. Carter’s is by no means a conservative restaurant, that being said Alex and the team consider all guests, seeking to make each as comfortable as people regardless of how they themselves would like service to function. When it comes to the guest, Alex tries to consider everything so that he and his team can adapt themselves to everybody. He tells me it is key that they do not alienate diners, and so a list may be essential in meeting that diners expectations.

Too much screen time

Taking on board the concerns of transmission via physical lists, there is a range of simple, feasible solutions. As mentioned earlier, these could include a PDF list on an Android tablet (a cheap option at roughly £35), which could serve to satisfy the 60 % of people polled who don’t think that talking to a somm is a suitable replacement for the traditional wine list. The objection against this solution to physical lists is of course, that consumers simply cannot decide what they want for themselves and their screen usage must be monitored by restauranteurs who inherently know better.

This notion takes me back to being a small child when my mother would confiscate my handheld gaming device.

Diners already spend time a semi-fixed period of time looking through a wine list, in fact, 97% of people polled said they look forward to it. The idea that for those who don’t find talking to a sommelier sufficient, a digital list is not a suitable solution based on the restauranter’s desire to police screen time is somewhat insulting to ones own autonomy. Upon immediate assessment, a balanced approach seems more feasible, increased emphasis on FOH and a list solution for those who still wish to read it.

At Birch, a new Robin Gill venture, in Hertfordshire, Bert Blaize, head of restaurants and bars, talked to me about part of his approach to wine service. Bert is trialling a simple QR code on the back of a business card, placed on the table, diners are able to scan the code and view wine lists and seasonal menus. Guests do not have to take this option, but may they wish to (which my poll suggests is likely) then the option is there. As was the case with Alex, Bert aims to consider both the changing world and the needs of every diner, whether it be a lone individual who may inherently spend more time on their phone or a group who are inclined to peruse the list without the help of the somm.

Put your feelings aside and consider the customer

69% of people polled said they would like to have a choice between talking to the sommelier and a physical wine list of some sort. ‘A good majority of guests will feel unsure and uneasy without a list of prices in front of them’ says Bert Blaize.

Unashamedly I am amongst these consumers. I am not comfortable going back and forth about price with a sommelier, no amount of incessant niceness will change this, and nor should I feel obliged to change it. I am excited to scour a list, it’s part of my experience, I like to pick out a few choices, discuss them with the sommelier, go back to the list and then independently make this choice in my own time. Regardless of how a restaurant thinks I ought to feel, or how polite their staff maybe, I feel pressured having staff looming over me, there’s some too car showroom about this approach.

Having no list is great for the industry, they can control sales more closely, selling more of what they want to sell, but not so great for the general public, who may be left feeling unnecessarily embarrassed and clearly still enjoy a physical wine list. This issue is primarily about choice, it does not need to be an absolute issue, list or no list. The reality is that there is a myriad of options which increase the FOH engagement and still satisfy the needs of all customers. The decision to take away the diner’s choice seems out of touch, contrarian and unnecessary.

If for whatever reason you are considering removing your wine list, I implore you to reconsider, take in to account the broader consumer, innovate don’t regress, and cater for all regardless of your own biases.

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