Sommelier Roundtable: How Can You Help Your Favorite Restaurants?

Restaurants are taking a huge blow from the coronavirus pandemic. 6 wine pros have tips on how you can help take care of the places—and people—who have always served you well
Sommelier Roundtable: How Can You Help Your Favorite Restaurants?
Six-packs and snacks: La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels has been putting together wine and food deals for pickup or delivery around New York. (Courtesy of La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels / Instagram)
Mar 23, 2020

Few industries have felt the economic sting of the COVID-19 outbreak as swiftly and painfully as restaurants. Over the course of last week, restaurants in most states were forced to severely limit service or shut down entirely. Some have taken advantage of exceptions allowing takeout and delivery, and a handful have pivoted to feeding their communities’ needy.

But the grim reality is that, especially in fine dining, many of the restaurants that served your most memorable meals are now closed, and many of the somms that led you to new wine horizons are out of work.

We checked in with six of our friends in the community at Wine Spectator Restaurant Award winners. They’ve wined and dined you for years; how can you help them now?

Wine Spectator: What can diners and wine lovers do to support their favorite restaurants right now?

Amy Mundwiler, wine director at Best of Award of Excellence winner Maple & Ash in Chicago

I think the first thing that goes through everyone's mind is money. It doesn't matter if you are front- or back-of-house. A thriving restaurant means you are getting paid. … I think on top of just needing bills to be paid, we all need to know that we are going to have a job when all of this is over. I have to believe that we will be getting assistance, and we're not going to be left out in the cold. So, what can people do? If you come across your favorite restaurant’s GoFundMe? Donate whatever you can. If your favorite restaurant is now offering carry-out, order and tip a little more if you can afford it. Interact with your favorite restaurants through social media. Tell us over and over how much you can't wait for us to open again. We need to hear it.

Brian Phillips, national wine director for Orlando, Fla.-based Darden Restaurants, which holds Restaurant Awards for 57 locations of the Capital Grille, 20 of Eddie V's and 44 of Seasons 52

The best way wine lovers can support restaurants and somms is to buy from restaurants offering to-go wine with food orders. I am discussing a Capital Grille to-go wine and steak program as a consideration if we think our guests would be interested. I think wine-focused restaurants can offer some deeper vintages and harder-to-get wines than most retailers and most likely at a very low markup that is close to retail cost.

Any restaurants still open can best be supported in slower periods such as early and late lunch, as the 50 percent capacity [restriction] makes peak periods a challenge; additionally, having spaces with fewer people is a smart idea. Of course, ordering wine is a must! Please make plans to dine out more often as soon as this challenging time passes.

Roast chicken and gift cards from Union Square Hospitality Group
A takeout meal from Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group, pictured with USHG gift cards. All proceeds from the latter through March 24 go to an employee relief fund. (Courtesy of Union Square Hospitality Group)

Caleb Ganzer, partner and wine director at Best of Award of Excellence winner La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels in New York

I think the biggest thing is figuring out how to help with the cash flow, which at this moment, I think gift certificates are probably the absolute best in that. It definitely gets the most amount of cash into the restaurant at a time when we’re going to need it. That’s definitely the No. 1. If there are other things the restaurant does sell and can sell, whether it’s merchandise, corkscrews, tote bags, whatever, I think that’s another huge way to put more money into the restaurant’s bank account. And of course, doing wine either to-go or maybe calling the restaurant to see if you can pre-purchase a bottle of wine for later.

Wendy Heilmann, wine director at Pebble Beach Resorts and its four Restaurant Award winners, in Pebble Beach, Calif.

All of us in the hospitality industry care for one another, and our hearts are collectively breaking over this unfathomable situation. Our community in the Monterey area is small but mighty and resilient, and already there is a lot of information being shared on social media regarding those restaurants that are able to operate during [California’s] shelter in place declaration. Those that can offer takeout or delivery services are doing so, and all I can recommend is that if you have the means right now to purchase takeout, support the independent restaurants you love the most, because those are the ones struggling to survive.

Rebecca Kirhoffer, co-owner and wine director of Award of Excellence winner Rebeccas, in Greenwich, Conn.

Usually I’m never at a loss for words in writing, but I think at this point I am. What I wanted to share, which I think is the important part, is that people in the business are very proud. And we all work really hard. And we actually feel great that we earn the recognition and make the money that we make. But none of us would really ever ask for help. But people have come to us and offered, and that means the world to us. The staying-connected part is key. Call, text or email and check in: Stay connected.

I had someone who was doing a party that was indefinitely postponed, and now we’re tentatively moving it to September. And she was nice enough to say, listen, let me just give you half the money up-front, because I’m sure you could use it. At Christmastime and at New Year’s, sometimes the customers will come in and give a thousand dollars for all the staff. We have 20 people that work, so everybody gets an extra $50. How nice is that? So those are the things that say a lot about the relationship we have with our clientele, and it’s very much appreciated. Pay in advance for services, or, pretend it’s New Year’s. Everybody’s in the same boat, but I think our industry has been hit the hardest, and we are a very large percentage of the workforce in this country. That’s the part that’s really overwhelming.

I have 20, 22 employees that all make real money. My payroll is $25,000 a week. I’ve kept 20 to 30 people employed for 30 years. Some of my people have been with me the entire time. It was the most horrible thing I’ve ever had to do to say, I’m really sorry, but you have to go home, and there is no work tomorrow.

Carrie Lyn Strong, wine director at Best of Award of Excellence winner Casa Lever in New York

We’re not in a residential neighborhood. So everyone was being told to stay away from the office, so a lot of our clientele left. It’s kind of a weird predicament because you’re laid-off, but temporarily. We don’t know for how long. The laying off I understand; it’s supposed to be better because we can collect unemployment. But the unemployment website has crashed. I can’t even file. I can’t get on the website all day long, trying and trying. I don’t know if I can pay April rent and go back to the city. … I’ve been keeping myself busy [at my fiancé’s house in Pennsylvania]. I’ve been in the garden, I’ve been making soups, I’ve been making bread! But I have the resources to do that, and a lot of people don’t. Not only do I not have an income anymore, but unemployment is a fraction of what you normally make. And I can’t even get that! Watching the news, it’s so uncertain.

What can people do? Victoria James posted that they’re selling steaks from Cote. I would love to [buy some]. I can’t do that, I can’t afford that. I’m out of a job. If there are people who still have jobs and can get delivery or feel comfortable doing pick-up, then go do it. Because the restaurants do need it. They’re also selling wine and beer, and it’s probably going to be a higher margin than retail, but it’s so that the company can get back up on their feet and get running as soon as this blows over.

The other thing that would be helpful, just as community support, would be if you contact senators and representatives regarding how the government can help us, and say, “Hey, this is important. We need to give some sort of relief to people who have been put out of jobs.”

This is the business I’ve been in for 15 years; I’d love to be a part of it. My bigger concern is that people like somms are going to be deemed extraneous. We can make a tremendous amount of revenue difference and that’s why we exist. But not everybody sees it that way.

As soon as this blows over, as soon as we’re in the clear, take care of your favorite restaurants. For those who are not affected in a financial way, do your best to keep the money moving.

Want to stay up on the latest news and incisive features about the world's best restaurants for wine? Sign up now for our free Private Guide to Dining email newsletter, delivered every other week. Plus, follow us on Twitter at @WSRestoAwards and Instagram at @WSRestaurantAwards.

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