Ideas and Strategies for Getting Your Wines into Pennsylvania Restaurants

By: Kathy Kelley

Regardless of the type of meal or meal occasion, consumers must consider several issues when choosing the café or restaurant: the amount of money available to spend on the meal; what friends/families mentioned about their experiences and/or what has been posted online about the restaurant; the physical appearance; etc.

Some of the issues chefs think about when deciding to offer a particular wine are similar in nature: if the price charged for a bottle/glass of the wine fits within the overall pricing strategy; what colleagues, customers, and online reviews said about the wine; if the wine pairs well with some of the signature dishes; and the overall question, “Will the wine sell in my restaurant?”

If you have an interest in serving this clientele, read through the suggestions in this blog post and think about how they might benefit you as you develop your marketing strategy.

A little bit of background

During grad school and at the beginning of my career at Penn State, I was involved in a few research projects that focused on learning about chefs’ attitudes and interests in using three different food products in meals: a variety of chestnuts, edible flowers, and edamame.

Each study was conducted separately and for different research purposes, but we followed the same steps to gage if the chefs valued these products and would be interested in purchasing them from local growers.  Even though these experiences focused on food items and not alcoholic beverages, I learned some important tips that could be of use to wineries that would like to “see” their wines listed on restaurant menus.

What category of restaurant should you approach?

My first experience working with chefs involved cold calling restaurants and asking them about their interest in using chestnuts in appetizers, entrees, deserts, and other applications.  I was a graduate student and I had no prior knowledge about the restaurant industry; however, before selecting the restaurants and making the initial calls I had a discussion with a chef that was insightful.  I learned quite a few things that proved to be true each time I worked with this clientele group.

For example, chefs who worked at chain restaurants did not have much (if any) input on what appeared on the menu; however, chefs who worked at independent restaurants had more (if not all) control over the menu.

When I talked with chefs at chain restaurants (and there were quite a few) I learned that the menu was developed at a corporate level and the chef had to follow the “recipe.”  In essence they did not have input pertaining to:

  • selecting entrees for the menu;
  • how the menu looked/what information was included that described the meal and ingredients;
  • who they purchased ingredients and components from;
  • from where they sourced the wine, beer, and spirits; and
  • when the menu items rotated.

I had better luck working with chefs who worked at independent restaurants as they had the ability to introduce “specials” and highlight items on the menu.  Some of the chefs rotated items often, hence, they were looking for unique items that would differentiate their menu from their competitors.  They were also constantly looking for new items so that the dinning experience changed often, which would encourage repeat patronage.

So, what “types” of restaurants might you target?  A study conducted by Gultek et al. (2005) that involved 15 Texas restaurants revealed that chefs at the following two categories of restaurants appear to be more open to carrying local wine:

  • medium-casual-independent restaurants “had the most positive attitude toward local wines.”
  • medium-fine dining-independent restaurants had the “second” most positive attitudes towards these wines.

According to the authors, casual restaurant consumers may be less familiar or experienced with wine, thus they may be more “willing to try new wines” compared to consumers who choose to eat at fine-dining establishments (Gultek et al., 2005).

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Another factor to consider is the type of cuisine served at the restaurant and provide a list of wines that would pair well with several of the menu items.  Perhaps there is a restaurant in your area that would be a perfect outlet for your sweet wines, either because of the cuisine served or the overall atmosphere.

Initial communication with a chef

I quickly found that it was best to contact chefs via telephone, and that I was most successful calling them Monday through Thursday between the hours of 2:00 and 4:00 p.m.  This may seem pretty obvious and straightforward, but for those who have not yet tried to make a connection with this very busy group of professionals – knowing this and being proactive and persistent is key.

I learned that the few minutes that I had with chefs were precious for both of us.  Each chef had numerous issues to deal with and I had several things to tell him/her about why they would want to meet with me.  In all of a few minutes, I needed to present my case:

  • what will happen during the meeting – convey to the chef that you will bring wine for him/her to taste and anything else that is essential;
  • why the meeting would benefit the chef – chefs are always looking for something new and interesting to encourage diners to return frequently and your wine could fulfill that need;
  • when and where the meeting would occur – most likely at their restaurant and at their convenience;
  • who would be at the meeting – it would be ideal to know if the restaurant’s sommelier will also be attending the meeting – then you will be better prepared for the conversation and questions that may be asked.

Give these questions some thought.  If you were approached by a business that way trying to get you to offer new products in your tasting room – what would you like the salesperson to tell you about the product/business?

Strategies for increasing the number of chefs you reach

If you feel that “cold calling” chefs would be a huge effort with little payoff, consider addressing a group of chefs.  When I was working on research to gage chef interest in edible flowers, at that time a rather “new” food ingredient, I was given contact information for a chef’s association in the metropolitan Detroit area and had the opportunity to present to 100 members about the flower’s flavors, shelf life, sources, etc.

What I later learned is that many of these associations are in need of speakers, and I was added to the program because I provided information about the product and they had the chance to sample three different edible flowers.  It was invaluable for me because I was able to learn about interest and potential demand for the flowers.  It took me a couple of days to create my presentation, harvest flowers, and travel to the meeting site – but it was time well spent.

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There are several opportunities for wineries to connect with associations and educate this clientele group about their wines, facilitate a tasting, garner feedback, and make possible connections.  A quick search revealed: The American Culinary Federation of Philadelphia (http://www.acfphilly.com/) and the Pittsburgh chapter (www.acfpittsburgh.org).

Contacting these associations, as well as culinary schools, and even wine clubs could prove to be extremely beneficial.  Just consider the potential payoff.

Can you use your non-winery connections?

If you belong to a network of small businesses you may be able to utilize existing connections that they have with chefs. How might you begin the process of selecting and starting the conversation with potential “partners?”   Consider these questions:

  • Who in your local network (farmers, breweries/distilleries, florists, bakeries, etc.) has an established relationship with restaurants?
  • What information can they tell you about: 1) “how” the chef prefers deliveries to be handled, 2) communication style, 3) idiosyncrasies, and 4) other factors that you could use to develop a strategy for best promoting your wines to this clientele.
  • Will your contact allow you to join them at an upcoming meeting with the chef, or will they provide an introduction for your own meeting?

Using your winery connections

During my time in New Zealand I really tried to learn what the industry in such a small, distant country was doing to reach and penetrate foreign markets.

Aside from the marketing and promotional support provided by their national organization, New Zealand Winegrowers, several wineries formed groups and combined resources to educate consumers, wholesalers/distributors, restaurateurs and hospitality managers, writers, etc. about their wines.  Through these concerted efforts, these groups were able to be strategic in how they used their resources and made greater strides.

The “Family of Twelve,” is a group of “twelve dedicated New Zealand wine producers, tightly bound by a common love for the craft of fine wine growing” that focus on “nurtur[ing] long term relationships with an emphasis on education both at home and in our key export markets” (http://familyoftwelve.co.nz).  The following is a list of some of what the group has implemented:

  • In 2014, they teamed up with a “destination” restaurant and offered diners “two iconic wines” each month. They also hosted a monthly winemaker’s dinner at the restaurant, during which one group member’s wine was paired with each of the five courses served.  The winemaker talked about the wines and pairings in an intimate setting as seating was limited to 14 attendees.
  • Tastings that involved all 12 wineries.
  • A case of wine, released right before the Christmas season, which included a bottle from each winery.

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Another is Complexity Fine Wine (http://www.complexity.co.nz/), which is a group of 16 New Zealand wineries.  This group has held events in Chicago during which prominent U.S. chefs created meals that paired well with the group’s wines.  Consumers and industry members could sit in the audience and watch chefs cook and talk about why the wine paired with each dish.  Consumers who were unable to attend the event could watch it online.  In order to engage the “live” and remote audiences, a moderator encouraged viewers to post questions on Facebook and Twitter that she would ask the experts to answer.

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While these efforts required the groups to hire a team to manage resources and monitor return on investment, smaller groups of wineries could band together to:

  • work with chefs to develop special events during which wines are paired with each course, which gives the winery staff a opportunity to educate attendees;
  • create promotional materials that highlight their best wines with descriptions and information to help restaurants with their purchasing decision; and
  • incorporate social media into public events and tasting, such as Farm Show, where consumers watch chefs create meals and pair them with Pennsylvania wine. A facilitator could monitor and ask questions that were posted on Facebook, Twitter, etc., and post responses during and after the event.

Will promoting your wine as local be the deciding factor?

According to Gultek et al. (2005), the “more positive” chefs felt about local wines the more likely they were to serve them in the restaurant.   A study conducted with Texas wine consumers was administered to understand their preference for local wine.  Participants responded to survey questions and evaluated two samples of the same wine, one of which was described as being a Texas wine and the other as being a French wine.  Results showed that even the participants “who had a strong Texas identity still preferred the wine from France” (Guidry et al., 2009).

Certainly, it may be more prudent to compare Texas wine with wine from another state, as France has a long history with producing the beverage.  Nevertheless, the authors suggest that based on their study it might be best for “young wine-producing regions to promote the “objective” quality of the wine rather than rely on a consumer’s identification with the region or their expertise” (Guidry et al., 2009).

As the authors allude to, location may not be the primary or only component that persuades customers to purchase a local wine over one from a well know region.  You will need to educate them about your wine and provide them with a sample to demonstrate that you do produce quality wine.

Additional strategies

What else might you consider exploring?  Dombrosky (2011) conducted interviews with Pennsylvania chefs/restaurateurs and wineries to better understand the opportunities and roadblocks that each group experienced with including PA wine on the menu.  During one of these interviews, Dombrosky learned that a winery expanded their “private label” program and allowed restaurants to develop labels with pertinent information about the establishment.  Customers might not necessarily know who produced that wine as information about “the winery appear[ed] only in find print” (2011).  For some wineries this strategy may be appealing while others might have a different reaction.

This and other research propose that it is necessary to promote that the wine is from Pennsylvania, which could be accomplished by:

  • printing the winery’s tagline, logo, etc. on the wine list to indicate which ones are local,
  • asking restaurants to organize the wine list so that Pennsylvania wines appear at the top,
  • having an exclusive Pennsylvania wine list, or
  • even converting the restaurant’s “wines by the glass” program to only include wines from the Commonwealth.

So, take a look at your marketing plan.  Might selling to restaurants be an ideal strategy for your business?  It could be worth exploring – one that can benefit your business, the industry, and increase consumer awareness of Pennsylvania wines.

References

Dombrosky, J.M. 2001. Pennsylvania wine and restaurants: Barriers and opportunities (Doctoral dissertation). Paper 10468. Retrieved from http://lib.dr.iastate.edu/etd/10468/

Guidry, J.A., B.J. Babin, W.G. Graziano, W.J. Schneider. 2009. Pride and prejudice in the evaluation of wine? International Journal of Wine Business Research, 21(4):289-311.

Gultek, M. M., T.H. Dodd, and R.M. Guydosh. 2005. Restaurateurs’ attitude toward local wine and its influence on local wine purchases. International Journal of Wine Marketing, 17(3):5, 21.

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One response to “Ideas and Strategies for Getting Your Wines into Pennsylvania Restaurants”

  1. eric miler says :

    I thought your blog on selling wine to restaurants was very good and wanted to add a couple of thoughts.

    I never looked at restaurant sales as profit-making as much as marketing. That is, creating consumer awareness and confidence so other venue’s, like at the winery, on store shelves and festivals, would yield sales. Those wineries that depend on restaurant sales for profits are likely to be disappointed, even now. We simply have not achieved consistent quality and style in PA wines to have the same kind of consumer confidence (and therefor restaurant sales) produce farmers have.

    Times have changed since we began the Chaddsford Winery in 1982 and there is now a better chance that a chef will be involved in wine selection. And if that connection is made it could be a real bulls eye.

    There is still the likelihood that $$ will be the prominent element in place and keeping the wine on the list. I went in thinking of the wine list as a billboard for my wine and priced accordingly. Never the cheapest, never among the highest (best known, not necessarily better, California) and in a price range the wine buyer felt the wine would move. If a wine takes up space in the store room and does not turn over it is an unpleasant profit-sucker to most restaurants. I got so I could tell what that price was after looking at the food menu and its prices as well as the wine list.

    Just a thought. Happy sales!

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