Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Corkage Fees and Deep Deep Snow: The Sufferings of Mountain Restaurateurs

"Too much snow," declared my friend H, who owns a restaurant at Tahoe that has a wonderful wine list. "That, and so many people bring their own wine now."

I'm fortunate to have my finger on the pulse of on-premise wine sales in this high-income resort area of California, by virtue of my weekly wine column in The Tahoe Weekly.  A glass of wine, a loaf of bread, and a look at the wine list late at night when most customers have gone home: that's the dynamic that lets those risk-takers in the restaurant industry let their hair down a bit and tell you what's really going on.  I don't care what bean-counting firms follow wine offtake in the bar and restaurant business, their numbers can't give you the accurate up-to-date reading that such chats allow.

So the restaurants and ski lodges are packed on snowy weekends this winter.  Except if there is too much snow.  Snow like the snow last weekend, and black ice, which caused that truck to jack-knife on Route 80 and crush a car and its occupants.  That will keep the skiers away!   And it did.

Regardless of snow ice traffic and so on, H's wine list is a wonder to behold.  I've enjoyed food & wine pairings at his restaurant that are astounding. But he says he simply is not buying any wine.  His cellar is full of good wines ... but so many customers bring their own these days.  What's a restaurateur to do?

I understand that the economics of the business are tough.  But my recommendation (which I keep to myself late at night) is this:  Don't mark up your wines so much.   Consumers/diners are not stupid.  And now, with a two-second touch of their smartphones, they can find out what a wine sells for at retail and do the math.  Corkage fees help the bottom line a bit... but that few extra dollars and moving your inventory and thus eliminating your carrying-cost ... simple B-School principles say, REDUCE YOUR PRICES.


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