• Beyond 2020- The Future of Hospitality

    photo PIXABAY

    So here we are. The rollercoaster has completed (I hope) all its twists and turns for 2020 and is calmly cruising into the station. We can disembark and take a moment to ponder the loops, dips, corkscrews and speed hills that were endured with a mix of fear and exhilaration.

    Well, that is my metaphor for 2020. I’m sure everyone will have their own version of course. It was a unique year on so many levels, there has been seismic shifts in the way we view the world, the way we work and the way we play. There has been massive winners and equally big losers.My prediction, and plan for that matter, for 2021 is a renewed focus on the art of hospitality. The level of technological embracement this year has been astounding.

    Unlike any financial crisis we’ve seen before there’s been unprecedented government spending and frankly, any business that is online based has probably seen exponential growth. Even the hospitality sector, though many of us have suffered massive losses is a two-sided coin. Suburban eateries have boomed whilst CBD venues have gone bust.

    Hospitality is an incredibly resilient industry. The reality is we start a new business every service, so we are always ready for the unexpected. Whilst this year’s version of unexpected was on a much grander scale that resilience shone through with more pirouettes than the 53-consecutive listed in The Guinness Book of Records. Take away, food boxes, home delivery and more all got a run.

    As I look back on this amazing journey, I’m struck by how much has changed and with that change how much more we can do to ensure this industry continues to be a successful part of the community.

    Simple things have come to be the normal. Credit card details to secure bookings will stay in perpetuity, removing once and for all the scourge of the no-show. In the time since we were allowed to re-open Fix Wine Bar + Restaurant, we’ve only had one table not arrive – in comparison to it being at least a daily occurrence.

    Changes to the way people work and a shift away from the 9am-5pm mindset means more people willing to eat lunch earlier or later and not just a barrage of guests at 12.30pm. This gives our kitchen more time to focus on each dish and it’s been amazing the constant feedback from guests on how good the food has been these past few months.

    Stay times have also come into the equation. Restaurant real estate isn’t cheap, the 4-hour lunch table is still possible as long as the participants are spending accordingly, but a leisurely sit on a glass of tap water just doesn’t make business sense anymore.

    This increased focus on what the business does has other benefits. Smaller and more focused menus and wine lists and an understanding that the old staffing model of 50 to 60-hour working weeks just don’t belong in this industry anymore.Price points continue to be a sensitive area and will remain in 2021 whilst there’s an economic recession in play.

    How will this all play out in 2021 is anyone’s guess. There’s going to be an ongoing shortage of staff for many years so venues will need to manage their bookings very carefully. Obviously every business wants to be full but with a lack of staff, capacity and full may be a different number.

    Price points continue to be a sensitive area and will remain in 2021 whilst there’s an economic recession in play. The most effective counter to both capacity and pricing is multiple seating, which I hope will be embraced by the dining public a little more as they change their working hours to a more flexible model as well.

    We’ve seen the Sydney CBD bounce back in December with people flooding back, mostly it seems to enjoy each other’s company for Christmas celebrations. There’s been a palpable joy as people throw off the tension of this pandemic and revel in the simple things. Just the act of shaking someone’s hand or giving them a cuddle has a new level of meaning after months of it being taboo.

    I’m not sure that we will ever see CBD occupancy go beyond 70% of what it was in “The Great Before” but this may work out to be a good thing with a rental price correction long overdue.

    My prediction, and plan for that matter, for 2021 is a renewed focus on the art of hospitality. The level of technological embracement this year has been astounding. Zoom meetings, working from home and online shopping have boomed. All of which provide amazing efficiencies and increased productivity, but they are also factors that for many can be isolating.

    This is where I see hospitality’s future. Being the community hub for people to come together. Yes, quick-serve restaurants will continue to embrace productivity-enhancing technologies. Home delivery meals will also continue to grow but for those venues that can build community and give people a personal sense of belonging I see their future bright for a long time to come.

    Signing off for 2020, I want to thank everyone for the amazing support that you’ve shown to us and all of the hospitality industry.

    Have a fantastic Christmas and New Year!

    First published on The Real Review December 2020

  • Wine by the glass revolution.


    Back in the far too dark recesses of history, I began working in hospitality. Wine lists and the service around wine was a very different beast to what it is today. The biggest area of change in these past three decades has been an explosion of by-the-glass programs in Australia.Right now I think Australia is setting the gold standard for by-the-glass programs, with great variety and value available to our guests.

    These days we are spoilt for choice when heading out, with every half-decent venue offering up at least ten wines by the glass, often many more. There certainly are pitfalls in this area as well and I’ll get to those further a little later.

    In 1999 when I started at Bibendum Restaurant in London the bottle list had over 1000 listings, yet the by-the-glass list was just six wines. My time travelling throughout Europe showed this to be relatively common, with big lists of bottles but not much choice in anything under 375mL.

    My return to Australia and the legendary Forty One Restaurant showed me a far more interesting and diverse by-the-glass program. Dietmar Sawyere and his wine team had a fantastic degustation menu with matching wines, and those matching wines were then used to make up the basis for the by-the-glass list which was combined with local and imported mainstays, along with the Krug options too. We would usually have at least 20 wines by the glass and it often would be a talking point, particularly for overseas guests.

    I have always held a fascination for wine lists and scour them online if I can’t visit the venues. The internet has kept my eye on what is happening in the wine world and I watched the by-the-glass programs expand everywhere but particularly in the United States. Now, many of us have no doubt travelled to America and noted the reasonable pricing of wines in restaurants there.

    Tax isn’t something I’m going to go into but one thing they don’t miss you on is the by-the-glass program. For U.S. mark-ups, the general rule of thumb is the by-the-glass sale price pays for the bottle. The first glass sold pays for the entire bottle, which puts the next four glasses straight to the bottom line. A handy margin indeed, but not entirely unfounded. The larger the list of glasses, the larger the wastage cost too.

    Back home in Australia, the general rule of thumb is bottle price divided by five (if 150ml pour) and rounded up a couple of dollars. This has been the norm for as long as I can remember.

    I opened Fix back in 2006 with thirty wines by the glass, quite a daunting management task to ensure bottles were up to scratch. I’ll admit I was not always that successful with it either.

    We offered wines as 75ml, 150ml or 500ml pours, which gave people the option to try different things. This did lead to ugly levels of wastage and the odd hangover because sometimes it’s hard to walk away from an open bottle at closing time. But the reality was that due to the wastage issue we couldn’t go into the super-premium space for pouring.

    We searched and searched for reliable preservation methods: if you’ve seen it then no doubt we’ve tried it! The Enomatic machines held great promise. By all accounts, they were generally successful but the size and cost of them was prohibitive. Fortunately along came the Coravin and suddenly things got very interesting.

    I’d heard about this tool for several years before I was able to get my hands on one. All the marketing and press about them was skewed towards the home cellar, giving people the option of just having one glass of great wine or a few different glasses but I could only see it as being a game-changer for wine bars to expand their wine by the glass program exponentially.

    I trialled it for a few weeks on bottles and was astounded, it just worked, and by late 2018 we had expanded our by-the-glass list to over 100 wines. Unfortunately, COVID-19 has restricted this for now but in time I envisage us returning to a similar number.

    This isn’t an advertorial for Coravin, but the equipment is one of the biggest shifts in the wine bar world I’ve ever seen. Yes, there are issues around operating them successfully and training is essential.

    Bars and restaurants are full of dangerous (and terrifyingly expensive) equipment. All of which requires experience to use properly. When Coravin is used correctly, I’ve no problem having wines in use three to four weeks after they’ve first been accessed. I’ve tried many more that have lasted well beyond that time-frame, too.

    There are still a lot of issues around wines by the glass. Freshness, provenance and pour size are the obvious pinch points. It does come down to a matter of trust in the venue and consumer expectations of the service levels provided.

    Freshness is always the most important. I would always encourage the consumer to ask the question if they feel it isn’t quite right. With 100 wines by the glass it just isn’t practical to taste every bottle before each service and in the heat of a crazy lunch or dinner it can be missed. I’ve always said life is too short to drink bad wine so let them know if you don’t think it is right.

    The question of provenance is always tricky. The expectation is that wines by the glass are poured at table and at high-end venues I would still expect this to be the case. Having said that, with the uptake on Coravin and the benefit it has for the consumer you may see less and less tableside pouring. They are a touch noisy and clunky to use in the midst of a fine dining restaurant.

    For mid-range and below venues the reality is practicality outweighs the provenance need. Multiple trips back and forth to a table with different bottles can chew up valuable service time along with the aforementioned Coravin usage. Once again, if you have a concern then ask the question.

    For those of you that have been to Fix, if you’ve ordered a glass of pinot noir you will have it served in a Riedel pinot noir glass. They are very big glasses, and many times we’ve been questioned on the serving size.

    To that end, a recent addition to the Riedel range are marked glasses that show 100, 125 and 150ml pour levels which have helped in the transparency of pour sizes. As much as we love a glass filled right to the brim there are times we do like some room to swirl.

    Right now I think Australia is setting the gold standard for by-the-glass programs, with great variety and value available to our guests. I have seen first-hand the revolution in the way people eat and drink over the past 14 years at Fix and the surge in interest around wine has helped drive this abundance of variety available.

    An interesting side note from Fix, when we went heavy with the Coravin it was amazing to see the uptake of premium wines from the classic regions worldwide. These days it may be hard to justify a bottle of Barolo or white Burgundy, but treating yourself to a glass is a more manageable option.

    First published on The Real Review October 2020

  • Wine lists in a COVID-19 World

    Wine lists become an extension of the personality of the venue. (Photo: Pexels)

    Wine lists have always fascinated me. This makes sense considering my career, but it’s been longer and goes deeper than a job choice.

    There’s something about the work that goes into them, the planning and detail to make a good one that fascinates me. They become an extension of the personality of the venue, be it a short one-page number of eclectic drops or a multi-paged leather-bound tome housing the great wines of the world.I love technology and all the things it can do, but I must admit that when it comes to a wine list I struggle with the idea of having it on an iPad.

    I recall being in restaurants, well before I could drink wine, but noticing the ceremony of the wine list, its presentation and the interest with which it held the wine selector on the evening.

    This was generally well before we had sommeliers on the restaurant floor but there was still a sense of occasion when the wine was chosen. I have always loved a good read and this idea of a list that traversed both the world time stuck in my mind for years to come.

    I have hundreds of lists saved on my computer, quite a few physical copies that I have worked with over the years too. It’s great to stop and ponder them in their moment of time, a snapshot of the day.

    Every couple of months I save the current Fix Wine Bar + Restaurant wine list, so now I have 14 years of history to look back on. It shines a light on how far the Australian wine drinking public has come over the past decade and more.

    To pull together a great list there are so many factors to be addressed, but I do believe it takes time for a list to truly show its personality.

    A list of the great wines and vintages of the world is an exercise in budget, impressive yes but somewhat one dimensional. As time goes on there begins a thread of life and it moves into a living thing, morphing with the simple commercial vagaries of stock control, customer buying habits and the influence of those selling the wine on the floor.

    I love looking at a list and getting a feel for the venue, the people and food they provide. Not every list has to be huge, nor serious. If you get a chance to look at something like the list at Terroir|Tribeca (NYC) then you’ll see not just a list of wines but a piece of entertainment and joy.

    However, right now we have a dilemma, in these times of COVID-19 those great expressions of personality can’t just be handed around, to be shared amongst multiple tables. They have to be reduced down to a single-use sheet of paper or laminated to be repeatedly sanitised.

    Can we keep that personality in these formats? Do we look to technology to provide the connection between the list and the user? It’s a question that I’m still working on and the sommeliers I’ve spoken with are still coming to terms with.

    For me, I’ve decided this is the opportunity and frankly the better business decision to reduce the stock I hold and bring the wine list down in size.

    Before shutting down we were holding about 250 wines on the list, right now it’s about 50 bins. Over the next week though we will jump up to about 100. This only possible by finally being able to secure an A3 printer. Yes, the working from home directives has done wonders of printer sales and the like!

    I’m excited by this change, it has invigorated me in how I’m pulling the list together to keep it balanced but also fit it into one page.

    Our by the glass offer will also once again grow, heading back to at least 50% of the list, probably more because I’m obsessed with the Coravin system and how wines develop under it. I do have one card up my sleeve though when it comes to size, I can always print double-sided.

    With this new paradigm in mind, I reached out to Amanda Yallop, wine director for the Fink group to see how they were managing this challenge at Quay and other venues, where those encyclopaedic lists have purpose and add gravitas to such world-class dining experiences.

    Much like me, Amanda is very conscious of the business side of the list right now, large stock holdings are not the way to play it in the current climate, if there’s wine that’s been cellared then it can be liquidated, both literally and metaphorically.

    Wine service at Quay has always been a highlight in the country and they’ve transitioned to a single-use page with the by the glass offer along with cocktails, beers and so forth. This list remains with the table during the meal but also has a QR code which will take the diner to the entire list on their own device.

    This is a compromise I see playing out across the country and handles the tension between tradition and technology as best possible in the current circumstances. As a venue, they also have the ability to update the list in real-time to avoid those pesky out of stock moments we all dread.

    I love technology and all the things it can do, but I must admit that when it comes to a wine list I struggle with the idea of having it on an iPad or similar, the personality and sense of the venue I fear will be lost in an overload of information that an electronic list can deliver.

    Maybe I’m just getting old, and when the next generation gets involved and starts their own restaurants and bars I’ll be the grumpy old bloke telling everyone within earshot about how much better it was back in the good old days.

    First publish on The Real Review 28/7/2020

  • Opportunity for change in hospitality.

    Right now, restaurateurs across the country are looking out across their venues with that wonderful thing we call ‘bums on seats’.

    My last piece for The Real Review was a story of survival, the fight or flight reaction to a challenge that no one could truly be prepared for.

    Now Fix Wine Bar + Restaurant is open in Sydney. Still with restrictions, but able to have meaningful patronage so I’m calling this the other side. Where do we go from here? There is an opportunity here to make the resets required to fix the industry.

    Right now, restaurateurs across the country are looking out across their venues with that wonderful thing we call ‘bums on seats’. There’s truly no greater music to my ears than the sound of a humming venue with the clatter of cutlery on china, the clink of glassware and the popping of bottles.

    As an industry we’ve been through hell, but, for all that heartache and stress, the joy of having the doors back open again washes all that tension away.

    I have been astounded and humbled by the sea of familiar faces who have made their way back to Fix, along with a raft of new visitors. There is a palpable joy to the place, a feeling of community that has been accentuated by its absence for so long.

    Humans are social animals and I can see by the enthusiasm in which people are returning to Fix that socialising has been missed. I don’t doubt for a moment this same experience is happening at venues all around Australia. There are many places like mine, not flash or fancy but have a sense of place in the community that surrounds them. We’ve been at it for 14 years and I truly believe that longevity has been our saviour in this climate.

    It’s this newfound enthusiasm that I feel will help the industry bounce back as people realise the things they missed during lockdown. Everything from a quick coffee with a colleague to a fine bottle of wine shared with good friends will be magnified with the knowledge that it’s not always guaranteed.

    To keep that euphoria, we need to maintain a sense of hospitality and joy, this will be a challenge for some, but it is a cornerstone for the future of my industry.

    There’s nothing new in me saying the restaurant game was broken well before COVID. Wage scandals shone a light on historic practices that hadn’t moved with the times. Continual price increases of raw product for many years with an industry not comfortable to pass those increases on. There is an opportunity here to make the resets required to fix the industry.

    The best way to ensure that everyone gets paid for the hours they work is to ensure the selling price is correct. If we look at the simple takeaway latte, in Sydney it has been between AUD $3-$4 for as long as I can remember, no one is willing to raise the price even though all the inputs have gone up. Even the world’s most successful food and beverage chain, McDonald’s, sells their latte for AUD $4.60 or more.Considering the climate of Sydney, it seems crazy that we have yet to really find a way to have that vibrant evening buzz that so many other great cities do.

    Even without price rises though there is an opportunity for my industry to thrive and grow in this new world. We have seen a huge shift to remote work. The Sydney CBD would be at 20% capacity right now, most people still working from home partially or completely. I’m still unnerved by getting a peak hour train and having several seats to choose from.

    With this newfound flexibility, there’s an opportunity to improve the industry bottom line along with reducing pressure on public transport peaks and all that goes with it. With some encouragement perhaps a change in expectation of working hours away from just 9am-5pm. I’m sure many would enjoy starting earlier or later.

    This would give a place like Fix a chance to serve two lunches and two dinners instead of the 12.30pm and 6.30pm bottleneck. Not to mention the advantage it would be to the oft-touted night-time economy, particularly with those same changes applied to retail. Considering the climate of Sydney, it seems crazy that we have yet to really find a way to have that vibrant evening buzz that so many other great cities do.

    Whilst price adjustments and flexible hours are things I hope for and would be positive for the industry I don’t know if they’ll happen. But there is one area that really must change. The scourge of no shows.

    During the period when NSW venues could have a maximum of ten patrons, I lost count of the stories of no shows. Even an institution like Beppi’s had a group of six not arrive. In normal times this is unacceptable, but to have 60% of your guests just not show up is outrageous. To counter this, you will see many more venues ask for credit card details when you book.

    Please don’t be offended by this, we build our menu, do our ordering and rostering based on what we have booked. We have implemented it at Fix and since our return there’s not been a single no-show. Of course, we understand things can happen and we will be far more flexible than the airlines I guarantee!

    This is what it may look like. I’m certainly not one to set things in stone, if there’s nothing else we’ve learnt from the past few months is that things can change fundamentally with no way of controlling the effects. I don’t doubt there are interesting times ahead for all of us and whilst there are changes, difficulties and challenges still to come I do believe that the key to it all will still be the rekindled joy of dining out.

    I can’t wait to see you all out and about, sharing love, life and laughter with family and friends. I can assure you those looking after you are incredibly happy you are there too.

    First published 30/6/2020 on The Real Review

  • Coravin, my not-so-new favourite wine tool.

    The Coravin is one of the greatest game changers I’ve seen in my life of serving wine. And let me tell you, that’s a few years.

    In short, this nifty tool gives access to wines that can be poured by the glass and yet never opened!

    Think Grange, Barolo and Grand Cru Burgundy to start.

    I’ve played around with it for a while now and am confident that the wines remain perfect once ‘Coravined’.

    Thanks to the coravin, we’ve added about 20 premium wines to our by the glass list. Available as a “taste” or glass. And we can do it, because the wines stay super fresh under their own cork indefinitely.

    If you don’t believe me ask Jancis Robinson http://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/coravin-the-pros-and-cons