The most frequently voiced criticisms over restaurant wine lists revolve around the issues of presentation, organization, selection and pricing. Chicago Cut Steakhouse, an independent upscale eatery in the Windy City, set out to create the ultimate user experience with the help of a little device from Apple.
David Flom, a managing partner with an extensive steakhouse background, knew he wanted a big wine list from the outset. “But I took a step back and thought about going into the restaurant as a customer,” said Flom. “We wanted to increase the time spent with the wine list, but also make it enjoyable. What do you get when you go into a restaurant with an extensive wine list? A big book.”
Challenges to overcome
While one or two people peruse the infamous wine tome, indulging their curiosity over the length and breadth of vintages available, Flom found the rest of the party simply watched, and waited for conversation to resume. They weren’t engaged in the process.
Additionally, customers don't want to go to the effort of choosing one wine from many and then be told that they can't have it, or that the vintage is different. To stay on top, normally the restaurateur, sommelier or whomever is in charge may have to update the list several times per week.
“How many times have you been to a restaurant, hoping to have a particular bottle on the wine list and been disappointed? If it’s a special event, someone might spend upwards of $500 or more on a dinner,” Flom explained. “That's more than most people earn in a week. Now they're totally let down because that wine they wanted for their special night isn't in stock.”
And how much information is in that book, really? “Many times it gives you nothing about locale, geography, and soil type—just a list of names and locations,” explained Flom.
“On a busy night with 40 tables, the sommelier can’t be everywhere to answer questions,” he said. “It’s about time we educated our customers better as restaurateurs.”
Flom approached Apple with the concept of an iPad wine list that solved these issues. When the time came to locate a programmer, he found the perfect pairing in Jay Clark. A software developer at Shared Marketing Services Inc., Clark already had a passion for wine. “It’s so great when the developer really gets involved in the whole experience of the program,” said Flom.
The result was a dynamic, real-time list featuring a wealth of knowledge the customer rarely has access to. “It's tied to inventory, so it's totally perpetual,” Flom told us.
Images of the bottles can be scrolled through at leisure by hand, or sorted by region, type, vintage, price and other variables. Tapping a bottle opens a page with detailed information about the wine: region, color, flavor notes, alcohol level, composition and a Google Maps window showing the exact location of the winery.
And if that’s not enough, Flom has asked the winemakers to submit “year in a minute” videos to accompany their wines. “We all want to hear from the winemaker,” he said. “Not many customers have ever been to wine country or a distillery. Now they have that experience at the table.”
“The under-50 generation is so visual,” Flom explained with a laugh. “I’m part of it; I know.”
The iPads are left at the table so everyone can participate and have a more complex, knowledgeable conversation regarding the wine selection, and it keeps the curiosity level high throughout the meal. When it comes time to order a second bottle, they can do so with little hesitation. Access is restricted to the wine list, and each tablet is fitted with a tracking device to prevent theft.
The proof is in the profit
Flom says they’ve seen a significant increase in wine purchases this year over his past experience with other steakhouses. “Customers are ordering better or more valuable wines because they have more information.”
Chicago Cut staff even encourages their sophisticated wine drinkers to peruse the live list from the website and call in their selections in advance of their reservation time. Then, they will decant the wine for them so it's ready to drink when they walk in.
What’s next on the menu
Expanding into the rest of the bar. Bottled beers are listed, as well as liquors and a variety of cocktails. "More producers are getting into small batch bourbon or whiskey, and we want to provide that knowledge to our customers," said Flom.
Walk a vineyard without going anywhere. “I'm trying to get Google Maps to move to Google Earth,” he explained. "So you can 'walk' up the hill and feel like you're really walking it. When I tell you this vineyard has the highest density soil, and the vines are holding onto the hillside, making the grapes tight and firm and really succulent, you’ll really see it."
Bring the food to the iPad. Like the current design, the plan is for a visual menu of the dishes with detailed information on how they're prepared. Flom says he wants videos of the chefs cooking the dishes, too. “It's going to allow people to make better choices and order more food and spend more money, having a better experience overall,” he explained.
Don’t fear the price tag
What did all this innovation cost? “Not everybody has $100K to spend on a wine list. It was very expensive,” Flom admitted. “But, I knew if I didn't do it upfront, I'd never do it.” Apple doesn’t discount, meaning only $30K of the budget went into the programming, and the rest into the 40 iPads for the restaurant.
For Flom, it all came down to one question, “Why wouldn't we position the customer to have the best experience ever?”
“I think that our industry has so many challenges that sometimes we forget to look at what would make the experience the best,” he said. “We're afraid to put money up front. Yes, this was definitely a risk on our part. But, sometimes the risks have rewards as well. As independents, we need to keep looking for ways to improve the customer experience. As more independents get into this technology, the costs will go down and make it affordable for everybody. It’ll be great and exciting.”