Pop your cork

Corkage fees charged by restaurateurs to uncork, decant and serve a guest's bottle of wine have soared to upwards of $50 in America's most popular dining spots. This is creating a controversy that has some people popping their corks. Any restaurant has the right to charge a corkage fee, and if you do, the primary consideration should not be how much you charge, but how well your staff can articulate the fees and explain the reasons for your policy.

While the custom of charging a fee for serving a guest's bottle of wine has been around forever, there has never been a clear cut industry standard. As such, you should consider the issue, and your own policy, from a number of perspectives.

If a guest arrives with their own wine, don't be insulted, be realistic. As a friend of mine once said, you have two choices: you can be gracious or you can be a jerk. Pick a policy that is consistent with your personality and company culture. Today's consumers are price conscious and sophisticated when it comes to wine, and customers who appreciate wine typically spend more on food and are prepared to pay corkage fees. It's the amateur or cheapskate that you need to handle carefully.

Corkage fees are pure profit. While you may have lost the profit on a bottle of wine from your list, you are not expending any more labor to open their bottle than your own. What's better... a $15 mark-up on a bottle from your inventory, less carrying charges storage, spoilage, insurance, theft and returns; or a $15 fee with no costs attached? Do the math. Remember, you take dollars to the bank, not percentages, and in many cases, you could be money ahead.

There are many different ways to set a corkage fee: A flat fee based on what your competition charges A fee equal to the lowest priced bottle of wine on your wine list A fee equal to the cost of a class of premium wine A sliding scale: $25 for the first two bottles; $35 for the third bottle; $50 for each bottle thereafter A stem charge: This is especially effective with large parties with several bottles of wine. Each wine requires a glass. Unless you're prepared, this may put a strain on your inventory and the dishwasher, leaving your other guests without. Don't forget to give discounts for magnums and other large bottles. And don't be afraid to charge extra if a bottle requires special treatment like decanting.

Most guests who bring a bottle of wine to dinner do so because it has significance...an anniversary bottle, a cellared wine aged to perfection, a treat to share picked up on travels abroad, etc. It is important for servers to be well-trained in opening, decanting, and serving the wine, what to do if a wine appears to be bad, how to follow a guest's instructions with no attitude, and even how to respond when offered a taste of a special wine.

There will be guests who are unhappy with a corkage fee. Give your staff adequate training so they can professionally explain your policy and fee should the necessity arise. Prepared scripts and some role playing will help to diffuse potentially sticky situations. If, however, you find that you consistently encounter problems, try lowering or restructuring your fee. In the end you'll have to waive them less often to appease unhappy guests.

We've created a downloadable and customizable sample corkage policy with sample scripts for training hosts, wait staff or sommeliers, or printing on your the wine list and web site.

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