Moving from Detroit to DC in 2008, Brent Kroll recalls at different city from today. “Fourteenth Street was just starting to blow up, and a lot of what were considered the best restaurants or wine lists were really generic-feeling steakhouses,” he says. But the political heart of the city created a constantly shifting populace with food on offer from most any country you can think of. He decided to open a wine bar “to pour whatever grape or region I wanted,” believing the opportunity was there more than most anywhere else in the country. Kroll now oversees Maxwell Park and Pop, his wine bars in the city’s Shaw district. And coming out of the pandemic, he’s found creative new ways to build on their wine programs. —Grant Tennille
How has the wine landscape in DC changed since when you arrived?
in 2008, every single restaurant had a cab. An oaky chardonnay. A pinot grigio, sauv blanc, Prosecco. And you were just checking off boxes; your list would kind of sell itself and you’d try to put on recognizable brand names for more revenue. Now it’s split off: You see a lot of good sommeliers pour the same famous wines program to program, or you see young sommeliers, who don’t want do anything conventional, pouring a bunch of cloudy natural wines. So, you’re still seeing places pigeonhole themselves, but more so.
Cocktails…Orange Wine…“We can’t get napkins!” Those were the big things that people were talking about last year. How was your 2022? You mentioned that red sparkling wine continues to be popular at Maxwell Park.
I started this thing in DC called Lambrusco Week, where I do 10 white, rosé and red dry lambruscos, every year, and I pair them with cured meats. And I’ve seen that, every single year, the quality of what comes into the market for Lambrusco is better and better. And I’ve seen fizzy sparkling reds that have been good in general.
I really think what’s getting better are distilleries or even micro seltzer places. Or wineries—people starting to think about cans a little bit more. I have a menu for my new bar that has a pretty big Champagne list, but I would say half the program is cans and we’re starting to see really, really good product out of cans. So, that’s a category that I’m looking out for. Freeland Spirits Company, Luxardo and Death and Co. are all doing cans that are pretty interesting.
We have [DeMaison’s cider] Isastegi and their Txakoli in cans. And then Two Shepherds does a fizzy carignan red and picpoul white out of cans. That’s a category where, if it stays on the same path it’s on, in a couple years [people will say,] “Hey, let’s go in the backyard. Let’s go to the beach. Let’s load up on cans.” It’s easier than loading up on bottles.
I’ve read about the struggles of downtown DC to get the government to get workers back in the office and how it’s reaching a crisis. Is there any knock-on effect in terms of the business that you see relating to that?
We’ve definitely seen some of the bars and restaurants that rely on it [struggle]; I’m not so much relying on it. I’m pretty close to the convention center, but we’re such a small bar. But if you’re a 200-seat place and you’re in Chinatown, that’s just brutal, because you rely on so much foot traffic.
And what about inflation?
I’ve not fared really well with costs. It’s been pretty rough. The things I’ve noticed—like to-go bags—they’ve been hit so hard with people doing carry-out that the prices on those have doubled. Starting my new bar, the price of a walk-in [cooler] doubled, and took twice as long to get. These Champagne flutes that I was buying, they doubled in price in the last few months, and I had to basically just be like, “Okay, how much do you have in stock? I’m going to buy the rest.” And then when I’m out, I’m out. So, I’m probably going switch to one potentially from Riedel that I don’t really like as much. The whole flute thing is kind of a debate. I found this one that puts your nose in the glass and it’s like a hybrid between a white wine glass and a flute. And I’m really into it, but now I’m going to have to switch off of it.
But one thing we’ve done to overcome that is QR codes. People don’t like them as much, and it’s kind of a concession, but switching to those versus printing all the paper menus and ink and stuff, we’ve saved a lot. There was a period where we had to have hundreds of masks a month to give to people when they got Ubers, and that’s fallen off now. It’s more expensive than it was certainly pre-COVID. But I’ve seen some of these numbers shift.
I’ve been trying to taste more, and haggling more, and saying, “What if I use this in my wine club and I go through 20 cases this month, what deal can you give me?” You can’t do that in every part of the country, but in DC you can.
And I started a wine club. We do two-, four- and six-packs and I think I’ve got 130 members. It’s been going for just under a year. Last year we had a record year for revenue, but a lot of it has to do with different promotions we’re doing and stuff like the wine club.
How are you doing with staffing?
We attract pretty good people. I had had no turnover until COVID, and then my entire company went from 25 employees to three employees. Now we’re back up to 28 between the two locations. And I would say my staff now is the best it’s been. They’re all really bought in and they’re all studying wine and really into it. So, [after COVID started], I’d say it took up until about maybe six months ago to really get our culture back.
I used to have a lot of full-time staff and was really averse to hiring part-time. Now, almost my entire staff is part-time, but they’re highly skilled people who work a nine-to-five and they want to come and do a few strong service shifts a week. And they’re really into wine. I used to have career people, and now I have a slightly larger staff and I’m getting people who work for the government, or lawyers, or people with lobbyist jobs, and they just come in, we give them the material. And I’m just seeing the level of intelligence is higher than ever. We switch our wines every month, almost every single wine. I’m having to put in more time in training, but it’s starting to pay off.
Actually, now that I think about it, when COVID started, at my bar in Shaw we had one part-time person front of house. And now at Shaw, outside of management, we have one full-time person. It’s crazy to think about that, but that’s our new normal.
For our events we do for programs, we’re doing an “old vine” theme right now. We did a Taylor Swift theme in December. And we’re starting to see that our clientele is not necessarily getting older; by being creative as we are, we’re attracting younger drinkers on top of our [existing] clientele.
One thing we started that was illegal before COVID that now just crushing it for us: we can legally sell unopened wine to go. So what we started doing is, we’ll pick five sommeliers around town or five distributors or importers. They’ll each have five wines and we’ll charge for a ticket, just to cover the wines being poured, like $25 a ticket. And we’ll sell 50 tickets, two sessions, and offer wines to go and we’ll just do these just humongous days off these things. We’re seeing that we’re getting people not just come for that glass of wine, but they’re coming to these events, they’re in our wine club. We’re hitting people in waves. So, our system’s gotten more complex for us to have a record year. I think in terms of butts-in-seats, we wouldn’t get there alone off that.
They want to be in a wine club where they read a page about every single wine. They definitely want to be engaged. We’re seeing how breaking a record is getting people buying into what we are as a company, more than just coming for a glass.
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