Brenner’s Steakhouse, an upscale steakhouse in Houston, Texas dates back to 1936. Chance Robinson, wine director and sommelier, joined the team in 2021.
On adjusting to pandemic conditions
Initially, we weren’t open for lunch anymore. We finally did expand back into lunches, but really the staffing was the biggest issue, because the pandemic pretty much kept everyone at home. It was a lot of learning on the go and changing. I know that we pretty much changed our entire menu and the way we sold items and had to adapt with the prices and the way guests were spending. So, there were a lot of unknowns and a lot of risks, but they ended up all paying off.
For my buying, I actually was able to expand my cellar a little bit. I just spent more time at the restaurant. We were pretty short-staffed. So outside of selling wine and just being in charge of that aspect of the restaurant, I was pretty much all-hands-on-deck for any position, anything from polishing silverware to running food, bussing and resetting tables.
Here in Texas, people were pretty eager to get back out and start doing business. We did a lot of business dinners, a lot of budgets that no one had spent. There was a lot of money being spent, especially on wine, and I think I saw more guests willing to try more higher-end bottles, more boutique wineries. They just wanted to try something new.
Have you brought any new wine in during 2021 that was particularly successful? What would you say the foundation for that success was?
I did bring in a few new wines. It was a lot of higher-end wines like M. Etain by Scarecrow, we brought in Ovid, the Hexameter and their cabernet-dominant red blend from the top of Pritchard Hill, and we brought in the Penfolds Quantum. Really, from what I saw most is being able to negotiate with the guests at the table. I set a price, but I’m always willing to try and help the guests, that way they can enjoy something they wouldn’t have otherwise.
Also, our large parties picked up in October, and one of our servers, he just had a passion for selling that wine that I brought in. There were several dinners where guests would taste through Joseph Phelps Insignia. They’d taste through Opus One, Patrimony. I mean, one night for a wedding we sold about $20,000 worth of Caymus Special Select. I’d been told that the fires in Napa were going to affect production and pricing, so I routinely bought as much Special Select as I could. We went through about 44 bottles that night. That was probably one of the largest sales on a single party for wine that we’ve had in a long time.
I noticed you mentioned that Champagne had surprised you with its performance this year. Can you elaborate on that?
I started to realize early, early on, the guests have a preference for red wine, obviously with the steakhouse, and there wasn’t a lot of attention being drawn to the white wine menu, especially when given the opportunity right in the beginning of service. So I decided to bring in some new Champagnes, start offering guests Champagne right in the beginning of service, and got the restaurant a sparkling Coravin.
We started serving Dom Pérignon by the glass, offering that initially instead of a glass of chardonnay, something that would’ve been standard practice. And so, when you’re offering a unique selection to a guest, it’s something that just jogs their memory a little bit, that there’s other varietals and other ways to begin dinner.
How have your guests’ expectations about the wine lists and wine service changed over the past year?
I’d say the guests, as expectations go, they’re definitely expecting a higher level of service, a higher level of knowledge, wanting something different, wanting something more expensive, they’re wanting the whole experience. So, when you go over there to talk about a wine, they’re not just interested in where it came from or what the price is and what vintage it is, they want to know more about the winemaker. They want to know a little bit of information, something that makes the service personal to them and draws a unique interest.
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