Clay opened in 2018 and has built a strong core of neighborhood regulars while continuing to attract visitors from farther afield, all drawn by the cozy corner space, friendly service and farm-to-table menu—and, especially, the wine list. Gabriela Davogustto has grown the list to 250 carefully curated selections with an emphasis on Spain, Italy, France and the US, the majority of them under $120.
How are you and how is your team?
We are okay. The last two weeks of December weren’t great because of Omicron madness, everyone in restaurant got sick, had to close last week of December and canceled the New Year’s Eve celebration. We thought people wouldn’t go out much anyway. But now, because everyone got it, and we’re all boosted, it was grim then, but looking better now. In the past two weeks people seem to want to go out more. I think it’s too soon to drop all the mask requirements, it’s not over, and also for people with kids, so many are still unvaccinated. It is inconsiderate to those people.
We’re letting people sit at the bar since we reopened; before we were feeling there was too much proximity to the bartender for too long, so we didn’t have bar seats for a long time, but now it feels safer. And people have been super happy and excited about it. It’s great for people who are by themselves and want to sit at the bar.
We have two wine dinners coming up, hadn’t had one in almost three years. César Marquez is coming second or third week of March (nephew of Raúl Pérez).
How has pandemic dining changed your buying?
I have about the same number of selections (250); the past year, I was trying to be really conservative about what I’m buying. This has been an emotional roller coaster. Before, I was trying to run through what we had and buy as little as possible. When people started going out more, I started buying more wine. I’ve been buying mostly Spanish wines, to have a more focused selection. If I’m going to buy wine, I’d rather have something that sets us apart from other restaurants. During the fall, before Omicron, I started to diversify a bit, but then Omicron happened. Now I’m still trying to be conservative, because we realize this is not over and we don’t know what the future will bring. Also, this is always the slowest time of year even without COVID. But in spring I expect to start buying some more.
Takeout is a nice addition to our income, but I feel that people now are ordering less because they’re going out more. It still gives us some good revenue. For a while, it was probably 40% takeout, 60% in-person dining. I don’t have the exact numbers, but it was very significant. Much less now. We sold both wine and cocktails during the takeout and to-go period. Lots of people would order wine with takeout. Some people would even order just olives and then a bottle of wine. I was surprised because I thought, why wouldn’t they buy at retail prices? We sold at restaurant price but with small discount. And some of our wines you probably couldn’t find at retail.
It has gotten better than in 2021, but we had to hire people without much experience. They are good tableside, and they have been getting better so that helps. But we just lost our sous chef, and candidates are asking for higher pay, which is fair. We all realize the problems in our industry that COVID exposed, but how can we afford it when we have a small restaurant. So, then you have to think about raising the prices. But overall, it is better.
Have you experienced an unexpected shortage on any particular items due to supply chain issues?
Everything costs so much more, and there is no glassware available. We haven’t been able to buy it for four months. Every time a glass breaks it is a huge deal. We were serving wine in rocks glasses (kind of like tumblers) because we were so short on stemmed glassware. We haven’t really raised our prices, but that’s a conversation we’re having.
Some wines BTG we have had a hard time getting, the production is small, but also, they have issues getting them into the US, or there are no trucks to deliver.
Château Soucherie 2019 Anjou Cuvée Les Rangs de Long Chenin Blanc ($68) – People love it; that was one that disappeared for a while but now is back. Versatile, good acidity, can pair with anything. Kind of unusual because most of our best sellers are Spanish wines.
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