John Aranza of Autre Monde in Berwyn, IL, on Finding an Independent Post-Pandemic Groove - Wine & Spirits Magazine

John Aranza of Autre Monde
in Berwyn, IL, on Finding an
Independent Post-Pandemic Groove

A decade ago, John and Christine Tully Aranza opened Autre Monde, a neighborhood spot in Berwyn with an eclectic focus on Mediterranean food and wine. The couple brought along two other Spiaggia alums, their chefs, Dan Pancake and Beth Partridge. The team’s early success may have paved the way for their making it through the pandemic. “We’re good,” John Aranza told us. “To quote AC/DC, ‘It’s a long way to the top if you wanna rock and roll.’ And this has definitely been a few years of figuring out a brand-new terrain.” —Grant Tennille

Your menu prices rose last year, but your wine prices didn’t really move. How did you manage that?  

We work with maybe three to four core distributors, and we try to make it economical. I’ll lock in a glass pour if we can get best pricing on it. If I’m able to commit to a glass pour and at the same time be able to feature it as one of our monthly seminar wines, and also use it in a retail capacity, it helps. Some places can’t go that deep. So that’s how we’re able to move pricing a little better. It’s just paying attention.

It’s interesting coming out of the pandemic, I’ve seen a lot of combining of roles. If somebody’s skillset was solely on the wine side or beverage program, sometimes those have gone away and been combined into a GM position, because that business acumen is very much needed. Now, this job is not so much being able to offer something that’s allocated, but it’s also being able to manage your numbers. That’s the only way that restaurants can survive right now.

Did you have any shift in terms of part-time versus full-time staff?

Oh my god. The work culture has completely shifted from where it used to be. It’s, now, “We want to come in, and want to learn, and rise within the ranks, and then kind of gently push offshore and then move on.” It’s funny, with the amount of work that’s out there, there are restaurateurs, all of us calling each other, seeing if we have available line cooks or if they have servers… [It] seems to have balanced out. We have some people that have been core to us, veterans able to handle things. But, yeah, the labor market is very transient. I’ve never, never seen this in the industry before.

Last year, you mentioned how popular orange wine had become. Is that still the case?

You know, we were doing a lot of natural wines. We’ve always been a champion of great expression no matter what it is. And education. But [in terms of preferences] it’s almost like asking what’s your favorite movie? It just depends on what you’re in the mood for.

For us it comes down to quality and approachability. We have a pét-nat from Croatia on the list, another from the Treviso area. We’ve got a few natural wines, but I’ve never been one to just put something on because it’s trending. Orange wine is great. Natural wines are beautiful. But I’ve gone to establishments that kind of hide a tired wine under the guise of, “Oh, that’s an orange wine,” and I’m like, “No, this is just over the hill. I know what you’re doing.” People always come in for an experience and they’re looking at what are we doing, and there’s a trust level. And I think that’s one of the biggest factors why we’ve been able to survive.

Have you had any supply issues?

We’ve been good. Being independent, we have good, long-standing relationships with a lot of our vendors. So, yes, there were hiccups here and there, but you just have to figure it out. We’re kind of blessed in the sense that we’re in the Midwest. Sourcing any kind of beef product, or poultry, has never been a problem. With some of the imports here and there, we’ve run into issues: we had problems with DOP asparagus, which is white asparagus, coming in from Spain. I would say there were more hiccups than complete stall-outs. Replacement parts—that was interesting. You got creative.

Do you have a groove now? The phrase I read recently that made me laugh was “no normal is the new normal…”

Yeah, it seems like there’s a collective will to just kind of power through whatever’s going on right now. Figuring out what is the core that people want from you, and then, what are ways to maybe do things better.

People have gone out of their way to make sure that they’re coming in and supporting, more so than before the pandemic. Prior to the pandemic, you had a lot of expansion in the restaurant industry and every time something new opened up, it caught somebody’s attention and it took away from what was already there. COVID really damaged the industry, but those of us that were able to survive came back very strong if we figured it out. I think we’re all still figuring it out, but it comes down to support and just being able to deliver on experiential items—whether that’s food or wine—and having something somebody else doesn’t have. And you have that because of honesty and the relationships that you’ve fostered through the years. We’re really humbled by the support we’ve gotten. People are eager to support their heroes, and people have held us to being what we originally said we were going to be: a neighborhood place that provides a great experience and honesty.

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