Dan Skinner started in wine service in his native Australia nearly 20 years ago, and he followed former Sydney colleague Eddy Buckingham to NYC to manage Chinese Tuxedo and Peachy’s. In 2020, they opened The Tyger, where Skinner was responsible for the opening wine program, though he hopes to pass the keys off to a full-time wine director once the restaurant can support that role.
You opened this restaurant during the pandemic. Can you take me through a rough timeline from the beginning of the process?
We were given the keys October 2019. Demolition started in November, and we started the build. Come March 2020, we were two to three months out from the projected opening. Then, obviously, everything got put on hold, construction had to stop. Our rent-free period expired in June of 2020. With no income coming from Chinese Tuxedo or Peachy’s, we were put in the difficult position to risk losing the lease altogether or roll the dice and try to make the outdoor offering work for us. We were able to restart construction in June and get to market by mid-September. At The Tyger, luckily, we have a huge frontage. It made a lot of sense to take a risk and give it a shot.
We had 100-seat capacity outdoors in mid-September. When indoor dining started back in NY at 25% capacity, we opened for it. We were able to do indoor dining to the fullest extent that mandates made possible. Since the spring, we’ve had to build a covered structure which has reduced the outdoor capacity to around 86 seats now.
We didn’t introduce delivery or takeout until around November. Being a new opening, we didn’t want to risk faltering on our quality because we know that, long-term, we’re going to build off our reputation of dining on-site rather than delivery. We wanted to wait until we were 100% confident the kitchen could deliver an amazing dining experience before introducing the delivery/takeout aspect. Also looking at it from a financial point of view, delivery takes a long time to build as a business of its own. You need a reputation, and you need to have people who are getting delivery more than once or twice a week. When we first opened, there were no commission-free deals on the market. We couldn’t see a delivery service taking 20% commission on sales; we didn’t see that as sustainable. Luckily, Caviar and DoorDash released a deal [ for zero or postponed commission; other services soon followed suit ]…so we jumped on that. If it wasn’t for those deals, we probably would have never launched delivery and takeout.
What about delivery for the bar?
We do delivery-cocktails and to-go cocktails. They’re packaged, so they’re designed to serve two people. They make up a majority of our online beverage sales for delivery. The volume is still small in comparison to what is being ordered in food.
Your top-selling by-the-glass wine was Maison Noir Willamette O.P.P. Pinot Gris. What made that wine successful?
The quality versus price is exceptional. There’s also a little bit of a nice story behind it. The staff are really behind it, and it works well with the food. It’s exceptional quality in terms of the structure and balance. We’ve got a lot of heat in our food, a lot of spice, so that touch of RS backed up by the acid structure goes really well with a lot of our spicy dishes. All those components are the reason why it’s been so successful.
Did the pandemic change your strategy when assembling the wine list?
We’re a 100% domestic wine list, and we had decided on doing that prior to the pandemic. But there was a big shadow hanging over it; it felt a bit risky. Are people going to be turned off by it? Given how big of a hit the pandemic and fires had had on the domestic wine industry, we felt it was a nice way to show support.
Being fully domestic, it was about what people would find approachable. We were already concerned about people being scared off, so we took the angle that as long as we had a wine we’d be able to suggest if someone wanted to drink Sancerre or Chianti, we’d have options for them.
In terms of layout or size, the pandemic hasn’t dictated that. We had an idea of the size and the selection, and we based a lot of our decisions around how Chinese Tuxedo was performing. We knew we would get a very similar client base in a similar proximity. We made a lot of informed decisions around what was working there and transported that over. The decisions around size and price range helped dictate those decisions and not so much the pandemic.
You’re selling 98% of your wine through in-person dining, only 1% through meal kits and takeout. Why is that difference so huge?
For one, our signature cocktails make up almost 20% of total sales. Wine accounts for about 10% of our total sales. If you scale that down to delivery, that’s a large contributing factor as to why the wine sales aren’t performing as well. We do three whites, three reds, three rosés, three sparklings, and we try to hit three different expressions. Maybe the limited selection is dictating why we haven’t had as much success in delivery wines. Maybe we’re not getting the offering quite right. Without being able to speak to the consumer about why they’re not ordering wine online, it’s hard to gauge why it’s not having too much success.
Your wine prices have gone down a little bit. Why?
I put that in terms of what we were originally thinking our pricing target would be pre-pandemic. We started off everything 15-20% cheaper than what we had originally anticipated. Some of those pricings have changed a little over the last few months now that we have more data, and we’re building our reputation. Our average BTG price has gone up. Our cocktails have gone up. Not to the point where we feel that we’re expensive, but that we’re at the correct price. We were asking people to come and dine with us while there’s a global pandemic, and I feel like that’s a big ask. You want to risk your own personal health to spend with us, we don’t want to be in a position where we’re trying to take advantage. We wanted to do the inverse of that and show people that we’re offering value. I think we were rewarded with a lot of repeat patronage.
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