David Toby is an 11-year veteran of Austin, TX’s Jack Allen’s Kitchen, where he serves as the Beverage Director for the restaurant’s four locations, as well as for its sister operation’s two Salt Traders Coastal Cooking locations, also in the Austin area.
How have your locations been operating over the past year?
With the office buildings empty, we shut down lunch at first and all our locations just had part-time dinner. Then we slowly started to reopen for brunch on weekends. We were able to provide a safe environment for that on our large patios. Then we opened for lunch on Friday; now almost every location is open seven days a week (11am-10pm on Friday/Saturday and 11am-9pm on weekdays). We aren’t seeing any late-night diners, but people are looking for things to do on weekends.
We’ve always offered take-out, but didn’t put any strength behind it. Now, in Texas, selling beverages to go is legal; I was just listening to the governor say he is pushing to keep it legal. When the pandemic hit, we ran curbside only for a month before reopening to guests, getting safety protocols down with plenty of Zoom calls with management to figure out QR codes and what to do with dirty pens? Or not use pens? Should we have straws, or use tongs with the straws? Before, to-go was five percent of our total sales and now it’s thirty percent. Everything on the menu is available to-go.
Spirits dominate when it comes to take-out. Most people have beer or wine at home so folks started looking for spirits and drinking something else. I tried to discount wine, but that still didn’t help move any. I did cut the wine list down by thirty percent—we have only one variety of each grape on by the glass and we’re down to 35 wines, with the goal being to manage less inventory.
On what is selling now versus in the beforetimes
Wine is down to four or five percent of total sales and fifteen percent of total liquor/beer/wine (LBW) sales even through the holidays. We did have a holiday wine feature which did well—J Lohr proprietary red, Ghost Pines cab sauv, Wente chard—but this damaged my other BTG sales. This was specific to the pandemic; the wines in my holiday feature are always top sellers but they never before have detracted from my other by-the-glass options. Over the same period, we were just pouring the other by-the-glass wines from those grapes down the drain.
Spirits sales are just way up, now eighty percent of beer/wine/liquor (LBW) sales. Beer sales are down significantly as well. Wine sales are slowly coming back, but I really didn’t see a spike in wine over the holidays and in general—wine sales not even close to what they were before the pandemic. Guests want things they cannot make or do at home, really looking to drink things they don’t have at their house. Frozens went bonkers, selling by the quart even. I mean, we’re in Texas so we’re known for margaritas, and tequila sales skyrocketed, but frozen drink sales were crazy. People were stocking them up in their freezers. And I don’t blame them!
On how service has changed
It is much harder to have an in-depth conversation with guests about anything. Guests just want to get through the order, servers don’t feel comfortable standing too close to a table or staying for a lengthy period of time. It is hard to understand through a mask, and since guests already have their masks off, they just order the wine. It’s more difficult to tell the story of the wine; it’s much more difficult to sell bottles that guests don’t recognize. We work with the servers to recommend quickly and smile using their eyes, make the ordering process friendlier.
Caitlin Griffith knew her future career would entail food and drink when, at the age of six, she munched an anchovy from her father’s Caesar salad thinking it as a small strip of bacon—and was more than pleasantly surprised. While enrolled in New York University’s Food Studies program, she learned the secrets of affinage in the caves of Murray’s Cheese.
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