At the end of January, Erik Tennyson, formerly an assistant editor for this magazine, became the wine buyer for San Francisco’s Liholiho Yacht Club just as COVID was ramping up to warp speed. Tennyson, who had managed the bars at Liholiho, took to the pandemic landscape from both wine and cocktail fronts.
You had just a few months as wine buyer before shutdown, right?
Less than two months. The pandemic was going crazy in San Francisco already then, but nobody knew until March. Our last day of service was the thirteenth of March. Then, in June, we reopened for a pared-down lunch service, but we’re downtown, so we can’t exactly do sidewalk service. So, everything has been takeout, including wine and cocktails. I handled all the beverages: not just wine and cocktails but tea, coffee, non-alcoholic drinks. That’s been interesting; in fact, I was the only front-of-the-house person brought back.
So, how did you handle wine sales?
I put together a wine selection on our takeout menu. We debated whether to put [ all the wine ] on one big list and just let people go through it, but, in the end, we thought we’d go with smaller, pared-down list. I started pushing through what I had in stock, changing the markup [ from 2.5-3.0 times to 1.3 ], and making pairings. I’ve basically bought two wines since the lockdown, the Bedrock rosé Lulu and a Cava, because I needed it for a cocktail kit.
Oh, so your cocktail kits would employ a bottle of wine? Great idea!
Yes, it works with takeout well, and takeout changed what people bought. They went for more sparkling than anything else, which works with our food; it can handle spice pretty well, and a little RS helps with the funky flavor palate of our menu. But then I used it to make kits. I sold 60 bottles of a Tasmanian sparkling wine (Jansz rosé) because we had a Bellini kit: a bottle of sparkling rosé and a squeeze bottle of peach juice.
Without tableside, how did you sell what you had?
Well, most menu items had a pairing; just three recommendations for whatever you selected; I didn’t want to overload them. But if you gave them a wine and a short paragraph on each one, people were very stoked; it made them feel like they were ordering at the restaurant.
And then you just put things together with what you have, Top Chef style. You work within the constraint. For example, before we had to close, I’d bought a case of Laphroaig Cask Strength Scotch, so I put together a kit to make a Penicillin, a classic Milk & Honey drink, to use it. And hey, a dose of penicillin to cure all your ills—it was so apt for the times!
How did you sell the drinks?
They came in 16-ounce bottles at first, which was about 4 drinks, but I went down to 8-ounces for $12; it was a pretty good deal. And sometimes the pre-made recipes were as good as fresh-made. For instance, for the Penicillin, Sasha Petraske made two syrups, one with ginger and the other with honey; I found that when you put them together, you get more weight, and the drink is more sturdy and easy to transport.
What was the wildest, most emotional day for you?
Well, there was this one day in September: we were open for day service, and on that day the sun just didn’t come out. For all that was going on in the city—civil unrest, cops killing civilians—we’re all trying to roll with the punches, and now most of California was on fire, and then the sun doesn’t even bother to come out. It was just like a metaphor for that entire year. So yeah, everyone got drinks. Liquor sales were pretty good that day.
How have your buying habits changed?
Well, I don’t have a lot of on-hand cash to buy much of anything, so when I bought something, I bought from the little guys who needed the business. The mezcal for my Penicillin came from [small artisan distributor] Sacred Thirst; they have a great one called Animas. And my sakes too, I’m buying local, from places like Den, in Oakland, and Sequoia Sake—they have a little place in San Francisco. My beer purchases are local, too; when you know the people who make it, it’s that much better.
Patrick J. Comiskey covers US wines for Wine & Spirits magazine, focusing on the Pacific Northwest, California’s Central Coast and New York’s Finger Lakes.
This is a W&S web exclusive. Get access to all of our feature stories by signing up today.