If you’ve ever wondered what wine to pour with poke, ask Noreetuh’s Jin Ahn. He’s put together a list that focuses on German riesling, while ranging from collectibles in Burgundy to a vertical of Chateau Musar from Lebanon. Ahn and fellow Per Se alum Gerald San Jose have created a sense of casual elegance in their small corner of NYC’s East Village, while chef Chung Chow offers creative takes on dishes from his native Hawaii. The coterie of Noreetuh’s loyal fans and the destination wine list have helped sustain the restaurant through the pandemic. —Joshua Greene
You report that your wine sales as a percent of your restaurant’s total sales were markedly up, while food prices and wine prices were markedly down.
That’s all relatively speaking. Our restaurant is so small, so one major change can impact us. In normal times, when there are so many options in NYC for diners, we are sometimes profitable, sometimes close, sometimes break even. For the past five years, we’ve run more or less in the black and 2020 was looking to be a much better year—we were excited about that.
Fast-forward to post-shutdown era: At first, the locals coming out were young people focusing in on whatever’s inexpensive. Also, our regulars were coming in, inclined to help out. I ran 25 percent off on all bottles of wine after we came off shutdown, as a thank you for coming back.
We had formed a very tight community. I would see the same people once or twice a week. They were coming in because we were one of the restaurants they wanted to support. They would say, early on, “I’m running out of restaurants; they’re closing on me.”
Our cover count hasn’t changed, but the type of people coming in has changed. The diehard wine fans will come once or twice a week, especially on Sundays. Our wine sales in December 2020, with COVID, were almost as much as our wine sales in December 2019. People drank a lot.
I’ve been replenishing our inventory. If we are known for our wine program, I didn’t want to get it down to a skeletal level. So, I just kept buying.
On Beating Retail on the Big Ticket
It’s still hard to match retail, but on hard-to-find wines, we are sometimes cheaper than retail. Like the 2007 Château Rayas: I sold it for $595 and it retails for $1,200. When people find something like that, it’s an easy choice for them.
My list is not all Château Rayas 2007, but I’m trying to make the list interesting. It’s so much more fun when you can take more risk and can be rewarded, two-, three- or four-fold. When you’re offering a unique experience like that, comparable to or lower than retail.
How does wine fit into your take-out program?
It’s the same wine, still discounted at 25 percent off. A lot of these are hard to replace wines. I worked so hard to bring some of these wines in, to put them out at retail is just not fair. Instead of 300 bottles of wine, I limit it to 50 bottles. Most people ordering online have wines at home. A lot of our regular guests do want to support us and buy food and wine to go.
A lot of people live in NYC because of the restaurants. People want to gather, to share good food and wine. As ugly as the pandemic has been, I’ve seen more beauty. People who do care, expressing their care and love for one another, for the restaurant, an employer showing appreciation for employees.
We all realize we are all fragile and interconnected. We always felt that way but didn’t take the time to express it, and now people are expressing it a lot more. We’ll get through: Human beings are resilient. We’ll outlive the cockroaches, for sure!
I’m always optimistic; I was optimistic six months ago. The US is still the wealthiest country in the world. As long as we do our work on the creative side and come up with different ways to make a living, as long as we can float through the bad times, there will always be a cycle and, hopefully, your life is filled with more good than bad. I’m always optimistic. I just hope people show less ugliness during the bad times. Things take time; it will get there.
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