Autre Monde Café has been open for almost ten years in the Chicago suburb of Berwyn. John Aranza, co-owner and wine director, cites the trust factor in being able to serve his guests over the past year.
What service pivots did you make this year?
We did regular to-go in years past, we used Uber Eats, then switched over to Tock at the beginning of the pandemic. This platform made it easier to be more inclusive, and we had never looked at wine to go or drink kits prior to the pandemic, so that was useful. Basically, we just moved into survival mode. The wine to-go was well-received, especially considering that I thought people would look more at retail for the be-all/end-all of buying wine but, really, what we saw was that people wanted to give support back to restaurants, and relied on the restaurant to come up with more thoughtful pairings. We had no drink kits or to-go cocktails prior to, but the pressure was on, since we’ve had basically no indoor dining since October.
Little bit of both [promotions and just to get folks in the door] for our decreasing prices, we really didn’t know the market, everyone was put in the same position, looking at Michelin-rated restaurants, their survival is to do gourmet burgers. We are a neighborhood three-star restaurant, so what does this all look like for us? Guests are coming to us for what? Some folks want us to drop the food in cars, some want to pick it up off a table; we really had to think on the spot. Labor wasn’t a factor, because unfortunately we had to lay off staff. We came back and did the packages we did, executed everything tight and lean. We offered family packages for two to four people, including wine. We worked off what we had. We did a minimal amount of extra ordering, just had to keep tight reins on everything. We also own the building, lucky thing for us. The PPP money for many owners, once that disappeared it was tough, but the other piece for us is that we were just covering our mortgage.
What do you think drove the popularity of your best-selling wines?
Trust factor! [referring to the top two sellers in the by-the-glass category, Château Ducourt Bordeaux Sauvignon Blanc Blend and Belje Croatia Grasevina Welschriesling] We always wanted it to be very comfortable for guests and the Ducourt—it is fun and diverse, a good food wine. But it spans the horizon, as far as welschriesling goes—that is a favorite for people that come in, it is a little bit different, Croatian, in a liter bottle, so fun for larger tables. The team loved selling it for larger parties before the pandemic; it is clean, nothing unctuous, pretty friendly, complements the menu, doesn’t kill anyone as far the pocketbook goes (but who has that anymore?).
How has ordering changed in your restaurant?
People were so happy to be out that they just dove in! They wanted cocktails and wine—they wanted both! Folks were coming out and asking what to drink with a meal and really looking for recommendations. They were so happy to be out; patio season is tragic in the Midwest, and was really the only dining available, only outdoor dining with 50% of space open. People were very open, coming in ready to go, but cautious as well. Asking for recommendations more so than in years past. It really was a social dilemma, with people wanting to communicate but having trouble, there was a communication gap. People had a hard time talking, so instead they just said to the team, this is what we are ordering, or this sounds great, so please just pair for us.
Compare your most popular wines for 2019 and 2020.
In 2019 the Ramey Sonoma Coast syrah was the biggest success as a new bottle on the list – that syrah was popular but it was more with timing [of the rest poll]. Bowing out around March, that syrah was depleted, and we weren’t back on track to do dining until the summer so the popularity of the white Bordeaux is temporal and due to timing [patio season].
What does the future look like in your area?
I think [in the future] people going out to eat and coming out will be more curious, there has been a lot of time for cooking, a lot of time for research. In retail outlets, it will be interesting to see where the comfort level and curiosity level is. As far as retailers go and where does that trend go for retailers, I’ll be interested to see how it all plays out in a different market, and I’m sure it will be equally as engaging.
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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