As the beverage director for three locations of Joe’s—in Las Vegas and DC, and at his home base in Chicago—Kevin Bratt has been working full-time through the pandemic. He’s been keeping his team of four onboard via Zoom chats, though he reports that several have been furloughed. “My role has morphed,” he says. “I still go under the same title of beverage director, but my daily duties are more focused on carryout and delivery. We’re not waiting on any guests.” After an initial state shutdown, he says, Chicago restaurants reopened at the end of July. “Then the governor shut the state down in October—there’s no dine-in allowed, unless it’s in a temporary structure—which is confusing, because it’s the same space, only outside.” He believes that plastic structures with portable heaters are less safe than dining in. “We don’t have a patio or tented area.
“Carry-out has always been a strong point; all we did was ramp out the amount of to go containers. Our numbers aren’t equal to dine-in, but it wasn’t a catastrophic fall off the cliff. For wine, there wasn’t a model to follow. I had been flirting with the idea of creating a separate retail component; in Miami, there’s a Joe’s To Go. I had a business plan in place but things have interfered with our doing that.”
When the pandemic struck, Joe’s Chicago was only doing food take out. “Guests would make another stop at a retailer—so, we shifted to make it a one-stop shop. We started by offering 50 percent off what we would normally charge on our dine-in menu. It took a lot of promoting on social media. The prices that are similar to or less than [those of] retail friends in our area.
“And we created a cocktail to go. The mayor made it legal to sell pre-batched drinks but we don’t batch them; we make everything to order. We have 12-ounce to-go cocktails that are fairly priced in addition to the half-priced bottles of wine.
“It’s a model that we will continue after COVID. Our focus on beverage was so geared toward dine-in business, but there’s a large audience that will be headed to a beach or to a show. It’s been an exciting thing to work on.
“I keep mulling over things that would be fun to focus on but keep getting slapped back to reality by COVID, just to survive. This isn’t a time to be creative; this is a time to give people what they want. [Bratt’s most successful new wine offering was the Saget Sancerre at $48 a bottle.] I received a really great price on the Saget and I was able to relay that on to the guest. It’s not turning a great profit on our end; it’s offering a delicious wine that pairs well with Stone Crab at a price that’s fifty percent off what you normally see on a list.
“I’m fortunate that I work for such a big company. Here in Chicago, the restaurant industry is suffering, the little guys are having trouble rebounding from these shutdowns.
“The revelation this year was how much of my world shifted to virtual conversation. With all of my teams, I’ve always had weekly calls to discuss financials. When everything got shut down and every one was forced to stay home, there was a boom in Zoom conversations.
“The wine industry shifted to help out the people who were furloughed or terminated. I created a Zoom account and started doing weekly tastings. We were able to coordinate with winemakers to join—it’s so cool to be together…but not. After trying to put wine tastings for my team pre-COVID then seeing how easy it was to do virtually—that was probably the craziest thing.
“I’m hosting our first virtual dinner with customers on Friday, with Jordan Winery. Jordan has enough name recognition that it wouldn’t be too hard a sell. The events we do in person we have to cap at a certain number of guests. But if there’s a way to do these in person events and also to host people virtually—have the dinner delivered—that could be cool down the road. We have yet to do that or figure out how that would work but I know that’s something I will be focusing on. If you were to say to me before COVID that I should shift to virtual wine dinners, I would have said that’s a joke.
“I know people are eager to get out and dine in restaurants and be social in person again. Even after we do get back to what will be perceived as normal times, I think virtual training and virtual dinners are here to stay.”
Follow Kevin Bratt on Instagram at @invitisveritas.
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