Paula has been at helm of the Fearrington House Inn for four years, with another four in a prior stint as an assistant under the previous beverage director. The Inn is the focal point of a small planned community of about 2000 residents, mostly transplants from other parts of the country. There has also been a companion retail wine shop there for many years.
In a normal year, how much of your clientèle is from Fearrington Village?
Residents of the village are aware that there is a fine-dining spot in the neighborhood, and they come in one to two times per year, and more often at the bar for a glass of wine or a couple courses. We get a lot of folks traveling up and down the East Coast to vacation homes and retirement communities, etc. Especially those with pets, since we’re one of the few places on that corridor that allows pets. Not so many European travelers. We are part of Reliant Chateau Properties regional tour network. The [NC Research] Triangle community is normally most of the clientèle.
And how has this year been different?
This year, we definitely are seeing less business from travelers, but we have not let any staff go, and staff have all been kept on at full salary and full benefits. We are very lucky for our established status in the community—we even hired a sommelier in September. When I took over the position we had one somm for the restaurant and one for the retail shop. The shop is small and does more special orders than anything and handles retail for our classes. The new addition is a somm/swing server who came from Manhattan. We had to make sure he would have sufficient living wages, so that’s why we split his hours to keep the rate up.
We pivoted into meal boxes for weekly takeout while we were closed; since we reopened, Triangle residents are 90% of our business, a little bit of Georgia and DC but not as far as NY like before. The kitchen team does a great job of creating different menus each week, making sure it’s fresh and different, so we have regular clients for the meal boxes. We do about 60-70 boxes per week, and did over 300 on Thanksgiving, Christmas, etc. It’s been an additional revenue stream that has helped make up for lost in-person dining. We’re doing under half of normal cover count. We also saw a dip after the new year because people are tired of spending.
How does wine fit in your take-out program?
We have online ordering available, which includes beers and wines. Those who purchase wine already know that FH has an extensive list and may call for wines that are not on the site. The site has a subset of wines.
How are the wines you sell for outdoor dining (or for takeout, or at retail) different from the wines you historically sold in your dining room?
Retail is definitely very helpful. We’re very fortunate that retail is part of the village, because a lot of people are realizing you can save a lot of money by buying that way. Over here, my retail sommelier does wine clubs and wine subscriptions and beer six-packs and wine pairings for the weekly takeout boxes. Outdoor dining is pretty limited, just a few tables. We also have a beer garden. Whenever it gets full, we get overflow in the restaurant.
Compare your top-selling wine for 2020 with your top-selling wine for 2019.
Bailly-Reverdy Chavignol vs. Hardin Napa Cabernet. With Bailly-Reverdy, we had a somm who really loved Sancerre, so he was just selling Sancerre for all the white wine. I realized, even for Sancerre, this is selling really fast. For the Hardin…it used to be Pinot Noir all the time over here, but we have seen our clientèle get younger. They’re in their 30s and 40s rather than 50s and 60s, and that’s the generation that’s been taught by their parents about big bold cabernet, so when they go out they ask for cabernet by the glass or by the bottle. When they see the cab section, it can be intimidating because it’s a lot of collector wines, etc. But Hardin is $85 and more in line with what they’re comfortable spending.
Do you think that change in age demographic is driven by the pandemic?
I think it’s more apparent because we have a lot of elder residents in our community, and we’re an option for them if they want to go out. Those who are hiding are more folks in their 40s. The older generation knows us and trusts us. Some folks are specifically requesting a private room and asking for information like how far tables are spaced apart. People who come here feel like they’re being taken care of or can get the info.
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