When Seth Corr started as Beverage Director of Greens, a vegetarian restaurant owned by the San Francisco Zen Center, he made quite the transition from the whole-animal fare he worked with at Oliveto and Mister Jui’s. Here, he talks about what it’s like to pair wine with vegetables, how he restructured the cocktail list, and the celebratory aspect restaurants now play to the public.
You joined Greens in September of 2021. How has your experience been stepping into this new role?
It’s fantastic. I took over toward the end of the pandemic (or however you can define the end of pandemic). The restaurant had been doing a lot of take-out and doing incredible business, but the beverage program had been kind of dormant throughout COVID. They tried multiple times to get wine or bottled cocktails going but I don’t think the brand of Greens was suited for it. We did crazy business for Thanksgiving take-out, but wine sales were only 2 percent of sales. So, the beverage program wasn’t a top priority until indoor dining started up again and it got insanely busy. Something about Greens that I didn’t know before I started was the volume they can do, like 400-person brunches. I had been familiar with Greens but thought it was more of an older, sleepy vegetarian restaurant in Fort Mason. And it’s kind of the opposite of that. It’s a vibrant, open-air space, with easy parking, and it appeals to people’s desire to eat healthier.
How has it been pairing wines with a solely vegetarian menu?
I come from a background of very meat centric restaurants for most of my career. But honestly, I have loved coming to a vegetarian restaurant. It’s incredibly fun to pair [wine] with [vegetables]. You realize early on that the first question you must solve with a pairing is how to deal with the protein—whether it’s pork and has a lot of fat and need tannins to cut through it, or if it’s a braise and has a lot of sweeter elements and you need the acid to break through that. Once you get away from orienting your entire pairing concept around the protein, suddenly, this whole world opens up where you can really drill down on what the flavor components are on all these bright, beautiful vegetables. There were certain things that I would bring in that wouldn’t work, like old vine, un-grafted monastrell which was super unruly and tannic. The wines must have a certain kind of elegance in order to interact with the vegetables and not overwhelm them, but once you focus on bright, fresh flavors the pairings kind of take care of themselves.
You mentioned that one of your top selling wines this past year was Arnot-Roberts Lake County Rosé. Has rosé been a trend?
We sell rosé because we do a big lunch business and a huge brunch business. If I run rosé for a while, it’s going to be the top seller. It tends to hit in every phase of the restaurant, whereas the higher-end pinots don’t necessarily sell at brunch. Still, I was honestly surprised to see that Arnot-Roberts was the top seller when I did the report. It’s a seventeen-dollar glass, which is another thing I’ve noticed of interest as far as a trend is concerned: a willingness to spend more money on a glass of wine. I can put stuff on at twenty-one or twenty-two dollars, whereas previously I would be concerned that people would either complain about it or it wouldn’t sell, and that has not been the case at all. Previously, I wanted to sell a lot of the ten-dollar glasses because I tend to mark the higher-end glass pours up less and the lower-end stuff up more, expecting to sell more of the stuff at ten and eleven-dollars. When you start selling a lot more of the stuff at seventeen and twenty-one dollars, you’re trading margin for cash but it’s a change in how I would margin-blend before COVID and how I margin-blend now.
Another trend of 2021 seems to be a spike in the number of cocktails sold versus wine. Have you noticed that at Greens as well?
Absolutely. It’s increased dramatically since I’ve started. The cocktail program was almost non-existent in the past. It hasn’t been a priority for Greens. I think that comes from the Zen background; it was an argument to have spirits at all in the restaurant. They resisted for many years, and we’ve only had spirits for about six years now. My background is very spirits-and-cocktail-focused, both because I really like them but also from a financial perspective. The more you can push your mix toward cocktails, the better off your bottom line is, just because the margins are much better. It was a goal of mine to raise the level of the cocktail program and we’ve seen it steadily increase. The program is really moving towards conscientious curation of grower-distillers on the list. I don’t know anyone who has as many cocktails made with grower-producer, family-run spirit products using seasonal produce.
Anything else you’ve noticed about the atmosphere of the restaurant as restrictions are lifted?
Everything seems more celebratory. We have an incredible view of the Golden Gate Bridge and the sun sets right behind us. It feels like there’s a lot more pent-up energy since people didn’t get to really have their birthday celebrations last year so, this year they’re going to spend twice as much on a bottle. I’ve even noticed that in my own going out. I was struck by how excited I was to splurge on a bottle, which is not something I typically do. But I was like, “Let’s buy something stupid. Let’s buy a three-hundred-dollar bottle just because.” I think that’s because we haven’t been able to in so long. I’m seeing a lot of that in my guests, too. We sold a ton of Champagne last year. There’s been so much bad news in the world constantly and restaurants, more than ever, are a place where you can buy a great bottle of wine and forget about all of it.
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