Todd Chatterton and Paula de Pano met working at Eleven Madison Park in Manhattan during a New York intermission from Fearrington House for de Pano. When she returned to North Carolina, she brought Chatterton with her as her assistant, later to be promoted to Beverage & Service Director for the organization’s three restaurants, wine shop, and events business when she left to start her own wine store nearby. As he pruned the wine list and watched cocktails boom, Chatterton reported that an uncertain year full of change proved to be the organization’s busiest year to date.
At what point in the year  did you become the wine director?
Somewhere in the summer is when I first officially took the title and role. Obviously, I was very much assisting Paula as she was transitioning out, and she did a fantastic job passing the torch to me and getting me prepared. I was very fortunate with that, because last year we saw one of our busiest years if not the busiest year to date. [I mean] sales at Fearrington in general but also just the [main] restaurant, which was absolutely unreal. From all the catch-up on the weddings we were doing over the summer and fall to people just wanting to get out…I remember just about this time last year as some of the restrictions were easing, and the guidances were starting to lessen a little bit, and people were anxious to come out and spend and enjoy good food and drink. It was a whirlwind of a year to be sure.
On taking on an events business as well as beverage direction right when volume was spiking
We kind of knew that was going to happen but we weren’t expecting it to happen all at once. We were still coming out of the throes of COVID and were very short on events staff and events staff managers. So, the most difficult part of the job was not only getting used to a new role but trying to manage a pretty lean department and also getting through the busiest time in the restaurant as well. And looking back at it, I’m glad it’s behind us, but I kind of like that for myself—just being thrown into the middle of it. If I can deal with this early on, I feel like I’ll just be better off and better armed for the future.
Aside from the wine pairings that were a driver of sales for you, are people asking you, “Hey, surprise me,” or are they mostly ordering off the list making their own choices?
“Surprise me” is unusual, but we do get a lot of people coming in willing to put their trust in us, knowing we have a good wine list, and a very deep wine list at that, who will ask for help, and we try to get the sommelier over to the table to have a conversation. And we are a little bit more informal with our conversation with respect to how service is at EMP. [I look at it as] not being there to make a sale but being there to guide the guest to make their experience better, using that time that the sommelier is at the table to add to the experience and not detract is what we like to focus on. In doing so, you build a lot of trust with the guest. Once you can tear down that barrier of “I’m here to take your money” and actually have a meaningful conversation about what the guest wants, I think it’s just better for everyone. We have the ability with our list to do that at every price list and that’s what we love. We’re able to steer the conversation in a more meaningful direction.
To be a good somm, you have to be a good server at heart; [I’m] coming at it from a hospitality standpoint. I think with everything in life, if you can come at it from a hospitality standpoint, you’re going to be better off.
What was the most surprising thing that you observed this year?
The one thing I found absolutely fascinating and loved was the popularity of cocktails and spirits coming to the forefront in a bigger way than I would have expected. Especially early on in the year. Every month or close to, we surpassed our liquor sales over the ten years that we’ve kept those records. That was absolutely fascinating. Not just our total spend, but our per-guest is increasing in that market. I think it speaks to that whole idea that the Roaring Twenties are back. I don’t know if it was people making drinks at home during quarantine and now they’re more adventurous, but I’m definitely now seeing a much larger proportion of people starting their meal with a cocktail and then moving into wine than I have ever seen in my years of hospitality before. And I think it’s a real boon for the industry but also a way to open the door and elevate the experience. And we’re fortunate here at Fearrington to have a fantastic cocktail program. Even being in a liquor control state, we find clever ways of using ingredients and techniques to elevate our cocktails and make it a really special experience, whether they start out with a drink at the table or at our bar or at the fireplace beforehand, I love seeing that trend, and we’re trying to build on that as best we can.
Bring to light how the pandemic has affected hospitality and guest attitudes toward fellow human beings—that is been tested at the time. This is an important topic that needs to be addressed and that people need to be aware of. In regard to masks, being near Chapel Hill, we do get a lot of very medically conscious and trained and educated folks who come in and understand the pandemic from that point of view, but we’re also very close to some very rural parts and get the opposite side of that. It’s incredibly purple here. Staying positive has been the best key to defusing situations. Having upfront information has always helped us with everything that we do. When we confirm reservations, we reiterate all our policies and suggestions. We currently recommend everyone wearing masks but we’re not requiring it of guests. We follow all the guidelines from the state. Keeping the interactions as open and honest and apolitical as possible has been the key to our success, and understanding that everyone is different and being in a hospitality setting—it’s hard to balance that sometimes when someone is on the defensive, but we just work that much harder to make their experience as good as it can be.
Has the pandemic changed the role that you took on?
Absolutely. My role is built off of a few different people’s roles, and the pandemic has really kind of forced that hand. With the pandemic having put strains on our event staff, I’m in charge of managing all the weddings and special events on site in addition to the restaurants and all the food and beverage outlets. So, I’ve added the special events to wine director role. I’ve seen that that has increased the amount of teamwork and camaraderie and unity around the Village. I’m seeing a lot of better interactions with staff and a lot of departments. We share a lot of equipment and things like that, so it’s been great to be able to bring more cohesion to that.
If there’s one thing this year has taught me, it’s that you really do have to see the positive of it, and I’m fortunate to still be young. There were times during the summer that I was lugging chairs on my back setting up for a wedding and it’s already 90 degrees at ten in the morning, and I’m sweating through my suit twice a day and then having to do service. But that’s why I got into restaurants. In the moment, of course you don’t like it, but looking back at it, it’s why I’m in restaurants. I’m a bit of a masochist. I love the feeling of knowing that what I do matters and seeing the bride super happy on her special day, saying happy birthday to the people in the restaurant and knowing that I’ve put every ounce of effort into making that happen that is very rewarding and fulfilling. I’m glad that we’re moving on from that, and not too much more of that, but needs must, and it’s what you do.
We’re approaching 2022 with hope and working towards that. Not so much focusing externally on the work but focusing on us and what we can do for our guests. We’re going to be launching an improved bar menu and new cocktails, to keep it fresh and keep it fun. We’re going to be putting creativity in the hands of the staff. That’s what I’ve been trying to focus on and give back to them because I think it was robbed from them the last two years. But now that we’re back at it again, giving back a little more freedom to them. It’s already paying dividends.
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