From mid-March until at least the beginning of June, all of our sales were in wine. It’s so much energy to sell one bottle of wine, I’d rather sell six bottles at once. So, we started doing curated packs. Then we started doing bird boxes—a whole meal in a box. And we were able to do limited indoor dining from late June until that got shut down mid-November.
At first, the idea was, let’s pull down inventory. Then, when we started doing more of the packs, we had to have 24 or 38 bottles of something to make it work. If our goal is to survive this thing, we thought, let’s not completely ravage our back storage. We would use our cellar for smaller, higher-end offerings, like La Grande Diner, when we included a Champagne from Chartogne-Taillet, a white López de Heredia, a Paul Pernot Puligny, a Clos de la Roche and an old Marsala. We did six of those sets, priced at $650. That same week, we sold 48 six-packs that were $125. We call them our sipper packs—that’s a series we’ve had that’s grown. We have these repeat customers, we’re providing their house wine now. We’ve been able to utilize our cellar and to keep buying from our distributors.
In December, we turned Canard [Le Pigeon’s sister restaurant] into a more traditional bottle shop—the whole front area has bottles presented on the counters along with gifts from local crafts people.
A wine shop is focused on wine for the people; a good restaurant wine list is wine for the people for the menu. Unless we are ready to say, we never get to open as a restaurant again, we are going to keep offering the same wines we would when we open the doors. If you come in and say, “I just stopped in, do you have Cakebread Chardonnay?” I’d do the same song and dance I’d do at the table: “We don’t have that, but let me tell you about this one.”
What is going to allow any particular restaurant to survive this is what sort of financial position they were in going into it; what relationship they have with their landlord; what sort of customer loyalty they had built up going into it. Some of that is luck. We were in relatively good shape going into it financially, and we’d been around for a long time. The real question is, how long does it go on? For a while, we knew there had to be an end to the tunnel but we couldn’t see it. Now we can see it. We can’t touch it; it’s still pretty far off but, theoretically, it’s out there.
For my own mental health, I try not to look more than one or two months ahead, because it’s an exercise in frustration. I spent so many days and weeks with my gut tied up, worried about this and that, coming up with so many different scenarios related to wine and related to our staff. It’s not really healthy.
When Portland reopens, if we continue with retail, it will be because we’ve spun it off. I look forward to being a full-on restaurant again—not putting food in boxes, putting wine in glasses.
Twelve months from now, it’s likely that everyone who wants a vaccine will have one. We’ll be closer to normalcy. Both of our restaurants are little cozy rooms where people sit close. Maybe we will have to have fewer seats, not because the city is telling us to, but that’s what our guests demand.
We didn’t do anything for a month, then we started doing a Sunday market. We really had done it for the farmers, passing things along at a minimal markup. Then we started adding things to it, and I quickly began adding wine. We set up in the back of a parking lot that we share by the post office—so on Sundays, we can use the lot.
After about three months, we started doing prepared meals on Wednesday through Saturday for takeout, lunch and dinner—dinner being the downstairs set menu—all packaged up in compostable boxes. There is wine offered by the bottle and I do a wine pairing with those meals.
I’ve been tapping into the reserve cellar, 2010s from Pierre Gonon (St-Joseph) or Vincent Paris (Cornas). The 2012 Briords Muscadet by Marc Ollivier (Domaine de la Pépière). I would put away wines that weren’t grand. With Gonon, Les Ils Feray (a Vin de Pays de l’Ardèche). I can pull them out now and they don’t need to command prices over $50 or $100. My pricing is retail or a margin below retail. I’ve always wanted to make wine less expensive for people.
Initially, and for quite a long time, we were selling cases of the Green & Red House Zinfandel. People knew the wine from the dining room and many thought, “Great, I’ve never been able to buy this and take it home.”
Now, when I put new things on, those will have a little burst of selling. We have regulars coming to all our markets; they want to taste new things and try new wines. The calibration may have shifted back to our selling more French red, and Italian. But the fact that Green & Red was the top wine in 2020 was indicative of people wanting to support us. They like that wine. By having our name on it, it had a certain amount of comfort and assurance for people.
At the restaurant, I didn’t have wines below a certain price point; at a market, I would. I haven’t gone below $10, but I could. I did sell the Guilhem Rosé from Moulin de Gassac at $10 a bottle, but I sold more Graci Rosé (from Etna, at $21).
We had some holiday sales and I did a mixed case of 12 vintages of zinfandel, another of reserve Champagnes. We sold as much wine on New Year’s Eve day as we would have if the restaurant had been open—a lot of people buying Champagne and buying cases—people celebrating. Lovely that they chose to buy it from us.
Wine is important for us economically, but it’s less important now because we’re selling it for less. In the dining room, I was there to connect with the people; I could follow through with that experience. I’m working the counter at the shop one or two days a week, but the experience is different; people are taking the wine home. You’re not there to take them through it.
Did you read Michael Pollan’s book about psilocybin being used to treat depression? People would do the drug in a controlled environment and that augmented the experience. With that person in the room with you, one moves forward with a comforting hand—it’s not just a mild augmentation. That’s what I was able to do at Chez Panisse, even if it wasn’t always my words or hands. You were still in a place, with people all around you, with the lights and the feeling. It wasn’t just trappings. Now, I sell wines by words written on paper; it’s different than being with the people, being in that moment. The spark was as much of what I was interested in as the content, the spark that started the fire, not necessarily the wood itself. I’m not sure that will return. The future is a little hazy now.
What am I going to do—tell those guys they’re SOL? No, I explained what we’re going through and that everyone’s going to take a haircut and we’ll cover health insurance and we’ll cover groceries for everyone every week and, if you get in trouble, you let me know.
Across the whole group, our team, at full force, is 350. It’s 270 now. Everyone has taken a hit and I used to think I’d have a retirement. It’s likely that something won’t survive, that one of my spots will have to close.
Cinghiale is a big restaurant and it’s downtown near all the bigger and better hotels, surrounded by all the financial businesses and hotels where no one is in the rooms and all the high-end condos where everyone is at their summer homes in Florida.
Historically, thirty to forty percent of our business is in the private dining room. Now it’s zero. And most of our loyal clientele was medical, which is now zero, for obvious reasons. Right now, we’re at 40 percent staffing. We’re supplementing the front-of-house staff out of pocket. There’s no other way to do it. I’m hoping things will turn around and that whatever financial disaster comes out of this for me personally, it will be survivable.
Right now, we’re just buying wine when we have to. Mostly, we’ve been sitting on our inventory; it’s skinnier than it is normally, but I’m not going to cut the heart of it. Maybe an ear or two, some fingers, one leg. Those things I can build back, but the heart can’t grow back.
We do sell a bit of wine for takeout—people want comfy, satisfying, not too difficult to understand. They don’t want to make their own pasta, and they don’t want to deal with decanting wine. Easy is good. You give someone Fontodi or Montesecondo Chianti, and they’re going to be fine. For onsite dining, we sold a lot of barbera this past summer…this person has pasta, this person has fish, I’m going to bring you 55-degree barbera from the cellar and everyone is going to be happy.
The overwhelming memory I have of guests this year is really positive, but then we had a guy come in… I’m six feet tall and I’ve had heart surgery three times, so I’m probably at risk. He’s six-seven or six-eight; he and his wife had to have been drinking at a couple places beforehand. They both had high temperatures and we turned them away, and the dude pulls his mask off and starts screaming at everyone that he’s a doctor and he’s definitely not a risk, and not any of the places they’d been before in the evening had taken their temperatures. I told him we’re not going to serve them. Now, you can hit me if you want, I’ll fall down, I don’t care, but mostly I just don’t want you to breathe on me. “Call the police!” he said. “Good idea,” I said. Finally, the wife got him out the door. I could see from my staff, managers and service staff and every diner in the place how freaked out they were by this guy’s behavior.
Most guests have been really grateful for us being there. The spirit that drives their visitation: “Wait a minute, this is a real part of my life. I’ve marked a lot of special times in this place.” These people always make me feel good.
Hawaii did a huge lockdown early on, so people have felt more comfortable eating out here than in other places. We were able to open in June for dine-in, with 50 percent capacity and six feet of separation. Our restaurant is small and we pack it in, sort of like Prune did in New York; when they let us do outdoor seating, we gained back half of the seats we had lost. We were closed in August for four weeks when things were totally shut down, but we have been open since September continuously.
Some restaurants have pivoted—I hate that word now!—to doing just delivery and takeout. But that idea just depressed the hell out of us, because the hospitality aspect is so much a part of what we do. So, we made takeout and delivery work for the short term. I really hate the predatory nature of the third-party food delivery services. They ghost our website all the time and put up outdated menus. We actually use our front-of-house staff to deliver. And it becomes part of the tip pool. So, doing takeout and delivery is almost like having a section of the restaurant.
We have a lot of friends who have really rallied behind us. They’ll order food for the night, but they’ll also order bottles of wine for the week. And we haven’t discounted our wine-to-go—we’re a restaurant. We’re trying to be mindful of our costs, but we need to make it feel right—like we’re a restaurant in this moment. So, people are ordering things like Radio-Coteau and [R. López de Heredia] Tondonia. They’re not ordering based on price; they’re ordering because we have things that they can’t get at their wine store.
The one thing we’ve figured out, and this is especially true of my wife: We’ve figured out which wines are great with which anxiety attack you’re having that day…
And we’ve figured out how long Clos Cibonne lasts on draft . We get the KeyKegs, the Euro plastic kegs, 660 ounces, so 130-something glasses. It’s food-grade nitrogen pushing it. We go through about a keg a week of the Clos Cibonne. We took our beers off draft and put wine on: the Clos Cibonne, plus a Chéreau Carré Muscadet and a Rémi Dufaitre Beaujolais—three of the twelve to thirteen wines we have by the glass, if you include our skin-contacts and sparklings.
The times you want rosé in New York or San Francisco are Hawaii weather all the time. Rosé was a little bit of a thing when Robin and I moved here, but not as much a thing as it was in New York. We just pushed it. There’s a Tuscan producer, Piaggia, who only makes rosé when she has too much fruit, which is almost never. We were able to have that one year, and it was amazing. Not too long ago, we got cases of the Château Simone and the López de Heredia 2010. My wife and I, we have mostly similar wine tastes, and López de Heredia is one of our all-time favorite producers. They’re so old school and classic that they’re hip and new. They’re basically the person making the mittens for Bernie, is what they are.
I know a lot of my peers have been saying this as well: If you’re making it through this with your business, you’ve probably learned a few new tricks—and things about yourself—that will make you better in the long run. It’s just painful right now. But I’m confident that we’ll come out of this a much better restaurant that we were before.
Spoon and Stable
We all got together and brainstormed like crazy, and came up with plan to launch a takeout business. After taking a few weeks to get organized, we offered an abbreviated menu and wine list with the goal of depleting the product on hand. We even offered guests the option of talking directly to me and having me select a bottle from our collection. We didn’t get a lot of hits on that, but the ones we did were so fun. I’m an Italian wine junkie, and I was talking to this fellow who loved Barolo and Chianti Classico Riservas. We playfully landed on a Sagrantino di Montefalco, which he’d never had before. It kind of blew his mind and he called to thank me. Now he’s a big fan.
We opened for indoor dining at 25 percent capacity in the summer, but people were still reluctant to dine indoors. When we opened for outdoor dining for the first time, we tidied up the front sidewalk and adjacent parking and used patio tables from Bellecour [their second restaurant in the western suburb of Wayzata that had closed due to the pandemic]. I started buying some wine again but was still passing on a lot of allocations I normally would have taken, because, who knows what’s going to happen?
Our team created themes for the takeout menu, like an Italian pasta theme. I paired that with a fiano [Guido Marsella’s Fiano di Avellino, #6 on his top-ten list]. I’d been pouring it by the glass during the summer and the servers fell in love with it. My strategy used to be to have an obscure wine for our least expensive wine by the glass, like a $9 Côtes de Gascogne, but then it wasn’t moving. I sat down and talked with my servers, and they told me that guest perception changes when a wine is more expensive. They wanted something awesome at the high end that people wouldn’t know. They were sure they could sell it, and they’re much more apt to show a guest a new wine when it puts more money in their pockets.
When we closed again for in-person dining, we were barely squeaking by on the takeout program. But the management team came up with GK at Home [a livestream cooking class with Chef Kaysen]. We started it mid to late summer and it was just okay at first. Then we figured out a system, got it dialed in by autumn, and now we’re seeing some great results. We had learned at Bellecour that people love buying holiday packages, like all the ingredients to make Thanksgiving at home, so we had the model. And we learned that, sometimes, a label can actually sell a bottle of wine. I listed the Clos Cibonne Rosé [#2 on the restaurant’s top ten list] as an option for the pork-loin class. On pickup day, the weather was nice enough that the staff opened the garage door and set up some bottles. When people picked up their bags, they saw the wine with this beautiful label, and a bunch of people decided to buy it. We ripped through about 13 cases.
This year has been so difficult, but also an intense learning and adapting experience. The GK at Home program is now what’s carrying the restaurant. People really needed something special to do. And who doesn’t have time right now to learn how to cook something? Now we’re talking about what the demand will be after the pandemic, and what we can do to keep it fun and interesting. It’s all been such a blur. At first, we were asking, can we survive? Then it was, okay we’re surviving, but can we thrive?
We’re reopening for indoor dining on February 11, at 50 percent capacity, but we won’t be doing the usual coursed menu for Valentine’s Day. We’re opening, but carefully.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when they shut down indoor dining. Now, even in the cold, on weekends, we are full all day, every day. Now I have a whole wardrobe for serving outside.
I’ve been stunned to see how many people are willing to come out. There were several people in one-piece snow suits, like you would see on a mountain, skiing—maybe a little more stylish, as this is New York. I’ve asked them, “Did you buy that this year?” And all of them said yes, because they want to go out to eat. Even though it is twenty degrees out.
Is there a limit? Should we think about the safety of people when it gets this cold? Our answer has been to do what we can do until we can’t. Never in my wildest imagination would I have thought we would do this much outdoor business in January.
We’re doing about as well as a restaurant could be doing. We’ve been open, with the exception of a six-week period starting in mid-March, when everything shut down. We started retail wine sales then.
When we reopened, we were working with World Central Kitchen, José Andres’s group, making 250 meals a day for them; we got a stipend for each meal. Now we’ve been doing pasta kits and selling them to Baldor [the restaurant supply company]; they’ve been selling direct to consumer. We’re also doing prepared soups. And last Monday, we launched our Laptop Dinners—like a fancy TV dinner. They are not as expensive as takeout—about $16 or $18 per meal. People put in orders for ten at a time. There’s a big market for high-quality food that you don’t have to prepare.
It was a very cocktail-heavy summer. People didn’t have a taste for expensive wine or anything esoteric. The wines people were buying were chilled, fun reds. I had a reserve list for anyone who asked for it, but very few people asked. Now it’s all about hot cocktails. Last year, wine was 75 percent of our alcoholic beverage sales; this year, it’s 50 percent. I’m ordering Tequila at the same rate I’m ordering nebbiolo.
Since we’ve reopened, every week something else has been taken away: now you don’t have any back waiters, or another manager—my co-manager saw us through the summer, then moved to South Carolina in September. There are days when I am the sole front-of-house employee on duty, bartending, bussing tables, serving the food, taking phone orders, polishing silverware. Those are less busy days, hopefully—otherwise, I get destroyed. It’s given me a lot more respect for the back waiters.
Our accountant—she’s very optimistic that, with this staff level and this level of business, we can ride this out indefinitely. I would hope for indoor dining to reopen sooner rather than later. You read these articles about the staff that doesn’t want to go to work but has to. That hasn’t been my observation. The people who came back really wanted to. They had COVID already; I had it, too. Over that last weekend in March, a lot of people got sick because we didn’t know to take the precautions. Now, I know my staff would rather be at work than on unemployment.