Winemaker dinners have become a classic way of offering something a little different to restaurant customers. But how do operators get the most out of them? Zack Charilaou, wine director for M Restaurants explains, how he uses them to build customer loyalty.
Zack Charilaou of M Restaurants on how wine dinners can be a perfect way for customers and restaurants to get to know each other for mutual benefit.
Being invited to attend a winemaker dinner is hardly going to get the pulses racing of a hardened member of the wine trade. But for customers it is a rare, unique treat to spend some time with a distant winemaker.
It can be sometimes hard to understand quite how excited people can be to come face to face with a winemaker. But put on the right event, pick the right winemaker, and choose a menu that brings their wines alive and you have a perfect combination for someone’s night out.
Equally if they are thrown together at the last minute, and badly thought through, they can become more of a burden than a help, as restaurants desperately fish around last minute to get enough guests around the table to at least cover the price of the food.
But for Zack Charilaou, wine director at M Restaurants, which has two sites, one in Threadneedle Street in the City, and one close to Victoria Station, winemaker dinners are like a passport to his customers’ DNA, never mind their wallets.
“They are great for us and they are great for our guests. Simple as that. For our customers they are the chance to meet and hear first hand from a winemaker about the wines they have got to know is really something. And the fact we have made it happen for them is something you can’t under estimate,” he explains.
The best wine dinners for Charilaou are not aimed at wine geeks, but just straightforward diners who like their wine, but are looking for a different experience for a night out.
“If you have too many wine geeks around the table it can spoil it for everyone else as they want too much detail. It is much better to aim it at entry or mid level when it comes to knowledge about wine,” he adds.
“After all what people really want to hear are the winemaker’s stories, their history, how they became a winemaker, what it means to be a winemaker even. They want to go on a journey with them through the course of an evening. Get to hear it from the horse’s mouth as it were.”
Get it right and it can be a win, win for the customers, the restaurant and the winery or drinks supplier that is sponsoring or hosting the night.
The right customer
It is important you target the right kind of customer to attend, stresses Charilaou. M Restaurants diligently and deliberately takes notes about every customer that takes a real interest when ordering their wine for the table. “We assign a code to their name in our system,” he reveals.
“So if we are putting on a wine dinner we can then look through our records and identify those customers that may have ordered wine from that particular winemaker, or from that country,” he adds.
“So we don’t send out a generic email. We only send emails to those customers we know would be interested about the wine night we are putting on.”
He adds: “Equally when someone rings in to book a table we can just mention to them that there is a new vintage of the wine come in that they ordered last time they were in the restaurant. When they arrive we can make sure we have that bottle aside in case they want it.”
“The customers love it. They are intrigued to know how on earth we know that. It means a lot to them.”
It is also a good way to link in to the M Wine Shop that is at the Victoria site and also available online.
“Every week we will send out a personalised email to all our customers that have shown an interest in wine. It might say something like we hoped you enjoyed your bottle of Susana Balbo Malbec on your last visit, did you know you can buy a case from our shop and get a 10% discount at the same time.”
M also does the same to keep a record of the kind o steak that customers order and how they like it cooked so that they can suggest different cuts or remind them what they had when they come back to dine.
“Those little touches can go a very long way,” says Charilaou.
“We can identify those people on our database and see if they are interested in cocktails, or certain wines, particular dishes on the menu. It is all about personalising our offer to them,” he adds. “We have to make M personal to them and that hopefully helps do that.”
Value for money
It is also very cost effective night out for the customer, says Charilaou. “We are only charging them for their food and water. Not the wine. So they are getting the chance to share a winemaker’s wines with them, in great surroundings, all carefully matched against a specially created menu. If they did the same and drank the same wines without the winemaker being there they would be paying considerably more.”
So what’s in it for M Restaurants? For Charilaou winemakers deliver time and again one very important factor. “It brings the restaurant and the team behind it so much closer to what they hope will be their regular customers. It gives them some real added value and just a great experience that hopefully they will go away and tell all their friends about,” he explains.
It is also being very aware of the fact people are looking at multi-faceted venues like M as an alternative to a night at the theatre or going to the cinema.
It is no longer just enough to offer a straightforward three-course meal. Customers are looking for far more. They are looking for unique experiences. They want to share what they ve done on a night out on social media.
If you are not tapping in to that or providing them with possible exciting opportunities like a wine dinner, or a themed tasting, or a special masterclass of a spirit or style of wine, then they will go somewhere that does, claims Charilaou.
“People want to come out and learn. Discover something new. They don’t just want a meal out. They can get that anywhere.”
“Restaurants like M are becoming the main event of the night, not just somewhere you go to for a pre-theatre meal.”
For the winery or drinks distributor involved, then it is a great opportunity to get very close to your end consumer, and hear first hand, in a relaxed environment what they really think about the wines. Do they like the style? Would they pay for these wines themselves?
“It is that level of discreet feedback that is invaluable to have,” says Charilaou. “For a winery coming over from Argentina or South Africa they are able to hear first hand from real consumers what they think of their wine, and not the trade, which can be two very different things.”
Which is why he stresses the team at M try and create a very professional atmosphere in a quality setting, but that the style of service and the mood is very approachable and puts customers at ease.
“It is trying to make wine fun, interesting and something that people will go away and talk about.”
Not for everyone
It is also important, stresses Charilaou, that you pick your winemaker carefully. Not all are suited to hosting such a night. They need to be on board with what you are trying to achieve and the type of customer attending.
“You want to work with winemakers that have lots of natural personality but can also talk about their wines that is engaging, interesting and fun. People have not come out for a wine tutorial. The last thing you want is people getting bored at the table.”
It is also about making sure customers go away with a special final touch and that both the restaurant and the winemaker follow up and keep the relationship going weeks or months later.
So guests can expect to receive a signed bottle or an engraved glass from the winemaker. And then months later they might then be sent a special greeting at Christmas or for their birthday. “Little touches that go a long way,” concludes Charilaou.
“It’s a bit like getting a wine selfie!”