If you are going to win an award for being the best at what you do it might seem a bit bizarre to receive it at a time when you can’t actually do the job you are being congratulated for doing. It that at all makes sense. But that’s the situation that Mark Quick, head of wine at Hawksmoor, found himself in last month on finding out he had been named Restaurant Buyer of the Year in the inaugural London Wine Fair Wine Buyers Awards. It was, though, a massive boost for him whilst he tries to keep himself busy whilst, like thousands of others, he is currently on furlough due to the Covid-19 outbreak. Here he explains to Richard Siddle some of the ideas that helped him come away with the top prize.
The London Wine Fair Wine Buyers Awards looks to highlight and reward the best drinks buying talent across the on and off-trades and online. The Buyer was very happy to be the media partner for the Restaurant category and help with the judging.
If you’ve met Mark Quick then you can only be delighted that he has been named London Wine Fair’s Restaurant Wine Buyer of the Year for his work across he Hawksmoor group of premium steak restaurants. It you only know him a little bit then you won’t be surprised to hear there was no-one more surprised than him to come out top against more experienced and established buyers in the sector.
For he’s the very epitome of humbleness. If there’s an ego in there, it’s losing the battle to come out. When he talks he is forever asking whether what he has just said rings true.
Yet what makes Mark Quick stand out is a quiet, but steely determination to do what’s right. He might not appear overly ambitious, and he certainly would not be give Gordon Gekko a run for his money, but when it comes to ethics and a way of conducting yourself in business he is as forthright as anyone you might meet.
It’s a philosophy that has shaped what is a pretty unique way of running a wine and sommelier team across a number of Hawksmoor restaurants.
Open buying strategy
As wine buyer for the group, Quick has overall control of the wine and buying strategy, in charge of pulling together a core, mainstream list that sits across all sites, but he has also opened up the buying structure to allow each of the head sommeliers in each restaurant to make up the bulk of the overall list. It means there are around 40 wines that are roughly the same in each restaurant but the rest of the 160 of a 200 plus wine list is decided by the individual wine manager.
For him it just seems the right way to work. Why should he dictate every bin on a wine list in a particular restaurant, when the sommelier and wine team in that site know their customers whims, likes and dislikes.
“Each of the restaurants have very different lists,” he stresses. “It makes it more interesting for our teams and our customers. It also makes it a lot harder to organise, but I think it also makes us smarter at what we do.”
Quick says it also “allows each head sommelier to have free rein over what they have on their own lists…I have absolute trust in them to do that.”
What’s more is they then don’t have to run their lists by him for approval. “I don’t vet what they want to list,” he stresses.
That trust comes from the fact the majority of the wine teams have been working across the different Hawskmoor sites for a number of years. They know what works in each outlet based on that restaurant’s customer mix.
There are also pricing guidelines the wine managers and sommeliers have to work to, but no set GP. Again leaving the sommeliers to do their own negotiating. It has allowed Quick to devolve wine responsibilities through the group.
The trust also works both ways with the sommeliers aware they are ultimately in control and responsible for whatever wines they list. It’s fine to list a natural Georgian wine, but it’s also up to you to make sure it sells.
“We want them to find wines that are going to enhance the list and enhance the customer’s experience,” says Quick.
“We are eight restaurants with the same name but with very different customers going to each one. To me it would be mad for me to write Nacho’s wine range at Guildhall for him. He is there every day of the week and knows what his customers want. The wine manager’s role in each restaurant is far more in depth than it is in other groups.”
They are also the ones tasked to work with their own suppliers and do their own negotiations.
In turn they have to do their own weekly and monthly sales analysis so that everyone in the group, up to finance and director levels, knows where they stand. The managers can also organise their own training budgets for their teams.
“This system is much better for the restaurants and it is much better or the customer. It also helps keep the teams fresh and have wine lists that they own, that they are passionate about. That they have creative control over. But I also have to trust our managers as well.”
“We do it very carefully and will look at how individual wines are performing and how we can help with the overall GP. But every bottle of wine is treated differently.”
That sense of shared responsibility is very much part of the overall Hawksmoor philosophy. Where very member of staff feels like they are part of one team, happy to step in and help out when pressure points appear during service. At times I can imagine co-founder Will Beckett speaking in exactly the same way as Quick when he describes how the restaurants teams work.
“If you are a waiter and have a problem with a table then you have the freedom to give them what you think will make them happy, be it an extra bottle of wine, free steaks. There is the trust from the managers to allow staff at all levels to do that,” says Quick.
“The main job of the management team is make your team’s jobs easier to do, not them making our jobs easier.”
From a waiter…to a buyer
He says it’s ironic that we had agreed to meet at Hawksmoor’s Seven Dials branch in Covent Garden as that is where he first started out in January 2010, just a couple of months after that branch had opened. He joined as a waiter, for his first job, having travelled up from his home in Cornwall.
“I initially wanted to do something with photography as that is what I did at college and, to be honest, hospitality was more of a means to an end,” he recalls.
He certainly had no ambitions to become a wine buyer, but says he had just started to get interested in wine thanks to his then girlfriend, and now wife, Ellie. They had just spent a few months travelling around Europe in a camper van, as she was studying for her WSET exams, and was keen to intersperse trips to historic towns, and beaches with a visit to a winery and taste some wines.
“We actually used the WSET course books and maps as our atlas as we travelled around France, Spain, Portugal and Italy,” he says.
He remembers initially being a bit intimidated visiting grand wineries, but, in time, got quite used to tasting and picking out bottles of wine to buy.
“But I never thought I would follow wine as a career. It was just something that Ellie was interested in as she working at the Firmdale Hotel at the time. I probably, though, looking back learnt a lot subliminally reading the WSET guide book all the time just to work out where to go next.”
That said when he first arrived at Hawksmoor he was “blown away” by how much people would regularly spend on a bottle of wine.
Moving into wine
His journey into wine really started when he moved over to being a sommelier after a couple of years with the group. “That’s when I moved over from being a waiter,” he says. “But I really just learnt on the job…I have never been a suited and booted type of sommelier though.”
His progression to a buyer’s role came when Hawksmoor expanded reasonably quickly to five sites and there was a bigger need to “co-ordinate” its wine offer better.
A lot of his job, he says, is pulling the strings together and making sure each of the wine teams have what they need to support them in their own roles. “I see myself as more of a secretary at times.”
As is the case with a lot of restaurant – and retail – businesses most of the wine sales are also driven by a small, core of biggest selling wines. Around 20 in Hawksmoor’s case. “Those are the wines that have the biggest impact on the bottom line,” explains Quick.
“These are our customers’ favourites. The ones that go repeatedly to on the list. They are your classic Malbecs, Riojas and New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs,” he adds. “They are the wines you can build the rest of your list around.”
It’s also where Quick spends most of his time, freeing up more time for the individual restaurant sommelier and wine teams to choose other wines best suited to their clientele.
“My job is to find wines that our customers can feel comfortable with. The wines that people want to buy that does not involve talking to a sommelier.”
Over the course of a normal year, Quick will dedicate a great deal of his buying time, including trips and tastings to ensure it has the right 20 wines that are going to drive the rest of Hawksmoor’s wines sales. “It’s, of course, where our suppliers want to be a well.”
This is also where Quick will be open to working with producers and suppliers on creating bespoke blends for Hawksmoor where it can get the economies through volumes of bottles bought. Like the Pulenta Estate Malbec that has been exclusively blended for Hawksmoor.
“It helps create a unique story for Hawksmoor for the wine teams to tell our customers. A reason why it is on our lists. It also means we can get out to the wineries and really bring that story and experience back to the restaurants. We do it as much as we can.”
Brave but sensible buying
He can also be adventurous too, finding bespoke wines that also fit into the overall trading philosophy of Hawksmoor. Its core New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc last year was a biodynamic wine from Les Cave de Pyrene.
“We also want to find wines that are interesting as well for our customers to buy,” he adds. “It’s also good for staff training as well.”
But adaptable enough to be popular by the bottle and by the glass.
One of the big ambitions for Quick is to introduce more organic wines to the range and says around 50% of it wines would now fall into that category.
Working with Hawksmoor?
So if you are a wine supplier or producer how do you get yourself on the Hawsmoor list? Again the answer is very different to what you normally hear from a major restaurant group.
For Quick it’s quite simple: “It’s obligatory that you are a good person. I have learnt that so much here at Hawksmoor. Your suppliers are the most important people to you. There are even more important than our customers. So we are not just working with a ‘supplier’ we are working with the ‘people’ behind them. That’s so important. It’s all hospitality.”
It’s why Hawksmoor has ever taken a listing fee for a bottle of wine on its list, says Quick. Every wine that is there is there on its own merits and because the buyer wants to work with that individual producer and supplier.
“We don’t do incentives either. We just want to buy good wine from good people and the right companies.”
Or as Quick also puts it: “We don’t want to work with dicks.”
He’s also aware of the responsibility he has when working with a supplier that might be supplying 30,000 bottles a year. If it is time to part ways, he would look to do it as gradually as possible. “We are aware we have responsibilities to them as well as they do to us.”
It will do all it can, he says, to work with suppliers and if it needs to part ways then it will work that process through as well. It’s a company wide philosophy that has helped Hawksmoor develop the way it has from a small restaurant in east London to the chain it is now. Most importantly taking the support and loyalty of its suppliers with them.
It’s why Mark Quick is also quick to say news of his wine buyer award this week was not just for him, but for all the team at Hawksmoor. You can see why he won.
- The London Wine Fair Wine Buyers Awards was held for the first time in 2020.
- The category winners and shortlists are below
Independent Merchant Buyer Award
Paddy Eyres, Fenwick
Chris Piper, Christopher Piper Wines
Winner: Hal Wilson, Cambridge Wine Merchants
Supermarket & Multiple Retailer Buyer Award
Victoria Anderson, EH Booth
Sarah Butler, The Co-op
Winner: Georgina Haughton, Sainsbury’s
Restaurant Buyer Award (sponsored by The Buyer)
Jon Clement, Casual Dining Group
Alejandro Macintyre Vera, Curious Restaurants
Tom Ross, Polpo
Winner: Mark Quick, Hawksmoor
Charlie Young, Vinoteca
Pub Buyer Award
Jo Eames, Peach Pubs
Winner: Guillaume Mahaut, ETM
Roberta Neave, Heineken/ Star Pubs and Bars
Online Specialist Buyer Award
Monika Gyenes, bestofhungary.co.uk
Tom Harrow, Honest Grapes
Winner: Ben Robson, Bat and Bottle
Winner: Sarah Knowles MW, The Wine Society
Shane McHugh, Goodman, Canary Wharf
Jordan Wiltshire, The Angel, Taste of Devon
- The judging panels were all chaired by drinks writer and former editor of Imbibe, Chris Losh, and the panels included: Alan Cheesman; Nick Francis; Eileen Ginger; Martin Lam; Alistair Marshall; Angela Mount; Christine Parkinson; Howard Winn; and Ruth Yates.