Subscriber login Close [x]
remember me
You are not logged in.

Selling bee

Published:  23 July, 2008

John Hoskins MW owns the Old Bridge Hotel in Huntingdon, a large, red-brick building on the edge of town. The A14 clatters by noisily at the foot of the garden, but poplars are beginning to cover up the concrete girders, and the south-facing terrace looks instead in the direction of the River Ouse, which flows gently by. It's a pleasant place to sit on a summer's day, and people are attracted by the wine list, too, in a part of the country bereft of decent selections. Hoskins has five major suppliers - Liberty, Noel Young, Morris & Verdin, Amps Fine Wines and Lay & Wheeler - and has remained loyal to them. So you'd think these merchants would be falling over themselves to conduct business properly with Hoskins, especially since he also has three pubs in the area.

Not so in the case of one of those five, whom Hoskins is looking to drop for good. They used to be a really customer-oriented wine merchant, and now they seem to have lost that completely. They obviously spend a lot of time sitting in boardrooms talking about what they should be doing, but actually on the ground, where it matters, they've lost a lot of good people who don't do the picking properly. So we constantly get all the wrong stuff from the warehouse.'

For all the talk of the latest agency win and the increasingly flash-looking brochures sent out by wine merchants these days, logistics are, for Hoskins, the essential thing. Many restaurants are far from well organised, but the good ones are extremely structured, and they require suppliers to be likewise. H&H used to be a nice little company, and then they merged with Bancroft. It was absolutely extraordinary! You'd order ABC, expecting it on a Wednesday, and DEF would arrive on Thursday - and at lunchtime, of course. Even though I really liked the wines, I just couldn't carry on.'

This shows the danger of a supplier not coming up to scratch. It doesn't apply to everyone, however. Of all the suppliers I deal with, Liberty is the best when it comes to the mechanics of customer service,' says Hoskins. They rarely send me the wrong wine or the wrong price on the wrong day, to the wrong site, whereas other suppliers do land me with these things,

and sometimes all of them together.'

In fact, it's not just down to who selects the wine in the warehouse; buyers aren't happy with the people who bring it round either. The days when you'd have the Tanners van delivering to your door are gone,' says Robin Jones, former owner of Croque-en-Bouche restaurant in Worcestershire and now a supplier himself. It would be helpful, though, if the delivery companies knew a bit more about wine.' According to David Moore, co-owner of Pied Terre in London, delivery men will take great care of a case of wine worth 50, and then they'll bounce something to the value of 500 along the road and chuck it on the table. They'll get anyone to sign for it, too. We've had tramps walking off with whole cases.'

Rather than helping the homeless in this way, suppliers should probably think a bit more about customer service. Having a closer relationship with restaurants makes them happier - and will probably yield more sales, too. As much as you'd like to think it's just about wine, the people really matter,' says Hamish Anderson, buyer for the Tate group of restaurants in London. If sales staff are passionate about their product it makes such a difference.'

Good personnel are as important as decent logistics. For example, according to Brett Woonton, co-owner of Vinoteca, a new wine bar in London's Smithfield district, if we take wine from Bibendum, it's going to be wholly down to Anthony there. I like his style; he doesn't push the big sale but subtly mentions a cheeky wine you might be interested in. He brought in an old client of mine, Jeremy at Providores. That was a nice touch; I haven't seen Jeremy for a while. They sat at the bar

and drank some great-quality booze. It's a good approach.'

Yet people often mess up when they first approach a restaurant. Helen Everitt-Mathias, wine buyer at the two-Michelin-starred Le Champignon Sauvage, in Cheltenham, can't bear it when salesmen turn up on your doorstep unannounced, often at 1 o'clock, during lunch. They start by saying: "I'm from so and so, and I'd like to talk about my wines," but often I've cut them off before "I'm from". I just say to them, "Do you know what time it is?" and they turn on their heels and go.'

They just come in and start spouting,' says Woonton, who is marginally less scary than Everitt-Mathias. Before doing anything else, they should do a bit of homework.' Buyer Ossie Gray remembers one salesman who walked confidently into The River Caf and unravelled a selection of Australian wines. Luckily, Gray is quite a polite chap - The River Caf list is entirely Italian. Anderson gets more fed up. They continually hassle you, but I suppose it's their job to hassle you,' he says. It's more annoying when people don't grasp how the Tate works. We have one fine-dining restaurant in Pimlico and restaurants that require more volume on the South Bank - it's pretty simple. But they bombard me with any old rubbish, rather than something targeted at one or the other.' Anderson doesn't mind being sent a few samples - if they're decent, and focused. What gets me', says Christine Parkinson, buyer for Hakkasan, Yauatcha and Busaba Eathai restaurants in London, is that some salesmen come in and bring a bottle of wine, and yes, it tastes nice, but so what? It's not necessarily going to fit around the other flavours on the list or be at the right price point.'

The advice here, then, is to take it slowly rather than expecting the big sale immediately. Parkinson is about to place her first order with Ealing-based FWW Wines because of the behaviour of Lance Foyster MW, the managing director. Lance has been courting us for a year. We didn't have a place for his wines at first, but I liked his Austrian selection so I asked him to call every few months. He was great; he didn't pester me but kept in touch. I then asked him to come in with some samples and he only brought in three wines, but they were things that were right for our list. I prefer this to what some people do, which is to bring everything plus the last thing they picked up as they go out the door. As it happened, we had a gap in Hakkasan for a Grner Veltliner at 50, so he was on the list.'

The right approach

If doorstepping is not the best way to approach a restaurateur, how does one make first contact? E-mail me,' says Dawn Davies, head sommelier at The Ledbury restaurant in London. I like e-mails - I can deal with them in my own time.' And Hoskins says, I'll only take a call if it's someone I know, or if it's a famous name, like Corney & Barrow. And for God's sake, don't invite me for lunch. I'm in the restaurant business. Food is around me all the time - it's not a turn-on.'

Not one restaurateur we spoke to said he or she liked being phoned. Far better, after a quick e-mail, to send in a list, and if they're interested they'll call. If not, ring anyway, although this advice comes from a former salesman who is now a restaurateur. They call the shots,' says Woonton. But if you get bussed for the first time, don't give up. One day they'll be in the mood and they'll buy. Don't give up.'

In the current climate, as a salesperson you have to accept restaurants are in the box seat - they just have so much good wine to choose from. Inevitably, then, you'll have to do deals to get business. You have to pull your trousers down a bit,' says Woonton, but don't offer lots of free stock. Maybe give the odd bottle of something more unusual, to put on by the glass as an experiment. You've only lost a bottle or two, and if the wine sells, the restaurant will want lots more from you. It's much more likely to shift when it's by the glass.' As an example, Falanghina, rather than yet another Pinot Grigio, would be worth offering in this way.

Restaurateurs, on the whole, understand that allocation is a fact of life, that they have to take 30 cases of basic Bourgogne if they want the same producer's Puligny. Fair enough if you'd like a few cases of Sassicaia and they put pressure on you to take lots of their second-label Guidalberto,' says Woonton. That's the way of the world.' Free stock is a different matter. Producers want to be in certain restaurants such as Le Manoir in Oxfordshire, The Fat Duck in Berkshire or Hakkasan or any Gordon Ramsay outlet in London, come what may. That desire is communicated strongly to the top brass at the agents, who then tell their sales staff: We have to be in (fill in as appropriate).' As a result, heavily discounted stocks - and even, in some restaurants, free bottles - are offered. But the places that take on free wine tend to be those with 50-plus, even 100 suppliers, so they're hardly the sort of place where you'll forge a strong business relationship', says Anderson. They're less interested in good wine, so they're not worth getting involved with.'

As a buyer, that sort of thing can be messy,' Anderson continues. You end up listing wines because there's a good deal on them, rather than because they're a decent drop.' It annoys Anderson when Champagne houses offer brands free to the art galleries for exhibition launches and then expect to be listed as the house wine in Tate Britain's fine-dining restaurant. But other sommeliers happily play Champagne brands off against one another,' says Anderson. They list one at a heavy discount and then ditch them for someone else who's cheaper.'

If all else fails, Woonton has some great advice for sales staff. At one point in his career he grew a Baron Munchausen-style handlebar moustache. I used to wax it regularly, and I had a mullet and spectacles, so it looked like I was wearing a mask. It's still on my bloody passport, which isn't so good because I have trouble getting through customs. But it made me stand

out in a crowd.'