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SITT: The Future of the On-Trade

Published:  19 October, 2021

Harpers’ Shaping the Future of the On-Trade debate at SITT London brought together leading operators to discuss the changing face of business in a post-pandemic world.


Xavier Rousset MS, founder, Trade hospitality app and multiple-restaurateur

Charles Beaini, wine executive, Tom Kerridge Bar & Grill and Corinthia London

Seamus Sharkey, head of wine, JKS Restaurant Group

Andrew Catchpole, host and editor of Harpers Wine & Spirit

With restrictions lifted, how ‘normal’ is business for you?

Xavier Rousset MS: It’s been good since we reopened in April. We had a pretty good three months, August was dead, and then in September it’s been back almost like the good old days. The mood is up, and people are spending. We’re not getting as many covers but spend is up.

Charles Beaini: We’ve been very busy the whole summer with a lot of local customers and people staycationing. And it says something about all the health-and-safety procedures that you’ve seen across the industry.

Seamus Sharkey: People are enjoying what they’ve wanted to enjoy for 18 months. Trying to replicate a dining experience outside of restaurants still can’t be done. So it has to be the real thing to get the total satisfaction. We’re going to get the second wave as well, people returning to work now, after that honeymoon period of going out. And people feel more comfortable now with Covid. Restaurants were pinned as super-spreaders, when actually we probably had more safety procedures than most other businesses. The initial visit was probably the hardest, but now people feel more comfortable and will repeat that, which is great.

What decisions taken during Covid with regard to your business model are likely to remain longer term?

SS: The biggest thing for me is putting more emphasis on our relationship with importers. Because [the supply situation] shows how fragile our industry is. And I think we’ve got to be very respectful now as buyers, where previously we were the people calling the shots. But our importers, distributors and agents have now found other revenue streams, like we did. And I can completely understand why someone would look at the off-trade, instead of trying to flog a sommelier four bottles of 500 different wines. I don’t mind if things sell out as long as the communication is there. That’s life. We need to work proactively within that.

CB: I couldn’t agree more. Yes, it is frustrating when something runs out of stock, but let’s contact the suppliers, make more calls, search, have more communication regarding stock. Businesses are currently massively dynamic, they’ve always been very much in tune with the climate, being aware that at every moment change can happen. So now it’s like, ‘OK, how quickly are we ready to activate the plan?’ – which has changed progressively many times in the past months – to make sure that we are cornering the market and making it as appealing and inviting as possible, giving people a thing which they have missed.

XR: We were all desperate to get back to some kind of normal. I think it’s human nature. We want some sort of rhythm and we need some positivity. We need to know what’s happening. People have gone back to what they know and like.

What of staffing, the role of the sommelier and front-of-house wine knowledge?

SS: I think we’ve also got to be realistic, that there needs to be a huge emphasis on training in the next generation, and we haven’t invested enough in the next generation. Teams are becoming more efficient. We had a whole year to think about what roles were relevant to the company, and what roles are required for the company. We employ about the same number of people, but we’ve streamlined productivity and some roles have changed. And we’ve spent a lot more time working with technology and apps, so while there is still an element of personal contact at any quality restaurant, bookings and certain elements of service have become more streamlined.

CB: There’s a point where our roles as sommeliers became more hybrid, as assistant or restaurants managers. And it’s good to develop all these sets of skills to get a full understanding of wine service. We need to get the next generation in and help them, to invest the time in them, and help them to develop themselves and to see the potential of the role. You want to leave the role and leave it in a better position than when you took it on, and the same goes for the team.

SS: [Too many] head sommeliers spend too much time developing their own profile instead of developing the team, so then they compromise on training and development.

XR: With the whole staffing issue, we also need to pay better, to work better hours, better shifts. It’s getting better now, it has to, because Covid and Brexit broke the whole thing. We need to train and invest in our staff, listen to them so they feel valued.

SS: I spend most of most of my week now doing training, and I love it. OK, it’s slightly hard to get a quantitative measure on how much impact comes from it, to say I made ‘x’ amount of extra sales. But I’d much rather come up with a better-feeling environment, rather than me saying to you, ‘I saved you a per cent on something because I spent the last day arm-wrestling a supplier on a penny’.

What of the ongoing relationships with suppliers?

XR: They’ve done a lot and I can’t ask more. They supply what they can, and you have to be creative with that. But they can’t fix our issues in hospitality.

SS: Yes, they are suppliers, they’re not a credit card or loan, which is what a lot of restaurants treat them as. They’re not free stock. Not to say that we don’t get perks off it – I’m just saying that we need to be realistic about what suppliers actually are and do. I don’t go to bed at night worrying that I’ve got 600 bottles of wine I can’t sell. I’ve got a small amount in a restaurant that I bought from someone who has that worry.

Who wants the final word?

SS: Things are changing for the positive. There are inherent issues in our industry, like most industries. Everyone is going through this transition period, and I think positivity is key. And respect, ultimately, for suppliers, for dining guests and the staff is essential.