Patrons drinking up at BYOBs
November 12, 2003
see my interactive map of Chicago BYOB restaurants!
BYOB restaurants are not just for students any more. Nor are they limited to the corner ethnic restaurant. Many Chicago restaurants are choosing "bring your own bottle" as a niche–a situation that suits the owners and diners alike.
Conventional wisdom in the restaurant industry holds that although food may be how a restaurant becomes known, the money is made in the liquor. But some restaurants in town, many of them chef-owned or with a strong focus on fine food, defy this conventional wisdom.
Why sacrifice the money that a liquor license provides? For Norman Six, chef-owner of Lovitt, a Bucktown restaurant that serves contemporary American cuisine, the answer is easy. "It makes us distinctive. People seek out BYOB.”
Beyond standing out in the crowded dining scene, many restaurants in this category are BYOB for three main reasons. First, getting a liquor license–and liquor–can be an expensive hassle. Second, the current economy has made diners more frugal. And third, diners have become much more knowledgeable about wine.
To apply for a liquor license from the city, the restaurant must already be in operation, which explains why many restaurants are BYOB when they first open. This allows city inspectors to assure that the license is not being used to simply run a bar, for example. The license itself costs a flat fee of $2,000 a year: A 30-seat restaurant pays the same fee as a 300-seat restaurant. The costs of training the staff, stemware and storing an inventory of wine can be incentives to remain BYOB.
Such is the case for Chinoiserie, an Asian fusion restaurant in Wilmette, which expanded three years ago to 90 seats. "We never got around to it," says owner Janice Lee about applying for a liquor license. "When we enlarged, we thought that we would at least add wine and beer. But no matter how much space you have it’s never enough."
A trend toward frugality has made diners tighten their purse strings. Rather than cutting back on the frequency of eating out, diners can simply cut back on the bill. A good way to do that is to bring your own (most BYOB places do not charge corkage fees, or charge a small amount).
Jody Andre has just started her third BYOB restaurant, Speakeasy Supper Club, which includes a 1930s bar (without alcohol) and a menu ranging from tapas-style dishes to ostrich Wellington. The economy made staying with the BYOB model an easy choice. Because two restaurants she opened before have been successful as BYOBs, (Tomboy, which she sold recently, and The Room), Andre feels that "the formula works. I couldn’t imagine anything else."
There are limits to the BYOB model, however. For the owner, the margins are thinner.
Tougher to make a profit
"It takes a lot more labor to sell $1,000 worth of food than it does $1,000 worth of drinks," says Daniel Bocik, chef-owner of A Tavola, which serves regional Italian cuisine in Ukrainian Village. His 8-year-old restaurant was BYOB for the first year while awaiting a license.
Rents also matter. Linda Raydl, a new co-owner of Tomboy, cites increasing rents in Andersonville as the main factor in making the transition to a liquor license. And for Andre’s Speakeasy, the low-cost neighborhood on the edge of Rogers Park is essential to success.
"I open my restaurants in more obscure neighborhoods," Andre says. "This keeps it about the food and BYOB keeps it affordable for the residents."
The final factor pushing consumers toward more BYOBs is a growing wine knowledge–these diners do not want to be confined to a wine list.
Many consumers have amassed personal wine collections and like to tap into them. Wendy Gilbert of Savoy Truffle in Logan Square says that her customers "are always bringing in wines that they have personally brought back from Napa" to accompany her $35 prix-fixe menu for six courses.
Diners have also grown more savvy in the cost of wine in restaurants. Robert M. Parker, the international wine critic, has called restaurant wine markups, which can exceed 300 percent, a "legitimized mugging of the consumer."
Wine club members rejoice
Indeed, many wine enthusiasts agree and are voting with their pocketbooks. Joseph Wu, head of the local wine dining group Grape Lakes Wine Appreciation Guild, says, "I can’t tell you the last time I bought a bottle of wine in a restaurant. There are so many great places that are BYOB or have modest corkage fees."
Wu’s is one of many wine groups in the Chicago area that frequent BYOB restaurants. "When you get the right pairing of food and wine, they each complement and elevate each other," says Wu. So group members bring a dozen or more bottles to a monthly themed dinner.
Two dozen wine groups dine at Andre’s restaurants every month. She explains that for the diner, "it’s like having a dinner party without having to cook." And Six says he has had "the best wines of my life" in his BYOB restaurant, thanks to generous diners who share a glass of rare fine wines with him.
The future looks bright for the BYOB strategy. When A Tavola’s Bocik opens a new restaurant, it will be BYOB.
"I’m a chef, I cook food," Bocik says. "People can save money and bring exactly what they want to drink. There’s a whole culture of BYOBs in Chicago that can be tapped into."