There’s an adage in the restaurant business that the reputation is made in the kitchen but the profits are made at the bar. Perhaps that should be refined to “wine cellar” instead of merely “bar” for the world’s top restaurants. The highest profits seem to come from selling wine, not mere booze.
In a fascinating and lengthy profile of Chef Gordon Ramsay in the New Yorker, Bill Buford let this nugget drop about the operations at Gordon Ramsay at the London:
“The [food] prices—the best value in New York—had been deliberately set low, Ramsay told me, to encourage people to spend more on wine, an upmarket restaurant’s greatest potential profit (no overhead, no spoiled ingredients).”
So is wine the REAL profit center at restaurants? One time Mrs. Vino and I were dining at Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago with another couple, one of whom ordered a gin and tonic. The waiter frostily told her that the restaurant serves no cocktails. Apparently it’s in the name of gastronomy since alcohol can deaden the palate. Chef Thomas Keller does not serve cocktails at the French Laundry in Napa either, although it has something to do with allegedly not being able to get the proper license.
Are gourmet restaurants pushing diners toward wine? In the New Yorker story, Buford reports on a group of hedge fund managers at the exclusive “chef’s table” who ordered $10,000 worth of food and wine. Another group from Goldman Sachs was set to take the table the following night: “budget not important,” was the word in the house. And at Petrus, a Ramsay restaurant in London, investment bankers famously ran up a $63,000 wine tab a few years ago (they later had to resign over it). That’s a heck of a lot of gin and tonics even at $20 a pop, the price at Per Se.
So is wine the real profit center at high-end restaurants? If this secret gets out, maybe mid-tier restaurants will start upgrading their wine programs. A wine geek can but hope.
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On a related note, Gregory Condes, who oversaw the acquisition of $750,000 worth of wine for Gordon Ramsay at the London, has been fired according to the Sunday Mail after a wild night. It could be an April Fool’s spoof, but it seems too harsh.