Brian Phillips, Advanced Sommelier, recently shifted into a new role as the General Manager & Beverage Consultant for ClubCorp where he serves its members within a private club. ClubCorp is committed to offering an elevated, personal dining experience and through this practice fosters a familial environment between the staff and members. As the food and beverage industry settles into a new normal amidst COVID-19, these smaller, more intimate experiences will likely be beneficial and practical for most businesses within the hospitality sector. We caught up with Phillips to get his take on what current and projected long-term changes are in store for the industry. 

Coravin: What are past challenges the industry has faced, and how has this prepared you to adapt to the new challenges brought on by COVID-19?

Brian Phillips: Anyone, with enough years in the field of hospitality, learns to be flexible and highly creative during challenging times. Our private clubs have a big advantage; we intimately know whom we are serving, we can better control our environment for the safety of our members and team, and we can personally interact with our guests and let them know what we are doing to creatively serve them, safely. In the past 20 years, one in this business must have adapted through 9/11, the real estate burst and financial downturn, and now this challenging virus, all of which have hit those in hospitality hard. This current challenge kicks the survival mode into gear and makes one want to work harder to find new ways to still serve our members and guests until the dust finally settles. Human social nature, fortunately, kicks in and we will see a return to experiential and social dining. Let’s be honest, ‘to-go’ is never near as good as enjoying it where it was prepared and especially if delivered with genuine care and service. 

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Coravin: How have you needed to restructure wine lists and menus due to complications acquiring imported wines or fresh ingredients?

BP: Although we have seen impacts in supply of all products, the biggest, long term threat has been the need to immediately reduce offerings. First, we reacted by reducing inventory. We are pushing to get back to deep wine lists and beverage listings so when guests do come in, they have the full experience. I have not had many challenges in securing the wines we want from any region, and the current elevated EU tariffs on wine have not fully impacted us yet due to stateside inventory still available, mostly due to the slow down on-premise purchases. I am finding amazing deals on hard-to-get wines usually only found in top restaurants and hotels due to untaken allocations. 

Coravin: How do you see the relationship changing between restaurants and wine producers moving forward?

BP: The larger-scale wine producers and suppliers are doing just fine, in fact, better than normal in off-premise and online retail sales. I think we will see restaurants and on-premise move more in the direction of artisanal or people-driven brands of wine. On-premise will tell the story and make the wine and beverage experience more personal for their guests. Drinking wine will be more about the ‘why’ a wine was selected to be poured for them or listed on the menu versus talking points and point scores listed on a shelf-talker or screen. Wine producers will likely want to naturally be a part of this, and I think it will be supported and sought after by more hands-on producers with a real face behind the label. I expect to see more direct outreach from wine producers to on-premise accounts and places they want to support and vice-versa. 

Coravin: What are important steps you believe restaurants should take in ensuring a balance between safety and preserving the dining experience?
BP: The first step is on the dining establishments’ ability to manage their guest and service flow. Properly spacing the number of guests coming through your door and in your public spaces is key. Properly adjusted reservations systems need to be in place, and clear game plans set and executed. Everyone in this business is, and should be ensuring, masks are worn 100% of the time by staff and expected of by the guest until they are at their own properly spaced table. Open communication with your teams to make sure they are doing what is in the best interest of all where they work is important; it’s not just about the workplace but more holistically about their lifestyle during this challenge. Safety is the priority, but service need not suffer. I went to the extent of providing designer masks for our team as part of our uniform to feel less astringent in appearance. We train to take the stage at the table–meaning we provide more space to the table when interacting with guests but ensure we present with character to the whole table as if one were on stage. Wine and beverage service steps and standards remain the same but with more awareness of personal space. Extra steps for safety, such as glove changing and hand washing is built into the timing of each table’s service. This might mean fewer table turns but that is not as much of a problem or focus right now. 

Coravin: An enjoyable dining experience is extremely important. What tips do you have for fellow GMs to still offer a high-quality experience for customers ordering take out and eating at home?

BP: As presentation is everything in a dining room, the packaging is everything to take out. Packaging should hold the product quality and consistency, provide ease of service at home, and allow for warming in the oven and microwave. Family-style meals that create more social comfort are key and suggested premium wine pairings (but at a great value) also add to this experience. Personal touches such as cards from the kitchen and some complimentary mini-desserts go a long way to create something that feels special and missed in our dining room. 

Coravin: Are there any food & beverage industry guidelines currently in place that you believe will become the new normal?

BP: A polished take-out experience will become expected from establishments that formerly did not focus on this as expected or even available. Wine to-go at closer to retail prices will be more common, as the service experience is not provided with the purchase and there is no need to compete with off-premises. Unique packaging for craft cocktails and wine will continue to develop for ease of on-the-go sales. Dining rooms that once had tables almost on top of each other will move to more comfortable spacing after this challenge dissipates. 

Coravin: What has been the response from your community to the changes implemented by ClubCorp? 

BP: The response to the challenge we face now has been overwhelmingly positive. We are fortunate to have members that are like family to us; they care for us as much as we care for them. We are in the private club business, so the pressure to do whatever it takes to keep the doors open is not the main focus; doing what is best for our members is. I think our community understands this long term approach. 

Do you have any thoughts about how this “new normal” will look as we navigate the changes of COVID-19? We’d love to hear them! Share your thoughts by tagging @Coravin on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.