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Pourings: The Sommelier's Apprentice

Recruiting your restaurant’s best and brightest staff as beverage apprentices can be a win-win situation for everyone. Restaurant owners can preempt hiring problems and build morale by underwriting the training of the next generation. Overloaded beverage managers can boost their productivity by taking the time to share their knowledge. And employees interested in beverage careers can develop new skills and industry.

Three Goal Solution

For aspiring sommeliers, there has always been a catch-22: to get the position, you need experience, but to obtain experience, you need the job. Formal wine and spirits education is hard to come by in many markets, and few address restaurant management topics. Hands-on experience remains the primary hiring criterion for the glamorous wine-buyer position. Meanwhile, beverage managers are often overwhelmed. They log long hours and rarely delegate because no staffer below them knows how to do the job. Most restaurants face the prospect of hiring a new beverage manager every few years.

If idealistic young recruits need practical experience, managers need skilled help, and restaurant owners need backup plans, why not work together to bridge the gap? An apprenticeship program is a structured and professional means to achieve all of the above.

Mentoring apprentices requires time and energy from the manager and a modest investment from the business, but the fresh blood will strengthen and invigorate any beverage program. Teaching complex tasks such as taking accurate inventory encourages managers to develop more coherent systems. Checklists and spreadsheets eventually replace the sommelier’s gut instincts and mental notes. Before long, even the manager’s vacations and illnesses become easier to manage.

Tips for Success

Here are some tips for setting up an effective program:

Institute a program you can afford. Apprentices must be paid for their time, but the experience will be the main attraction. Consider adding extra hours before or after existing shifts for servers or bartenders, or add a part-time “beverage administration” position and pay rate.

Recruit apprentices with defined rewards. Post the job opportunity internally, mentioning both the modest pay and the professional benefits such as a formal title, beverage management experience, one-on-one mentoring, and invitations to educational tastings.

Set up a consistent weekly schedule. Add a morning inventory before a quiet weekday lunch shift. Bring your team of helpers in early on your wine delivery day. Appoint an apprentice as “coordinator” for your regular staff trainings. Host a review and purge of 86s and typos.

Provide direction, supervision, and honest feedback. Prepare checklists of tasks to be accomplished. Work alongside your apprentices, explaining what you’re doing and why. Let them try new tasks, even if they fail. Correct errors calmly and avoid controlling behavior

Invite apprentices to observe you in action. Encourage apprentices to sit in and take notes on meetings with distributors, chefs, and managers. Always introduce them to industry contacts professionally and with respect.

Assign stimulating projects.  For example, ask what they would change about the POS system. Send them home with the wine list document to play with new layouts. Discuss their suggestions seriously and acknowledge their innovations.

Offer creative reinforcing rewards. Take them to trade tastings, comp them at your wine dinners as VIP guests, or plan a field trip to a local winery. For services above and beyond the call, print up business cards in their name. And, of course, write stellar recommendation letters for your trainees.

A well-conceived apprenticeship program creates a culture of involvement that empowers honest, hardworking employees. The giving of your time and experience sends the message that the restaurant values its people, and sharing the workload makes the whole team stronger.

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