Mentoring Programs

Recruiting your restaurant’s best and brightest staff as beverage apprentices
can be a ‘win-win’ situation for everyone. Restaurant owners can pre-empt
hiring issues and build morale by training the next generation proactively.
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 contacts as they acquire invaluable resume
For aspiring sommeliers, there has always been a catch-22. To get the job, you
need the experience, but to get the experience, you need the job. Formal wine
and spirits education is hard to come by, and few courses address restaurant
management topics. Hands-on experience remains the primary hiring criterion
for the glamorous wine buyer position.
Meanwhile, beverage managers are often overwhelmed, juggling inventory
controls, administration and floor service. They log long hours and rarely
delegate, since no-one below them knows how to do their job. Most restaurants
need to hire a new beverage manager every few years. But, there’s no ‘second
in command’ waiting in the wings like there is in the kitchen.
If idealistic young recruits need resume experience, managers need skilled help
and restaurant owners need back-up plans, why not work together to bridge the
gap? An apprenticeship program is a structured and professional means to
achieve all of the above. Taking inventories, receiving deliveries, and updating
wine lists and spreadsheets are all possible tasks to be delegated. An apprentice
program will require initial effort from the manager and a modest investment
from the business, but will pay off for everyone in the long term.
Mentoring apprentices takes time and energy, but the fresh blood will strengthen
and invigorate any beverage program. Teaching complex tasks, like 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 beverage manager’s vacations and
illnesses become easier to manage. All who follow will find these beverage
administration systems useful, whether or not they were promoted from within.
Critics may gripe that training efforts are wasted, simply giving employees what
they need to go out and find better jobs. But, they are missing the big picture.
Training programs, like apprenticeships, actually increase staff retention by
engaging conscientious workers, making them feel needed and giving them the
tools to improve their work environment.
A culture of involvement empowers honest, hard-working employees. If they’re
eager to learn, make an effort to teach them. Giving of your time and
experience sends the message that the restaurant values its people, and sharing
the workload makes the whole team stronger.
© Marnie Old and Old Wines LLC 2006
Plan 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, like a formal title and beverage
management experience, as well as one-on-one mentoring and
invitations to educational tastings. Only those seriously considering a
beverage career will show interest.
Structure 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. Or, host a
review and purge of 86’s and typos between brunch and dinner.
Provide direction, supervision and honest feedback
Prepare checklists of tasks to be accomplished. Work along with 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 like re-doing their work yourself.
Invite apprentices to observe you in action
Encourage apprentices to sit in and take notes on meetings with
distributors, chefs and management. Always introduce them to
industry contacts professionally and with respect.
Assign stimulating projects
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. Acknowledge their innovations publicly if they
are adopted.
Offer creative reinforcing rewards
The hourly wage may be low, but perks can make all the difference.
Bring 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,
stellar recommendation letters are valuable assets that cost absolutely
nothing to give.
© Marnie Old and Old Wines LLC 2006