Beverage Trends Newsletter
Operators put cork in corkage charges, lure BYOB wine lovers
By Paul Frumkin
An increasing number of fine-dining restaurateurs across the nation are
finding that they can boost customer traffic on slow nights by encouraging
enophiles to bring their own bottles of wine and waiving sometimes costly
Several prominent operators ‹ including Los Angeles-based Patina Group's
six-unit Pinot bistro group ‹ have dropped corkage charges completely and
report that the policy is helping to build repeat business among
appreciative guests while generating healthy business gains.
Meanwhile, chefs are being drawn into the BYOB trend by agreeing to create
personalized menus for wine collectors who want to bring their prize bottles
into the restaurants. Tracy Nieporent, director of marketing and a partner
at New York's Myriad Restaurant Group, estimated that Monday night business
at the fine-dining operator's French-inspired Montrachet in Manhattan had
jumped 40 percent to 50 percent since the restaurant stopped charging
corkage fees on that night a year ago. Montrachet's standard corkage fee the
other six nights of the week is $25.
"At first, I worried that it might seem gimmicky," said Nieporent, who noted
that business at the TriBeCa neighborhood pioneer had been languishing as a
result of 9/11, the boycott of French goods and the ailing economy. "But the
wine culture at Montrachet is significant, so it turned out to be a natural
for the restaurant. Monday night used to be dead; now we're doing 130 covers
and up. It's been great. It's created a real buzz."
Davio's, the Northern Italian steakhouse in Philadelphia, also has been
corkage-fee-free, on Fridays, for about a year. "It's definitely taken off,"
said general manager Ettore Ceraso, who explained that business previously
had not been particularly robust on that night.
"Now cover counts are up about 35 percent on Fridays."
And while BYOB promotions often can cut into check averages at restaurants,
Ceraso estimated that Friday night sales were still up at least 10 percent
over previous figures. "It's good for business and good for our servers," he
Other restaurants that have jettisoned corkage charges on designated nights
include Beacon and Morrell's in New York; One Sixtyblue in Chicago; Carlos'
and Café Central in Highland Park, Ill.; and Chateaubriand Steakhouse in New
Varying by the area, corkage fees at restaurants can range from $10 to $30
per bottle, although several luxury-class operators charge $50 and up. Many
industry observers acknowledge that the customer-friendly decision to forgo
corkage charges on designated days is a positive step toward building repeat
business ‹ provided that patrons don't take advantage of it.
Restaurant authority John Mariani, a columnist for Esquire and Wine
Spectator magazines, observed that all operators "are grabbing for a
competitive edge, and this is a good way to bring in additional business on
slow nights. And while [restaurateurs] may lose a little in wine income,
they make up for it in great goodwill" among collectors who want to enjoy
one of their fine wines with a good restaurant meal.
However, Mariani added, it is "reprehensible" when people abuse the policy
and use it as an excuse to avoid purchasing wine from a restaurant.
As the BYOB trend gains traction, some restaurants are taking it to the next
level. The Caucus Room in Washington, D.C., just uncorked a program that
encourages guests who want to bring in wine from their own cellars to ask
executive chef Richard Beckel to create a menu based on their wine
selections. Available Friday and Saturday nights, the program offers
personalized menus in three price ranges: three courses for $55 per person,
four courses for $75 and five courses for $85.
The restaurant's traditional corkage fee of $15 will be waived.
"We know a lot of people who dropped their corkage fees," said Caucus Room
co-owner Michael Sternberg. "But we wanted to take it to the next step. It's
a great way to show customers that we appreciate them and allows [the chef]
to showcase his talents. Richard has a lot of wine experience."
Chef Carlos Nieto, who with his wife, Debbie, owns the 22-year-old Carlos'
in Highland Park, has had a "very successful" corkage-fee-free BYOB program
on Mondays for eight years. "We're busier on Mondays than on Fridays
[because of it]," he said. "Last Monday we served 58 people, and 34 of them
brought their own wines."
The only charge for corkage on Mondays, he quipped, "is that you let the
owner have a taste."
Nieto said he also has created personalized menus based on patrons' wine
selection in the past. "A number of times people have me know in advance
what they're bringing, and I've made a menu around it."
The policy has been so successful, he said, that a similar one also has been
implemented on Tuesdays at Café Central, the Nietos' more casual restaurant
in Highland Park.
Some restaurants have taken the plunge entirely and done away with corkage
fees across the board. Joachim Splichal, co-founder of the Patina Group,
said the decision was made about two years ago to eliminate corkage charges
at all six of the company's white-tablecloth Pinot operations, including
Café Pinot in Los Angeles, Pinot Brasserie in Las Vegas and Pinot Blanc in
St. Helena, Calif.
"The Pinot restaurants are neighborhood restaurants, and we saw this as a
benefit to our customers," he said. "We also believed it would drive
business, which it did."
And while Splichal indicated that the company doesn't track the BYOB
program, general managers at the individual outlets report that it has
become a popular policy, generating substantial repeat business. "People
thank us for it on our Web site and on comment cards," he said.
The wine country restaurant Rutherford Grill in Rutherford, Calif., has had
a successful no-charge policy for corkage for 10 years. "Originally, we
would [waive the fee] as a common courtesy to people from wineries in the
area and other restaurateurs who came in," said Carlos Quintana, manager of
the popular Napa Valley restaurant. "But it got too confusing, and we just
decided to do it for everybody."
While most restaurants possessing alcoholic-beverage licenses have some form
of BYOB policy, a growing number of smaller operators are opting to forego
licensing and instead are encouraging customers ‹ where the law allows ‹ to
bring their own wine. Porcini, a 40-seat regional Italian trattoria in
Philadelphia's Center City, has been BYOB exclusively for eight years,
executive chef Steve Sansone said.
"There was only one other BYOB restaurant in the area when we opened," he
said. "But over the last three to five years 20 more have opened up."
Sansone suggested that the popularity of BYOB policies stems from a
cost-conscious dining public and wine markups "that have gotten out of
control" at other restaurants.
A number of operators, in fact, are attempting to generate traffic by
lowering the markup on wines. At Charlie Palmer's no-reservations Kitchen 22
and Kitchen 82 in New York, all wines are priced at either $25 or $35.
Weaver Lilley, the owner of the 75-seat Friday Saturday Sunday in
Philadelphia, has marked up all bottles of wine by only $10 over wholesale
for seven years ‹ no matter the wine or its cost. "I often heard gripes from
customers about how they didn't understand the markup and costs of wine,"
Lilley said. "I was also looking to get people away from wine-by-the-glass,
which I felt was a poor match for the kind of food we were putting out.
"I certainly don't make as much on wine as I used to make," he added. "But
the policy appeals to good, repeat customers, and that's what I'm interested