Growing consumer interest in wine experiences and higher margin sales potential are just two factors driving the trend
With 66 establishments throughout Chicago—and more than 120 throughout nine states—Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises (LEYE) has a lock on Windy City dining. The organization took its time establishing a venue that made wine its focal point, according to the company’s wine director, Richard Hanauer, and executive partner Marc Jacobs. “We felt there was a hole in the Chicago market—[that it was lacking] great wine-focused concepts,” says Hanauer. “We had been wanting to do a wine bar for some time but were searching for the perfect location. Independently, we were working on a small plates–tapas idea, and Bar Ramone was a marriage of the two ideas.” LEYE opened Bar Ramonein August 2018 with a selection of 20 rotating wines by the glass, about 100 wines by the bottle, and Spanish tapas. The smallest of LEYE’s establishments, says Hanauer, “Bar Ramone is definitely a neighborhood spot.”
Adding a wine bar to a restaurant portfolio offers opportunities for greater profit margins. LEYE’s Jacobs cites “the higher percent of alcohol and wine sales combined with lower labor costs” as something that’s expected to be a strong driver of revenue at Bar Ramone. “We intentionally built a small kitchen with a small menu, which has enabled to us to run with fewer support staff members, including runners, expediters, and bussers,” he explains. “Our servers run food, the bartenders run food, our cooks run food—it’s a collaborative team effort.”
In the months since Bar Ramone has been open, Jacobs says that in addition to the guests who come for a tapas dinner, others are dropping by “before their meal and after their meal. There is not just one dinner rush—and we’re seeing guests at off-peak times,” which contributes to sales during nontraditional mealtimes. “Also, the food and drink menus change regularly,” says Jacobs, “which offers us flexibility and helps us keep a tighter control on our costs.” Rodil agrees. “When you’re talking about concepts,” she says, “you can create less waste if you’re more focused on your beverage program. A beverage program [inherently] has liquid assets with your inventory, whereas with food, there’s always a set amount of waste that you know is going to happen because product turns very quickly.”
Of course, there’s a pragmatic side to the wine bar business, suggests Cirne. “Restaurants operate in a really competitive space,” he says, “and I think that’s one of the reasons why we wanted to open what’s really more of a bar.” But profits aside, these wine-centric venues are passion projects for beverage directors. While the wine programs of restaurant groups are often overseen by a single director who manages the drinks concepts for all of a company’s outlets, many groups also employ a head sommelier for each individual restaurant whose job it is to manage the day-to-day wine buying. A wine bar, however, tends to remain directly under the leadership of the beverage director, who crafts the bar’s ethos and designs the wine list.
Whether the inspiration is a bar à vins like Verjus, or a place that features small-production rarities like Bar Ramone, at their core these wine bars are places where even the professionals themselves want to unwind after a long day.