Dan Berger

Corkage fees can cost restaurants money

With the economy still wobbly and restaurants that survived the horrendous 18-month siege that lasted from late 2008 to early 2010 still on deathwatch, you would think that they'd become more creative.

I refer to trying to entice wine consumers into their establishments. To date, I have seen little in the area of revenue-raising restaurant promotions, even though these ideas are almost the simplest ones to institute and do not entail computer reprogramming or staff retraining.

Luring customers isn't easy. Announce you have white truffles or caviar and most diners think of the cost and walk the other way. In a weakened economy, even a shared salad isn't an easy purchase - especially when you add in tax, tip, cost of gasoline and parking.

Yet wine is a natural way to market a restaurant, even if it's not wine itself that is raising revenue.

Cooking at home allows the wine lover to properly deal with collected wine. It may be chilled or decanted; the right glassware can be used, etc. But it does require preparing a meal and cleaning up.

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That's why wine lovers dine out, and do so on average more than beer or soda consumers. And they typically have significantly larger check totals (the cost of wine vs. a Coke).

Yet low- or zero-corkage policies are woefully unavailable in most U.S. cities. Where they exist, they work brilliantly.

Imagine a standard bill for a couple on a budget: shared salad ($7), shared appetizer ($6), two modest entrees ($35) and a shared dessert ($5) and you have a total of $53. Add in a bottle of wine ($35) and you're staring at $88, not counting tax and tip. Even if a corkage charge of $15 were added in, that $53 tab leaps to $68.

Eliminate the corkage charge and the bill is manageable.

Additionally, a low- or zero-corkage policy means the restaurant has a policy, which eliminates diners' fears that bringing a bottle in will cause a hassle. (More than once, we've asked if we could open our own wine and were told it wasn't permitted. We usually leave.)

Leonard Cohen, owner of two restaurants in California's Central Coast, opened Ciopinot Seafood Grille in San Luis Obispo and decided to have no corkage charge. His rationale?

"I know a lot of people with wine cellars who like to dine out. If I charged corkage, I might scare them off. As it is, people on a budget can come in here on a Wednesday night and share a salad and a main dish with their own wine and be out of here for $25."

Cohen's comment about Wednesday night is telling. Midweek nights are the hardest nights of the week to fill seats at most restaurants, yet the staff still has to be paid. All overhead costs are about the same.

Ciopinot's policy is teamed with a reasonably priced wine list that focuses on local Central Coast wineries.

Other tales of zero-corkage success:

-- San Francisco's famed Fog City Diner, just off the Embarcadero, once struggled with a $15 corkage policy. It was dropped a year ago because, as one waiter said, "it didn't happen very often that someone brought in a bottle of wine, and when it did, it seemed silly.

"Now that we don't have any corkage, we got a lot more of the wine crowd in here." (It also helps that Constellation Brands, the world's largest wine company, has a huge office complex across the street!)

Fog City's small, select wine list is good, but, after all, this is a diner, however upscale it is.

-- Harry's Pacific Grill (Temecula and Rancho Cucamonga) is an Asian/fusion place that can get a bit raucous on weekends; there's still a minor buzz on midweek nights.

The no-corkage policy is paired with huge wine goblets that really help to open up wine aromas, and the staff is always interested in what diners bring in.

A manager told us the owners want to focus on fresh seafood and an assortment of mixed drinks, so the wine list is modest. We dined there twice and saw numerous diners with their own wines - and two tables had members of the Temecula Valley Wine Society.

As for low-corkage, there may be no better example than Cafe Bizou in both Pasadena and the San Fernando Valley.

These most popular restaurants are bistro-esque with tables close together (to maximize space), a good but smallish wine list, and a $2 corkage policy. Both places are busy nightly, with weekends so jammed that diners literally wait outside even in (rare) inclement weather.

Low wine prices attract customers. Some 20 years ago, the late, lamented Cafe Angeli in West Los Angeles ran into financial difficulties. To reduce a vast wine inventory, wine director Dean Gold resorted to a radical policy: He cut prices for the most expensive wines to retail or below! But as the wine inventory was depleted, the numbers of diners declined.

Restaurants that don't do special wine promotions (such as free corkage on Wednesday and Thursday nights) are missing a simple draw that wine lovers will find to their liking.

And an unfilled seat at a restaurant is revenue lost.

Dan Berger is a nationally renowned wine writer who lives in Santa Rosa, Calif. He publishes a weekly commentary Dan Berger's Vintage Experiences (VintageExperiences.com).

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