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Orchestrating Success: Strategic Insights from Jennifer Knott on Beverage Programs in Hospitality

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13/02/2024 Q&A with Jennifer Knott, Director of Beverage for Levy at Chicago Symphony Orchestra on how to run a successful business.

In an engaging talk with Ankita O., CGO of Sommeliers Choice Awards, we look at Jennifer Knott's fascinating career as a wine professional with over 20 years of expertise in the bar and restaurant sector. Jennifer's journey began with the rich wine culture of her grandfather's cellar and summers spent in California, which sparked her interest in beverages.

Jennifer's knowledge grew as she took on leadership responsibilities at places such as 312 Chicago/Hotel Allegro, culminating in recognition as the 2019 National Whisky Brand Ambassador for North America. She currently serves as Director of Beverage for Levy at Forte at Symphony Center with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, where she oversees a complete beverage program catering to a varied audience.

In this interview, Jennifer discusses rejuvenating wine programs, assessing their success, and defining the characteristics of a great sommelier. Join us in delving into Jennifer's extensive knowledge and experience in the beverage sector. The whole interview provides a more in-depth look at her intriguing experience.

Tell us a little bit about yourself, and how you progressed into this role.

I have been working in bars and restaurants for more than 20 years. I grew up surrounded by wine from both my Grandfather's cellar and spending summers in California with my Uncle. I moved to Chicago to lead the bar team at 312 Chicago/Hotel Allegro. With Kimpton I traveled nationally and internationally to open new properties. I took over running all of Hotel Allegro's beverage programs from catering/events to the Hotel Bar. I was a bar/beverage trainer for the openings. During my time there I won 2 Chicago cocktail competitions. 

From there I went on to launch Sagamore Spirit Rye Whiskey in IL, IN, KY, WI, MN and I won the 2019 National Whisky Brand Ambassador for North America from Whisky Magazine. Only my colleagues and industry peers were allowed to vote in this event and I was honored to be acknowledged for my hard work. It is a huge event that takes place in NY and then I was up for the award internationally against 2 other phenomenal women. I grew my knowledge from wine to spirits to whisky. I went on to run the bar program for the fine dining restaurant Monteverde and then Arbor. When the pandemic hit, I did not work for a year. I focused on expanding my knowledge and I taught a lot of online cocktail classes and did videos for social media. 

I went to work for a distributor, Heritage Wine Cellars, when the pandemic was no longer in lock down. However, I wanted to be back in restaurants, so I found the position that I am in today. I started as Beverage Manager and after 6 months was promoted to Director of Beverage for Levy at Forte at Symphony Center at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Image: Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Define your role and what all tasks are involved in your role. 

My role is vast. I run the beverages program for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. There is a full restaurant, Forte at Symphony Center, which has a Modern Mediterranean cuisine to serve the guests of the symphony before a concert. This menu currently has 11 wines by the glass and around 45 wines by the bottle. There is a 9th Floor Club dining for the donors of the orchestra. This restaurant is fine dining and upscale with a pre-fixed menu. This is a smaller restaurant with 9 wines by the glass and 25 wines by the bottle. I also manage the Concession bars for the concerts with 5 - 8 bars open for all shows. Along with this, I oversee all catering/events beverages and beverage packages.

Image: Forte’s private dining room

In conjunction with doing all the ordering, inventory, receiving, of all beverages purchased; I do the schedules for all the bars in operations, hire/fire, manage, train and create 4 beverage menus (this includes wine, beer, cocktails, and spirits offered). 

I have also helped with the menus for the Nashville Symphony Orchestra's concession's bars plus traveled to Wente Vineyards to train the FOH manager for the newly acquired property of Levy. I host wine dinners, spirits and cocktail classes at Forte each season. 

This is a brief look at what I do in my current role. Not to mention I am present for service.

Let's say you were given a restaurant to fix its wine program and grow wine sales, where would you start and what would be your strategy. What questions would you ask the restaurant owner to get good insights before you plan your strategy? 

It is all about the guests. Who comes to the restaurant/bar? What area is it located and how does this affect the flow of traffic? What are the hours of the business? What are the goals of the restaurant/bar? What kind of food is served? Is it good? I would want to see the place in service to get an idea of what the guests are looking for and want. In order to grow and make money, dead stock has to be fixed. A lot of times wine programs are dealing with dead stock/product and are sitting on it and counting it every month. A good beverage program will eliminate the dead stock by either having specials or monthly sale on these items. However it is that the dead stock is used this is an issue that must be addressed first and foremost.

Image: Forte partnering with wineries to promote winemaker dinners.

I build strong relationships with distributors, suppliers and my reps for the wine and spirits. This helps to get what I really want from them which is good pricing, signage, and support. Having these good relationships and maintaining them is vital to a good beverage program. As a buyer I also, when it is appropriate, also help out the distributor and buy things they need to sell as well. 

My strategy for a good beverage program is not about me but about my guests. I always want to introduce the guests to new varietals and producers but I also want them to feel comfortable and for them to recognize most of the wine on a list. So, I will pick a well known producer but put a wine that maybe is not as well known or seen on lists. I will also showcase a new producer by putting a well known grape varietal of theirs on the list. In the end it boils down to the guests and what they want. At Monteverde, I could put a lot of different wines and producers on the list because people came there to be wowed and spend a lot of money. However, at the hotel there always needed to be recognizable wines and spirits on the list because our guests came from all over the world and some had money to spend and others did not. Running the beverage program for Kimpton was awesome.

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What are the four main things you focus on daily in the Wine role?

Inventory control, ordering, listening to my employees, maintaining good relationships with the CSO partners and my distributors.

Image: Example of table tents to drive happy hour beverage sales (left) and timing what’s going on in the city and promoting the theme for the week (right)

What are the things that are NOT so important to the bottom line that many sommeliers/wine directors tend to focus on?

Themselves. I do not see it as often anymore, but a wine program is not about the sommelier, it is about the guests and giving them the knowledge they want. It is not about pushing your knowledge or expertise onto a guests experience but about reserving yourself and giving what the guests want.

What are the points you look at when selecting a new wine for your wine program? 

Cost, holes or gaps in the program, good quality wine

Define a good sommelier and what qualities you would look for when hiring one.

Kindness, humility, someone not afraid to stand their ground and speak their ideas. I want someone that focuses on the guest experience and has a passion for learning, leading and growing both the business and employees within the business.

What do you look for when you have to evaluate the effectiveness of wine program Sales as well as the range of offerings that suit their clientele. 

There are a lot of things that affect sales and the success of a wine program. If the business is booming but wine sales are down then a good hard look at what the guests are drinking would take place. Maybe the guests are not drinking wine but cocktails and beer, therefore I would look at how big the wine program is and if it can be scaled back. There are a lot of things to look at. I would have the servers report what the guests are saying about the list, good and bad and I would listen.

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