Creative Sommelier Training Generates Great Profits for a Disney Restaurant

By Gretchen Weber

Jun. 1, 2004

With a cellar that holds more than 1,000 kinds of wine, many rare and priced at over $1,000 a bottle, the Disneyland Resort’s Napa Rose restaurant has a wide enough selection to overwhelm even a savvy wine drinker. Its award-winning wine list features 400 wines at any given time, 60 of them served by the glass, and the menu changes at least twice a week so that all the wines in the cellar can be presented. And the 260-seat establishment is uncorking big profits.

    In fact, wine sales are so high that they consistently account for an impressive 30 percent of total restaurant sales, a figure that general manager Michael Jordan attributes to more than just good product. While Disney won’t provide specific figures, Jordan says that the restaurant seats between 200 and 300 guests each night. Given a Zagat average per-person check of $57, that means the Napa Rose pulls in between $11,400 and $17,100 a night during its operating hours of 5:30 to 10 p.m. At 30 percent of total sales, wine alone could account for more than $1,000 an hour.

    It wasn’t always this way. While Jordan won’t say specifically how much wine sales have improved since the restaurant opened in 2001, he does say that the change has been tremendous. And the key, he thinks, is a well-trained staff, one that not only knows which Chardonnay to recommend with an appetizer of sautéed hand-harvested diver scallops accented with fresh vanilla, but also can recommend several choices, rare and less rare, within a customer’s price range and then explain the choice. This knowledge, and the confidence that comes with it, he says, drives wine sales at each table and also builds rapport with customers, who are then more inclined to come back.

    John Hanson, a Napa Rose headwaiter who has been with the restaurant since it opened, attests that sommelier training has had a dramatic impact on both revenue and customer relations. He says that in the past three years, the average per-person check has increased from $50 to almost $70 and that most of the difference is in wine sales. Some nights wine sales account for over 50 percent of total sales at the restaurant. “Taking the training definitely increases your check average,” Hanson says. “You will make more money if you take it.” Tips are up as well for waiters who know their stuff, he says, because guests are more satisfied.

    Rated by Zagat as Orange County’s best restaurant in 2002, the Napa Rose is located in Disney’s Grand California Hotel in Anaheim, California. In creating it, Disney sought to break the traditional mold of fine-dining wine service, which relegates wine and food pairing to the realm of just one staff wine expert, or sommelier. “Under that method, customers have to wait their turn,” says Jose Barragan, the operations manager for hotel restaurants at the Disneyland Resort. “We felt that was not good enough. We wanted a seamless approach to service, and when you say, ‘Let me go get the sommelier for you,’ that’s not about seamless service. For us, that’s underdelivering.”

    So Jordan, a certified wine instructor, created an intensive training program that ensures that even the busboys know when to suggest the rare Trousseau Gris and what goes best with the oak-roasted shrimp in basil-saffron cream. The results have been overwhelmingly positive for the bottom line. “We’ve had a tremendous increase in wine sales since we began the training,” Jordan says. “In the beginning they were good, but not this good.” In fact, according to Tom Miner, a principal at Chicago food service consulting firm Technomic, wine sales’ percentage of total sales at Napa Rose is four to five times the average for a “sit-down” restaurant, and the training most likely has something to do with it.

    “Wine training for wait staff is extremely valuable,” Miner says. “If guests don’t understand which wine to get, they’ll spend in the low range, but many are willing to spend more if they know what they’re getting. If you give staff training and the ability to speak with authority and make the right selection, sales will go up automatically.”

    Thirty-five of the 80 staff members at Napa Rose have been trained and certified in basic sommelier knowledge, as well as 54 other employees (called “cast members” in the Disney tradition) from throughout the resort. The sommelier training is not new to Disney. The Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando claims more than 300 sommeliers. What is new is the intensive in-house training that Jordan offers in Anaheim, which goes beyond the basics. Jordan’s class meets for two hours once a week for six months and culminates with a two-day level-one class and a test administered by the Napa, California-based American chapter of the Court of Master Sommeliers, the international body that has been certifying restaurant sommeliers since 1969. The court recognizes three levels of sommelier: one, two and master, a level achieved by only 60 Americans. Jordan, who is one of two level-two sommeliers at Napa Rose, plans to take the master’s test this fall.

“It’s fundamental knowledge, but it’s more than most people know. And it breeds enthusiasm and confidence, which then translates to increased profits, higher customer satisfaction and employee retention.”

    The course is so comprehensive that in October, Jordan’s last class achieved a 100 percent pass rate on the test, a feat that the court’s worldwide president, Fred Dame, says almost never occurs. Jordan’s syllabus is a laundry list of technical wine topics ranging from food and wine pairing to wine-making chemistry, history and geography. The course also covers cocktails, beer, bottled water and cigars. “It’s fundamental knowledge,” Dame says, “but it’s more than most people know. And it breeds enthusiasm and confidence, which then translates to increased profits, higher customer satisfaction and employee retention.”

    Disney employees don’t pay for this knowledge. Although the company won’t comment on money spent for training, according to the Court of Master Sommeliers, Disney picks up the tab for the courses and exams it sponsors. At $450 for level one and $895 for level two, the cost to test and certify the 89 employees who have qualified at the Disneyland resort would have been more than $48,000, not counting the six months of free classes offered by Jordan himself. “It’s been a great business decision to educate the team,” Barragan says. “We invest, and we get our money back and more in the quality of service, in customer loyalty and in cast member loyalty.” He says that out of 92 employees who have taken Jordan’s training, only three have left the company in the last three years.

    “A direct result of the course is that the guests trust me more,” says another headwaiter, Mickey Sato. The restaurant attracts wine aficionados, and Hanson says that being able to discuss the wines intelligently with the guests helps to build a clientele, which contributes to increased sales. This expertise also adds to the efficiency of the restaurant as a whole. “The pace can move along faster,” Sato says. “If someone wants a recommendation, I don’t have to go get someone else. I can help you immediately.”

    Wine consultant and Master Sommelier Ronn Wiegand is a former wine columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle and the publisher of Restaurant Wine, a newsletter for wine professionals. He says that while he applauds the dedication and motivation shown by Napa Rose staff in wine training, calling 35 staff members “sommeliers” is misleading. True sommeliers, he says, are dedicated only to the wine program, and their tasks include stocking the wine cellar and creating wine lists in addition to making recommendations and serving. What Napa Rose has, he says, is “a bunch of waiters and busboys who have taken classes and achieved minor expertise.” Wiegand says that any restaurant could train their staff similarly and that many have servers as well trained or more so than Napa Rose. The difference, he says, is that they don’t have the certification to show for it. Yet he admits that Napa Rose’s wine sales are impressive. “It’s an above-average performance,” Wiegand says. “They are doing an excellent job.”

    The success of the training has been so dramatic, as seen through booming wine sales and enthusiastic customer feedback (Jordan says that despite its location in a hotel, 30 percent of Napa Rose’s customers are local), that Disney will continue to expand the program to other areas of the company. Jordan has given his course, complete with the culminating Court of Master Sommeliers class and exam, to 14 Disney Cruise Lines employees, as well as 13 staff members from the Anaheim resort’s Golden Vine Winery. The Golden Vine, which has a restaurant, demonstration vineyard and tasting room, was opened in 2001 in partnership with the Robert Mondavi Winery. (Mondavi eight months later downgraded its role to sponsorship, citing ongoing operational losses due to reduced consumer spending on travel and entertainment. Now Disney operates the venue.) Last month Jordan began a new course with 40 participants, and Barragan says that every table-service restaurant in the resort is represented. Dame says that another Disney cruise-ship training and test are on his schedule for the coming months.

    “Walt Disney puts its money where their faith is,” Jordan says. “They have faith that this is a good, positive thing, and it’s an investment that’s really well made. I think this program will grow and grow. We’ll train 40 people a year until we run out of people. Then maybe we’ll start educating guests.”

Workforce Management, June 2004, pp. 91-94Subscribe Now!

Schedule, engage, and pay your staff in one system with