How will the role of sommeliers and mixologists evolve due to Covid-19?

Sommeliers and mixologists around the world will likely see their roles become more multi-skilled, as technology becomes increasingly integrated into the on-premise experience


Sommeliers and mixologists around the world will likely see their roles become increasingly flexible and multi-skilled as the Covid-19 pandemic transforms the global on-premise channel. With bars and restaurants adjusting to the new normal of social distancing, opportunities for face-to-face interaction with customers have decreased – accelerating the adoption of new technology and digital marketing to fill the gap.

The impact of Covid-19 on the on-premise around the world has been significant, but has varied considerably by country, as the IWSR’s recent Covid-19 Market Impact Snapshot (published 6th Aug 2020) illustrates. While bars and restaurants in cities such as Buenos Aires remain closed, a more positive picture is emerging in Italy, where on-trade occupancy levels have been unexpectedly high.

While many restaurants in London are full again (albeit with social distancing measures in place), there have been several high-profile on-premise closings in the city, such as legendary cocktail bar Milk & Honey, due to close at the end of September 2020; and restaurants such as two Michelin-starred The Ledbury; chef Nathan Outlaw’s new venture, Siren, at The Goring Hotel; and Texture, another Michelin-starred restaurant in the UK capital.

“We are seeing a daily change in the landscape of bars, restaurants and hotels, with many of them sadly closing their doors permanently,” reports Dan Dove, ex-manager of the Diageo World Class cocktail competition, and founder of the new Global Bartending Talent Agency, representing a number of high-profile international mixologists. “The hospitality sector is a volatile one even in good financial conditions, with margins being tight at every corner.”

“A lot of sommeliers are losing their jobs,” says Ronan Sayburn MS, head of wine at 67 Pall Mall, a London private members’ club for wine lovers, and COO of the Court of Master Sommeliers Europe. “It’s not necessarily the senior ones, but the more junior ones. I think the top-end restaurants will mostly be fine, but the mid-market could suffer – those with one sommelier, rather than a team.”

The UK is highly reliant on sommeliers and other hospitality staff from continental Europe, but many have returned home during the pandemic and – with the ongoing uncertainty of Brexit – many may not return. Those who remain face a highly competitive job market and the need to be increasingly flexible in the workplace as venues reduce their staffing levels.

“Sommeliers might not just be doing the wine anymore,” says Xavier Rousset MS, restaurateur and sommelier, whose London restaurants include Cabotte, Greenwich Kitchen and Blandford Comptoir. “But they might also have to help during service. They need to adapt in that way – but all of them will have started as waiters at some point. Now they’ve got no choice – it’s that or you’re out of a job.”

“Sommeliers do have transferrable skills,” adds Sayburn. “Most have a head for business – so they could become restaurant managers and still look after the wine list. They could also use their wine knowledge for online education, masterclasses and writing.”

But what about the experience when they do interact with the customer? Both Rousset and Sayburn expect evolution, rather than drastic change. “You can still talk to people and have a conversation,” says Sayburn. “But maybe people will need to be smarter about writing wine lists and thinking about a different way to communicate.”

Meanwhile, bars are increasingly evolving to resemble restaurants, with table service, pre-booking and time limits on tables increasingly the norm. “Bars are unable to turn over their previous numbers and service time has slowed, resulting in lower turnover, but on a positive note, this gives them more time to service their customers and potentially a more personalised service,” says Dove.

Reduced interaction – as well as the financial impact on restaurants – will usher in an age of shorter, digital wine and cocktail lists accessed via mobile phones and QR codes, but with the potential for more detailed notes on, for example, individual wines and their food pairing possibilities.

“On-trade venues have adopted digital menus quite quickly in response to Covid-19 measures. We could see even more innovation in how operators use this new channel as an extension of the overall dining experience. Digital menus will likely become far more interactive and, as has already been witnessed, ordering and paying is likely to be increasingly incorporated into the process. Waiting staff, mixologists and sommeliers will always play an important role in the bar and restaurant sector, but in certain formats, particularly in chains, their influence may well start to diminish going forward,” remarks Dan Mettyear, IWSR’s head of wine and research director for Africa.

“Smaller lists will mean much more competition for listings, but it was already like that in London anyway,” says Sayburn – an acceleration, he says, of the trend towards smaller wine inventories and a more casual environment that began following the 2008 financial crash.

“I believe digital and tech have been heavily underused in hospitality for many years,” says Dove. “Covid has fast-tracked the obvious need to use better online content and ways to communicate with consumers at home, to enable other ways to emotionally connect with them outside of a face-to-face interaction in bars.

“We have seen a huge rise over the past months in online masterclasses, improved ecommerce bar websites [and] bottled cocktails at home.”

As the respective roles of sommeliers and mixologists evolve and adapt to the changing situation, the future of many will depend on their bars and restaurants surviving reduced capacity and turnover, and the economic consequences of the pandemic.

At his restaurants in London, Rousset reports a busy July, where business “picked up nicely”, but a quieter August – in London, a month traditionally highly dependent on inbound foreign tourism. As such, he says, trade during the autumn months of September and October will be crucial to the future of many bars and restaurants – whatever new tactics and skills their sommeliers and bartenders adopt.

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