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Bill Main & Associates
Corkage fees charged by restaurateurs to uncork, decant
and serve a customer's bottle of wine have soared to upwards of $50
in America's most popular dining spots. This is creating a controversy
that has some people popping their corks. Any operator has the right
to charge a corkage fee, and if you do, the primary consideration should
not be how much you charge, but how well your staff can articulate the
fees and explain the reasons for your policy.
While the custom of charging a fee for serving a guest's bottle of wine
has been around forever, there has never been a clear cut industry standard.
As such, you should consider the issue, and your own policy, from a number
If a guest arrives with their own wine, don't be insulted, be realistic.
As a friend of mine once said, you have two choices: you can be gracious
or you can be a jerk. Pick a policy that is consistent with your personality
and company culture. Today's consumers are price conscious and sophisticated
when it comes to wine, and customers who appreciate wine typically spend
more on food and are prepared to pay corkage fees. It's the amateur or
cheapskate that you need to handle carefully.
Corkage fees are pure profit. While you may have lost the profit on a
bottle of wine from your list, you are not expending any more labor to
open their bottle than your own. What's better... a $15 mark-up on a bottle
from your inventory, less carrying charges storage, spoilage, insurance,
theft and returns; or a $15 fee with no costs attached? Do the math. Remember,
you take dollars to the bank, not percentages, and in many cases, you
could be money ahead.
There are many different ways to set a corkage fee: A flat fee based on
what your competition charges A fee equal to the lowest priced bottle
of wine on your wine list A fee equal to the cost of a class of premium
wine A sliding scale: $25 for the first two bottles; $35 for the third
bottle; $50 for each bottle thereafter A stem charge: This is especially
effective with large parties with several bottles of wine. Each wine requires
a glass. Unless you're prepared, this may put a strain on your inventory
and the dishwasher, leaving your other guests without. Don't forget to
give discounts for magnums and other large bottles. And don't be afraid
to charge extra if a bottle requires special treatment like decanting.
Most guests who bring a bottle of wine to dinner do so because it has
significance...an anniversary bottle, a cellared wine aged to perfection,
a treat to share picked up on travels abroad, etc. It is important for
servers to be well-trained in opening, decanting, and serving the wine,
what to do if a wine appears to be bad, how to follow a guest's instructions
with no attitude, and even how to respond when offered a taste of a special
There will be guests who are unhappy with a corkage fee. Give your staff
adequate training so they can professionally explain your policy and fee
should the necessity arise. Prepared
scripts and some role playing will help to diffuse potentially sticky
situations. If, however, you find that you consistently encounter problems,
try lowering or restructuring your fee. In the end you'll have to waive
them less often to appease unhappy guests.
For Trade Secrets Members, we've created a sample
corkage policy and sample script for training hosts, wait staff or
sommeliers, or printing on your the wine list and web site.