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Sommeliers Open Their Own Restaurants, Following A Trail Blazed By Celebrity Chefs

May 9, 2013

Until recently, serious restaurants in the United States were owned by celebrity chefs, creative developers like Danny Meyer and Richard Melman, or corporate chains. But sommeliers have now begun taking the lead role, as investors make them the centerpiece of their restaurant concepts.

The sommelier-as-restaurateur list today includes beverage industry stars like Rajat Parr at RN74 in San Francisco, Paul Grieco at Hearth in New York, Brett Davis at Doc Crow’s Southern Smokehouse in Louisville, Bobby Stuckey at Frasca Food & Wine in Boulder and Alpana Singh of The Boarding House in Chicago.

The Boarding House, launched in December, is one of Chicago’s hottest new restaurants. Its backers, commodities traders Matt Fisher and John Ward, found the four-story, 1870s-era River North location and persuaded Singh to join them. It was no small bet, as the 300-seat establishment cost $3 million to launch. Singh devised a wine list of 500 selections and asked executive chef Christian Gosselin to create dishes to match them. Some 80% of her alcohol sales are in wine, with nearly 1,800 bottles sold in the first full month of business in January, carrying an average price of $70.

Rajat Parr, part-owner of RN74 in San Francisco, has opened a second venue in Seattle and has a third location due soon. Asked why it has taken so long for sommeliers to become owners, Parr says it’s because the sommelier profession is still relatively new to the U.S. “When I started working at Rubicon with Larry Stone in 1996, people still didn’t fully realize how much profit there could be in the beverage program,” Parr, 40, recalls. “A lot of sommelier training began, and a transition occurred. Now there are many sommeliers around the U.S.—a change from 20 years ago. Eventually we’ll see many of them open their own restaurants. This trend will continue.”

While the sommelier/restaurateur model is relatively nascent, some of the movement’s earliest pioneers are already thinking big, opening multiple locations in the U.S. and even expanding into international markets. In San Francisco, Shelley Lindgren, former sommelier at Fleur de Lys, opened A16 in 2004 and later opened SPQR, followed by an SPQR in Tokyo and another due to open this year in Oakland. Lindgren has 16 staff members studying for sommelier certificates. And in New York, Joe Campanale, former sommelier at Babbo, is just 29 but already is co-owner of Dell’anima, open since 2007, and such spin-offs as L’Artusi and L’Apicio. Campanale has launched a management company and marketing department and is currently in the hunt for more properties.

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