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Legal Sea Foods Boosts Wine Sales With Versatile Approach As Beverage Alcohol Takes 20 Percent Of Total Business

September 9, 2011

Legal Sea Foods was founded in 1950 when George Berkowitz opened the Legal Sea Foods fish market in the Inman Square neighborhood of Cambridge, Massachusetts. The fish market was adjacent to a grocery store founded by George’s father Harry in 1904, called Legal Cash Market. The word “Legal” in the name was based on the fact that Harry’s customers were awarded “Legal Stamps” (similar to S&H green stamps) with their purchases. The company opened its first restaurant in 1968, and today Boston-based Legal Sea Foods is a 30-unit restaurant group with locations in 10 states along the Eastern Seaboard. The company’s current president and CEO Roger Berkowitz is the third generation to run this privately held company. Shanken News Daily recently spoke with Sandy Block, VP-Beverages, to discuss the innovative beverage alcohol program he leads, which accounts for over 20% of total group revenues.

SND: What’s your overall philosophy in regard to wine service at Legal Sea Foods?

Block: Our number-one principle is that we want wine to be accessible and reasonably priced. Value goes hand in hand with quality, and that guides our selection process, our pricing and training. Basically, we want the wine experience to be pleasurable. To me, that means being treated fairly. Fortunately we have a healthy business, and we’re able to take shorter markups on our wines.

SND: What percent markup do you use?

Block: I honestly don’t use a formula. My pricing decisions are based on these three questions: when I go out to dinner, what price will make it difficult for me to say no to a wine, will it be a memorable wine, and will I tell other people about it? That’s the method. While we add a short markup on some wines by the bottle, we do recover a more normal industry markup on our by-the-glass wines. But the bottle list is designed to be tempting. If there’s a category I believe in that might be lesser known, we’ll work with even shorter markups.

SND: Does that help you sell more wines by the bottle than by the glass?

Block: It’s a different clientele and a different tasting opportunity. We deal with 8 million customers a year, and some dine for just 45 minutes, so they’re not going to order a bottle. Others come in for more of a dining experience. So we must be very versatile in addressing different customer intentions. We’re ready with an extensive mix of products and formats. We also do a lot of wine flights. In some of our units, we focus on half-bottles.

SND: What sort of wine flights do you offer, and how are they promoted?

Block: We promote them verbally and on our wine lists. They’re printed right up front with the wines by the glass, and it’s a training piece. We hopefully have our associates and bartenders talk them up. The flights are three wines of two ounces each. We do a six-ounce pour, so it’s equivalent to one glass. We have spirits flights, dessert wine flights and a 10-, 20- and 30-year-old Port flight for $15. In all our restaurants we have a flight called Great Shellfish Wines, which usually includes a Muscadet and two other crisp, unoaked white wines. Right now that flight includes a Muscadet, an estate-bottled Sancerre, and a Domaine Zind-Humbrecht Gueberschwihr Riesling—three excellent shellfish wines for $9.95. We sometimes offer a Terroirs of Chardonnay that features three different regions for Chardonnay. And in some cases, we have a flight called Red Wine With Fish, offering, for example, a Garnacha, Pinot Noir and Beaujolais. Pricing depends on the unit, but generally ranges from $8 to $12 except for the Port flight ($15).

SND: Do these flights result in bottle sales?

Block: Yes. The purpose is to introduce people to new things so they might want to spring for a full 6-ounce glass. But we love to highlight different themes. In the Massachusetts market, I currently have a red wine flight called California Dreaming: The Great 2007s. Due to the influence of Wine Spectator and other publications, people are aware that 2007 was something special in California. We offer 2007 Schafer Merlot, Stags’ Leap Merlot, Kenwood Jack London Sonoma Valley Cabernet, and Markham Vineyards Merlot. You can buy a two-ounce taste of each of those for $11.50. It’s a great deal.

SND: How do you make your wine buying decisions?

Block: We do blind tastings bi-annually, sampling about 30 flights each time. We’ve discovered some amazing wines through this process. It also gets everyone involved. I have a staff of beverage specialists, but we also invite waiters, waitresses, bartenders, chefs and cooks. We taste the wines and vote on them. This process has helped me discover things, and we get tremendous buy-in from the team.

SND: It sounds like a very democratic process.

Block: It is. I occasionally use veto power. The staff is closer to our guests than I am. Many are in their 20s and may not have a frame of reference for the classic wines. So if we’re tasting a flight of Alsace Rieslings with people on the panel who prefer sweeter wines and might reject something more classic and dry, I’ll sometimes veto the choice. But more often than not, I’ll go with their selection.

SND: Even though you’re the only MW (Master of Wine) in the room?

Block: Right. I know what I like, but they’re dealing with customers every day.

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