A Restaurant Facing Tough Choices
It’s not every night that a restaurant changes its overall concept and hosts a sell-out event (based on that new concept). But here is a brief story of a restaurant that did both of these things – and of how an unlikely stranger (me, that is) was able to play a part in rightening the ship.
Craft Cuisine, based in Ocala, Florida, began its life with an emphasis on the buzz-word meaning of “craft,” e.g., the craft cocktail/locally sourced ingredient movement. But for reasons that better belong in a marketing case study, that direction didn’t take hold with the local community. The food was amazing. But sales were suffering. And a new direction was needed.
So I worked with the owners and managers of Craft Cuisine. Together we created a new direction by stepping back and asking ourselves who they really were. The answer, it was decided, was that the restaurant was actually less about the “craft” movement and more focused on new American cuisine (fusion approaches of blending ingredients and preparation methods from around the world).
Thus, with a little help from a semi-retired marketing professor, Craft Cuisine abandoned their old concept and replaced it with what they felt was an honest description of everything they do – and a new marketing tagline was born: World-Inspired Dining.
From Theory to Practice
After the owners changed their concept (and narrative) to one that better described the authentic experience of the restaurant for diners, one of the first projects was to create an event to officially launch the new concept. And in a stroke of luck, the retired marketing professor who helped the restaurant rebrand also happened to be a wine consultant who specializes in pairing foods and wines.
At any rate, the World-Inspired Dining idea was put into practice with an event that would showcase the range of the restaurant’s chefs and the range of the restaurant’s wine list. The foods included Italian, Spanish, Argentinian, Caribbean, and even Thai influences. The wines came from Italy, Sicily, New Zealand, Argentina, and California.
Side note: the daydream I had while in wine school of chefs and sommeliers, working side by side, developing magical pairings was quickly snuffed out. In the real world, chefs are busy. My job as the new sommelier wasn’t to be his best friend. It was to be handed a menu and select wines that would honor the chef’s creations. So that’s what I did.
For the Burrata antipasta, I chose a crisp, fruit-foward Prosecco. It was an adequate pairing, but in retrospect, because of the fresh tomato, I’d go with a dry sparkling rose next time.
The garlic shrimp was prepared in the traditional tapas style, brimming with garlic and roasted chile peppers. The Fire Road Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand, with its juicy, tropical flavors that balanced the heat of the shrimp, was a charming partner. And the attendees, at this point, began to understand how wine and foods can help bring out the best in each other.
The third course was beef belly finished in a chimichurri spice. For this course, I used a Malbec/Cab Franc blend (Santa Julia) from Argentina. The cumin and parsley in the chimichurri played well with the roasted green notes of the Cab Franc; and the assertiveness of the Malbac’s black fruits were bold enough to stand up to the richness of the beef and the spices.
Course four was…less than spectacular. And it was an important lesson: always taste the food before pairing the wine. In theory, the R Blend Zinfandel blend should have worked. But the soy and the sugar in the Pork Belly butted heads with the wine, making the pairing horribly ordinary.
Course five also taught a lesson. If one finally gets to sample the ingredients, don’t serve a wine simply because the promotional material mentioned it. For the coco flan, I kicked up the sweetness by replacing the Reisling with a Sicilian Moscatto (Corvo). The wine’s luscious sweetness, but food-friendly acidity, helped win over a room of people who (thought they) didn’t like sweet wines.
All in all, an exceptionally successful evening. The room was filled to capacity. The reviews from guests were gushing. The restaurant was able to bring in many new faces who hadn’t visited the restaurant before that evening.
In the end, the “craft” in Craft Cuisine hadn’t gone away. The craft of the kitchen, the craft of the winemakers, the craft of the marketing professionals employed to communicate the restaurant’s vision – all of these things worked together to produce a new beginning for the restaurant.
Finally, the evening helped reveal one more thing, albeit on a personal note: one never really knows how the seemingly disparate pieces of their interests and professional experiences may come together one day. As it turns out, maybe a sommelier branding professor doesn’t sound so crazy after all.