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How Wine is Chosen in Top Restaurants of London

18/08/2018 Get insights from Hakkasan Group on how to select wine for London's premium restaurants.

Drinks and wine producers around the world often ask how do we secure distribution in London’s best restaurants? It is all made to look so simple. However when strategy moves from the boardroom to execution that’s when things toughen up.

How Hakkasan Group does it

Christine Parkinson Hakkasan GroupHakkasan has been in the UK since 2001 and Christine Parkinson is responsible for wine purchasing across the global group. She maintains, in a modest fashion, that the role is not as grand as it sounds. Rather that the role is about setting the standards and processes by which they buy the wine. The Tuesday Tasting is one such protocol established across the Hakkasan Group. Around the globe, it may not be a Tuesday and they may not be tasting the same wines but the standards of tasting and pairing with broad food styles (mild, savoury, sweet and spicy) and the scoring system from ‘out’ (not for consideration) to ‘pass plus’ (a great match) are the same.

In a rare opportunity, I was able to sit with Christine Parkinson and her ‘Tuesday Tasting’ selection committee to identify wine candidates for the Hakkasan Group list in the UK. I was lucky enough to taste with James Doughty, Head Sommelier at Sake No Hana, Mayfair, Chris Stradling, Senior Sommelier at Yauatcha Soho, Jose Hernandez, Head Sommelier at Hakkasan Mayfair and Helen Williams, Wine Team Assistant and Christine herself.

For Christine, the process is an inclusive one, where at the bare minimum everyone has a say. She may make the final decisions; wine buying is a culture, not an autocratic judgement.  The history of these tastings has emerged organically from processes formed when the founder and serial restauranteur Alan Yau OBE was still around. These gentle, yet considered protocols are reflected in their inclusive approach across the Hakkasan Group today.

The Group

With the turnover of $338M (Accounts to 30.6.16) Hakkasan’s operations are based in London, USA, China and Dubai.  Their portfolio of 53 properties is spread across restaurants in Las VegasMumbaiNew York CitySan FranciscoMiamiAbu DhabiBeverly HillsShanghaiDubai, and Doha, Oslo and Marrakesh. They are positioned in the premium place in the markets divided into 3 divisions Asian Luxury, Social Dining and Nightlife & Daylife. The centre of the group is the Asian Luxury core of restaurants.

Yauatcha Soho

A ‘Glocal’ Supply Chain

Designing the framework to build wine and drinks lists across a global network requires a careful and thorough approach. Norway to Morocco, for example, is a huge cultural difference, each of which needs respecting in careful ways. In Norway, there is seemingly never enough fine Burgundy and Bordeaux to satisfy the market; whereas in Morocco local wine production is an important part of the mix. In the former, they can respect localness by including the great Sake brewery. So an initial respect and research perspective are important.

Hakkasan also has considerable help on the ground from local representatives that can advise them as to what relationships they can expect from suppliers, who they are and many other aspects no doubt. Christine has developed questions to ask as the group enters a new market, although by doing so reminds us of her modesty, as she declares that there is always something that she didn’t think of.

These are elemental questions such as how does wine get into the country, at what points and by how much is it taxed and crucially about the workforce and their qualifications.

By way of demonstrating the latter point, in the UK and the Middle East the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) is well established, indeed Hakkasan provide their own in-house courses. Both James and Chris in the tasting have progressed to become educators, whereas Jose just has one part to complete and Helen is just beginning. In the USA, a prospective candidate will probably have already taken the sommelier exams and be a part of the Court of Master Sommeliers.

 The supply chains for different countries can also be so very different. In Norway the retail is run by the state monopoly, but not the restaurant sector; in Dubai, there are 2 distributors, who are not really competitors, Abu Dhabi, there were 4 now 8 and in Qatar, 1 – the state! And the latter is the easiest to deal with.

How to break into the market

So how do you appeal to restaurant groups like Hakkasan and hopefully appear on their list?

Christine’s primary advice is for producers to recruit a good distributor. If you know where you want to be sold you have to find the distributor that is selling in those places. It is simply no use to find a distributor that is selling to a supermarket is not going to be supplying the restaurant sector. Knowing your target customer and then the distributor community, mapping out the supply route is critical to a successful search for the right distribution partner.

That will be just the beginning. The next aspect is to get your pricing right. Christine has spent many times analysing products and often the background is right, but then at the last hurdle, the pricing is often not correct. A good distributor will advise on this and position a product correctly. Different markets have different facets, so remaining open, flexible and tuning into each is vital.

In order to embed your brand into the market then you will need to enthuse with the distributors and their staff. The next stage is to bring the staff & customers to the outlets that they supply. This will requires resources, commitment and samples of course.

Your First Steps

Taking your first steps into the complex UK market is the critical part.

-- identify the types of consumers that you believe will be interested in your products.

-- what part of the market will they be in? the higher volume, lower value retail, or lower volume, higher value on-premise consumption trade?

research distributors allied with that sector. Consider recruiting a consultant to help you.

The UK market takes its drink very seriously and has done for many generations and centuries. There is a reason that it has deep historical relationships with Bordeaux, Oporto and Mosel and Rheingau. Be prepared to mix it with the best and to prove it in their terms. It is certainly not for the faint-hearted!

About The Author

Alistair_-Morrell The article is contributed by Alistair Morrell a Wine Inspector, wine industry consultant, journalist and, commentator. Over 30 years as a wine business professional, Alistair shares his global knowledge, network, and experience of growers, importers, distributors and buyers.