Case Study: Using Technology in Staff Training

In the world of hospitality, it’s the small things that keep customers coming back for more. Just ask Serena Harkey, director of wine and spirits at Vine Hospitality, a company that owns and operates some of the eateries gracing the San Francisco Bay Area, including Left Bank, LB Steak, Camper, and Meso Modern Mediterranean family of restaurants.

Harkey oversees product placement, menu development, beverage manager development, staff education, strategic partnerships, and inventory management. She also assists with marketing the restaurants.

Harkey has also embraced the growing role that technology plays in all facets of bar and restaurant operations, including the integration of technology in staff training programs.

“We've provided all of our restaurants with a tablet that replicates all of their beverage menus,” says Harkey. “Each product listed is actually a link to a PDF of product information, tasting notes, and pairing suggestions. Because we don't have sommeliers in all of our properties, it's important to provide the service team with as much information as possible so that they can confidently talk about wine, spirits, and beer with ease and grace.”

Serena Harkey
Serena Harkey

Harkey celebrates the presence of technology throughout the company’s operations, and she stresses that other owners and operators consider using technology in their training programs as well. It is through her passion for curating award-winning wine lists that she has also embarked on her own training, pursuing advanced credentials with both the Wine and Spirits Education Trust and the Court of Master Sommeliers. Through this education, Harkey has embraced the importance of establishing a robust training program that integrates technology, allowing Vine Hospitality staff to enter the program at any time.

“Technology provides instant access to information at the touch of a finger. Management can use it on a daily basis as a training tool during preshift,” Harkey says. “And the service team can utilize it to study their menus in more depth. It's a great ‘on-the-spot’ resource to pull up quick talking points, even after guests have ordered a bottle of wine.”

Of course, as technology continues to make inroads throughout all facets of bar and restaurant operations, it is vital that owners do their “due diligence” in identifying and selecting the ideal training and certification platform that works for them, their venue concept, and their staff. As such, Harkey recommends working with a software platform that’s in line with what owners and operators are already doing and platforms that don't create more work for them.

“For example, I use WineQuest as both my menu builder and as my tasting sheet provider,” Harkey says. “It's important to maximize the potential of systems you already have or bring on something that can take on multiple uses.”

Among many of its offerings, the WineQuest list balance tool helps bars and restaurants assess their wine lists from a flavor perspective so they can identify any over- or under-represented flavor categories and make the necessary adjustments to optimize the venue’s wine offerings for guests.

So what does Harkey suggest are the best ways that restaurant owners and operators can integrate technology to operationalize and enhance a training program? 

“Consistency is the key to integration. Like anything new, it takes time to develop the habit,” Harkey says. “Get full buy-in from your management team so that they can lead the path on continuing education. Providing a schedule of training topics can help to create opportunities to move through inventory that you may have too much of [and] highlight producers or varietals that you're excited about. [It also] allows for both accountability and a system of trackable data so that you can see when your educational efforts are paying off.”

Within the hospitality industry every penny counts, which means that there are some key things that need to be considered in order to get the most out of in-house beverage training programs. For example, Harkey recommends bar and restaurant operators work with suppliers to create incentive programs.

“They can come in to conduct staff trainings, using their own product instead of your restaurant opening up bottles that you've paid for,” Harkey says. “Suppliers often provide rewards to the highest seller, like bottles or trips. Again, this saves you money by not having to provide the additional incentives to motivate the service team to drive sales.”

bartender training
(Photo: SDI Productions, iStock / Getty Images Plus)

Looking ahead, it is evident that technology will continue to play a vital role in the training programs and overall operation of bars and restaurants.

“Technology is certainly here to stay. Finding strong wine, spirit, and cocktail professionals that truly want to commit to the grind of restaurants and work the hours is becoming harder and harder,” Harkey says. “With the advancement of social media, there are so many other avenues for careers in the beverage industry. When we lack these incredible sources of knowledge in our restaurants, we have to rely on technology as our alternative resource for staff education.”


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