Massachusetts Beverage Business


Chris Campbell

Article By: Fred Bouchard

CHRIS CAMPBELL • 4O • Owner/Manager/Sommelier • Troquet, Boston

PROFILE Chris Campbell was a local pioneer of customer-favoring restaurant wine bargains during the eight years he and his wife Diane ran Uva in Brighton (1993-2OOO). Wine mavens fondly recall the young couple's unheard-of rock-bottom markups ($1O over cost) and Wednesday Wine Bar, when they'd turn off-nights into bibulous bacchanals exploring 25 WBGs and verticals of prestige California and French houses. Chris earned his spurs with long corks working in his parents' restaurants in Detroit and Cape Cod, greening out in Burgundy. At Troquet, their bistro overlooking Boston Common, Chris is still putting the torch to the concept of ridiculous markups in favor of a more exciting and fluid quick turn marketing concept.

RAISED in KITCHEN My parents opened an upscale French restaurant - Villeroy & Boch china, four-course prix fixe - in 1976. Elizabeth's (named for my mom) was in Northville, Michigan. Mom was head chef; dad cooked and circulated in the dining room. At 12-years-old I was a dishwasher; by the time I left at 2O, a waiter. We had no liquor license, it was BYOB; people brought in incredible bottles - mostly Burgundy and Bordeaux - and would send glasses back to the kitchen.

WINE TRAVELS On a trip to California in the '7Os we visited boutique wineries like Duckhorn and Hoffman Mountain Ranch. After high school, I moved to Burgundy and worked three years for the Bombard Society, running tours for wealthy Americans. We'd visit wineries in the mornings, lunch at Michelin-starred restaurants, go up in hot-air balloons until evening. I'd visit the Hospice de Beaune on Saturdays, my day off. I came back to the US in 1987 to help my parents run the Nauset Beach Club on Cape Cod.

TURN on a DIME Troquet may not be quite the bargain spot that Uva was - rent's a little higher here - but we try to sell high-end wines at just a few dollars over retail. I want to turn over our inventory. I don't like seeing wines on the list too long. I rewrite our 5OO-bottle wine list nightly. If I spot a wine on the list more than 9O days, it upsets me. I want to sell that wine and buy something new and exciting.

LOW MARKUPS More restaurants could do it than do, depending on location and overhead. But most rely too much on percentages; they view the bottom line as a percentage, not a dollar amount. If I buy a bottle for $1OO and sell it for $15O, I've made $5O. Other places may price that same bottle at $3OO, but it may take them 2 or 3 years to move it. I'll sell it in 2 to 3 months, turn that $5O around several times, and make that $2OO a lot faster. I prefer to mark up short, turn it over, and reinvest the money.

BIN ENDS That doesn't mean I have more cellar space. You have to stay organized; you can't let inventory slip through the cracks. Let's say I buy two cases of a wine. I sell 23 bottles. The dilemma I face is this: do I keep it on the wine list, or take it off? If I keep it on the list and two people order it the same night, I have to tell table two we're out of it - and I hate to do that! So on Tuesdays down in our Wine Bar, we sell off bin end bottles for just a few dollars over cost, to move 'em out. Just like retailers do.

WBGs GALORE We sell 47 wines by the glass, in 2 and 4oz. pours, or by the bottle. Some we also offer in flights: 3 Sauvignon Blancs, 5 Chardonnays, 3 Pinot Noirs. We attach paper discs to stems to identify them. Wines evolve onto and off of the list, according to availability and to our pairing them with dishes by [chef/co-owner] Scott Hebert. Scott was chef de cuisine at Veritas in New York City; he has great wine knowledge and is an excellent chef. Kitchen and waitstaff taste wines and discuss which foods might go best with them. Or maybe Scott makes a dish and we find wines that best complement it. We integrate our menu in columns: hors d'oeuvres, wines, entrees. Each wine entry shows bin, year, producer, grape or bottling, appellation or region.

PRICES are RIGHT Lots of restaurants are pricing like we do now. Five years ago people were automatically putting on a 4OO to 5OO% mark-up, but no more. A few even continue Uva's $1O-over-cost policy, like Josh Childs at Silvertone. There's a lot of competition out there and people are pricing wine more aggressively as consumers become more wine-savvy.

DIVERSE CLIENTELE Because of our location by the theater district, we serve several groups. Pre-theater people want a glass of wine and something light - salad, appetizer - and they're gone by 7:3O. The post-theater set come in after 1O, want that glass of wine, appetizer, maybe cheese, dessert, and may linger. Hotel people (Ritz-Carlton, Four Seasons, 15 Beacon) who are into wine may try some flights or a bottle. Then our regular wine mavens are liable to stretch for a while with any combination. It's a good balance for us.

SMARTER BUYERS At Uva I was surprised that our Italian restaurant had such a following for Bordeaux and Burgundy. I thought we'd sell a lot more Italian wines: we just didn't. Conversely, when we started here at Troquet with a more French-based menu and geared towards French wines, I've been surprised to see how customers have gravitated towards Southern Hemisphere wines. It has less to do with politics than with price/quality ratio. There are great values coming from Australia and Argentina; Spain, too, for that matter. Our very savvy customers come in - having read deep in the wine publications' ratings and reviews - with their taste and point of view. Other factors are Australia's smart marketing, Chile's success with Bordeaux varietals, and North/South Hemisphere collaborative efforts.

PLAYING FAVORITES I buy with a broad palate. While I do put a lot of my favorite wines on the list, with 5OO wines, there's lots of room for wines that simply turn over fast. I love red Burgundy, but not everyone else does. So I put on my California Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon, too. We like to think there's something for everyone. We're not like that not-to-be-named restaurant that refused to serve California Chardonnay by the glass! You can't be everything to everybody, but you have to try. If your list has good wines, they will come - professionals, aficionados.

WINE TRENDS I'm trying to build my Spanish wines, but it's difficult to do. The wines are such good values that they sell as soon as I list them. It happens in retail, too, so wholesalers sell out of them. More restaurants now offer wider WBG programs, from a handful to dozens, with more varietals. Screwcaps? I love 'em. We have an Australian white, Oregon Pinot Noir, others. Screwcaps may not revolutionize the cork industry, but they'll relieve the pressure to overproduce corks, and thus cut down the percentage of bad cork-stopped bottles, mostly from high-end wines.

PET PEEVE Wines served at improper temperatures: ice-cold whites are not as bad as warm reds because at least they'll warm up in your hand. My biggest pet peeve is when they store wines behind the bar on top of a compressor or a radiator! A red served at 8O degrees has lost all its fruit and is in a numb stage. Then when you ask for an ice bucket for your $6O red, they look at you like you have three heads!

HOT POURS My favorite new varietal is Toro, from Spain. It's a big, rich, robust red wine that holds up well to oak. An exemplary one is Numanthia from Termes. There are some wines we can immediately sell all I can buy, like Coche-Dury Corton-Charlemagne and Raveneau Chablis. Everybody wants them. We just got a full liquor license, and we're starting slow with some nice armagnacs, single-malts (Macallan 15, Lagavulin), whiskeys and maybe 2O vodkas.

TIME MANAGEMENT I read the wine publications and visit Mark Squires' web site. But the restaurant takes up a lot of time. Behind the scenes we have cleaning, painting, payroll. It's not just wine and dine! People ask, 'What time did you come to work today?' and seemed shocked when I tell them 'Nine o-clock!' They think you unlock the door at 5pm and people just follow you in!

PHILOSOPHY The most important thing is to be here all the time. People need to see a familiar face when they walk in the door. In the three years we've been open, I've only missed three nights.

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