What Casual Dining Can Learn from Wineries

by Fred Slater
Group Account Director/Bohan

What Casual Dining Can Learn from Wineries
Fred Slater

I recently had the pleasure of attending a wedding in beautiful Napa Valley. The scenery was remarkable, not only for legions of grape vines covering fields and hillsides, but also the pedicured wineries that dotted the way. Napa and Sonoma were not on my top ten places to visit considering my affection for wine consists of a glass of Chardonnay only when void of Tennessee whiskeys and Kentucky bourbons. However, when in Rome, live as the Roman’s do, so I embraced the opportunity to visit, learn and taste.

It’s easy to be attracted to the intriguing stories of winemaking and as I absorbed these fascinating perspectives, I realized a parallel paradigm to the casual dining industry. Aside from offering a selected array of wines, successful restaurant brands utilize their expertise and environment in much the same way as wineries.

Parallel Paths

Let’s start with what makes the grapes and therefore the wine, most unique – their microclimate. Each vineyard is characterized by outside forces such as temperature range, humidity, direct sunlight and soil. These external influencers greatly determine the unique flavor of the grape and most suited type of wine. In similar fashion, successful restaurant brands understand and apply the unique offerings of their region by not only sourcing fresh proteins and ingredients but accentuating those items in their recipes and in their marketing. And as wine masters experiment with different blends for intriguing aromas and flavors, master chefs similarly test herbs, spices and preparation to engage their brand loyalists as well as extend appetite appeal to new guests.

A Fork in the Road

The enticement of sight, smell and taste dictate both wine and food consumption. And this is the point where some casual dining entities and wineries take a different path.

While wineries focus on engaging these three senses, it seems that a number of casual dining brands have diverted a great deal of focus to fads or new technology. Don’t get me wrong, our Millennial and Gen Z audiences are pushing the need to integrate technology that positively impacts guest experience, including web/mobile pre-ordering, place-in-line seating and bill paying. These innovations are particularly beneficial at lunch when time is short.

Research from OpenTable’s Technology and Dining Out 2015 reveals that 85% of survey respondents wish to know how long the wait for a table is and 83% desire to place their names on the waitlist before arriving. For these types of applications, tech integration serves as an enhancement to the experience, allowing more time devoted to dining as opposed to wait time or delays in paying the check.

However, when restaurants use technology to compensate for operational deficiencies and poor food quality (e.g. microwave steaks) or adapt to the most recent fad as a marketing ruse (did I hear a Pokémon drop?), then quality and experience are being underserved.

The need for speed is an imposing attribute to preparation and customer service; evolving technology has facilitated the attention and expectation for this feature. But our peers in the vineyard business thrive on taking the time to educate consumers on sight/smell/taste of their wine, sharing tips and winemaking perspectives. And contrast by associating “speed” with a low quality, unrefined product. And a side note, wine tastings are all about experimenting and sampling to find what appeals to you – shouldn’t restaurants be doing more sampling with guests on a daily basis?

I respect prompt attention and service – I don’t know anyone who doesn’t. But there is a multitude of eating options if your top priority is speed. Quick dining directs most folks to Fast Food or Quick Service Restaurants; they excel at speed by offering a limited menu and easy preparation. But in my opinion, casual dining is more akin to a winery sitting. Guests desire to enjoy the occasion, appreciate the presentation, experience wonderful smells and flavors, share experiences and tell stories. It’s about valuing the moment and relishing the company they’re with – isn’t that what “casual” means?

Napa and Sonoma wineries excel at utilizing the temperament of their grapes and continuously improving their offerings, and appreciate customer moments when the “senses” come together. It’s an understanding that many casual dining restaurants have and a few should be reminded of.


Fred Slater is a Group Account Director at BOHAN Advertising in Nashville, TN and has worked at a number of advertising agencies throughout his career with a strong focus on food and dining. He has also served as an adjunct professor of mass communications at Middle Tennessee State University.