When Rick Hauck and Joe Saccone saw a defunct restaurant building on Coventry Road in Cleveland back in the 80s, they had an idea – remodel the building and open a steakhouse. With no extra money to advertise, they relied on word of mouth, and it worked. In 1988, the first Hyde Park Steakhouse opened with 9 more to follow. The New York chophouse atmosphere proved a successful format. Zagat has regaled them as “Ohio’s Top Steakhouse.”The Hyde Park Restaurant Group now has 18 upscale establishments across the country in Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Florida. In addition to Hyde Park Prime Steakhouse, the company operates Jekyll’s Kitchen, eleven at Hyde Park, ML Tavern and Black Point Prime Steak & Seafood.
We talked with Brandon Ford, Corporate Beverage Director for Hyde Park Restaurant Group about everything from his love of Champagne (something we totally get), to the professor track, to the very successful wine program he has built for the restaurant group.
Please tell us a little about yourself and how you got to Hyde Park?I’ve been with the company three years. I had been in the hospitality industry for 15 years prior to that. I had done every position front-of-house, ultimately spending the last 10 years in Buffalo, New York as a Beverage Director for a local fine dining group.Did you always want to work in the hospitality industry?I actually went to school to be an English professor. I received my master’s degree in Post Modern Literary Theory in 2008. The economy went south really quick so at that point I made a decision to so something I also loved, and that wouldn’t take an additional seven years more of graduate school. And the other thing I loved was hiring. And here we are.Were wine and cocktails part of the Ford family household growing up??Alcohol wasn’t a part of my household. My dad had maybe a beer if we went out to celebrate something – Miller Lite – in the bottle. So, my first memory of anything other than that is when I started in fine dining and finding wine just utterly fascinating; it was subjective, like literature, but also objective in that there was rules, places, geology, and climate that went into making it. It appealed to me intellectually very early.That makes complete sense. Kind of like an “Aha” moment?Exactly. I remember when I won my first wine contest at my first fine dining job and I won a bottle of wine. I took it home and thought it was just the coolest thing. I gave it its own little blanket to protect it from light—I had no concern that it was in the top of the closet getting blasted by the heating vent—and I treated it like it was a bottle of DRC.Hahaha. Guessing the whole culinary thing was also an eye-opener?I clearly remember my first “nice” restaurant experience when I graduated high school. It was revelatory. People ate like this, had this quality of food and drink, and were served by professionals who “knew” things and made you feel special. It was incredible.
We would love to hear about what you do for your guests?We only exist for our guests. Our clientele tends to run the gamut from millennial to boomers, from celebrations to corporate outings, and each seem to have different beverage wants and needs. Our younger clientele is more on trend and willing to try new wines and spirits from up-and-coming regions, while our more established clientele may be more interested in established brands and cult wines. So, we do a little bit of all: classics, trends, and under the radar. We take both points of view into account when making our decisions.How do you pick your wines?We live by the 75/25 rule: 75% of our beverage list should be accessible and somewhat familiar. This doesn’t mean that we won’t explore new producers, but maybe the guest is familiar with the region or grape, and vice versa. Twenty-five percent of our list we push the envelope somewhat and try to stay on trend with newer regions, varietals, spirits, or producers.
I’m always looking for value at every price point. We blind This ML Tavern plays upon the local polo and hunting traditions of the community, such as the Chagrin Valley Hunt.[/caption]
Has this, shall we say wine savvy-ness, affected how you choose wines?It’s certainly become harder. Training and education have become the single most important aspect of our program. We don’t have to have exactly what the guest is looking for from a producer or regional standpoint, but we do need to know analogues and how to get the guest what they’re looking for from a flavor standpoint. This is where knowledge and hospitality come in.And with that in mind, how do you prepare your staff?We do weekly educational topics with the entire management teams at the locations once week. We also have a Court of Master Sommeliers Introductory and Certified program that we invite our management team to take part in. We run them through 12 weeks of webinars and quizzes and then if they pass a final exam, we pay for them to take—and hopefully pass—their intro or certified exam.
We also have trainings which are “from the box” if you will, that our beverage managers can run on site on a monthly basis when they see areas of opportunity: upselling, Old World Wine knowledge, Scotch, etc.What percentage of your sales are wine sales?Wine accounts for 52% of beverage sales. Beverage sales are 33% of total sales.What prices seem to work best?$75-$125 seems to be the sweet spot.How about your sweet spot? What’s your favorite wine and food pairing?Champagne with anything. Literally anything. Actually, just pour me champagne.