Fear of commitment is the driving force behind the enduring popularity of small plates: Ordering a smaller, less expensive portion of some novel taste seems less risky than plunking down $30 for a dish you may not enjoy, and you can sample several different tastes instead of being married to one.
If food can be intimidating, consider wine. Viewing a wine list can fire up dormant insecurities in even the most confident people. And as the number of wineries and labels turning up in restaurants has proliferated, keeping track of what's good, what teams well with what food and what's a value has become ever more dicey. That's where Crú — A Wine Bar comes in. This budding concept aims to establish a third place, this one for wine enthusiasts.
“I saw a need for people to be able to buy premium wines by the glass without making a commitment to the bottle,” says Patrick Colombo, president and c.e.o. of Restaurant Works, a Dallas-based hospitality management company that has developed Crú and a handful of other concepts in Dallas, Denver and Atlanta. Colombo was one of the brains behind the Sfuzzi chain.
Before launching Crú, Colombo and his associates spent time studying Starbucks — not its product, but how people used it as a place to meet, a stop before or after dinner, for job interviews, etc. “Starbucks is a lifestyle concept,” he observes. “We felt wine was the most approachable product, and probably the most acceptable beverage to create another lifestyle concept with.”
All About the Pour
Crú focuses squarely on the wine experience. Wine is offered three ways: by the bottle, by the glass and by the flight. About 70 percent of wine sales are flights, which consist of two-ounce pours of three wines connected by region, varietal or style.
Speaking of style, those flights are delivered with a flourish, in signature glasses on specially designed stainless steel holders and with detailed tasting notes. Up to 15 flights are offered and change weekly; they are listed with catchy names, such as “California Cabs,” “Sexy Reds” or “Backpacking Through Europe.”
“We see a lot of sharing going on, and what evolves from the flights is they may order a second full glass of their favorite,” Colombo says. The “sweet spot,” he adds, is $11-$14 for a glass or flight.
Besides the flights, more than 300 bottles and 60 by-the-glass options are available, and the menu of small plates and entrees is designed to showcase the wine.
Crú's wine buyer source as many of the wines that appear on Wine Spectator's Top 100 list as possible to give guests a chance to taste them. Sometimes, with wines that are offered on a limited basis, Crú will offer them by the glass for maybe $25. “Customers love us for the fact that they can't get it anywhere, but they get a taste,” Colombo says. “We are about bringing new tastes to the marketplace.”
To ensure quality of the wines by the glass, Crú locations use the Le Verre De Vin system, which creates a vacuum in the opened bottle to preserve the remaining wine. Wines are stored at three different temperatures, for white, light reds and medium-full body reds. By-the-glass wines are poured at the table. Crú uses seven different sizes of glasses, all designed to enhance the enjoyment of certain varietals and all designed with a Crú logo and a subtle pouring line. “If you're in the wine business, you can't overpour or underpour; that's where all your margins are,” Colombo points out.
To help guest navigate the world of wine even better, Crú's servers are required to attend weekly tasting meetings, and they are encouraged to attend local trade tastings and wine events. Some have been sponsored in sommelier classes. Crú also hosts winemaker dinners periodically.
The commitment has paid off: Several of Crú's locations have received Wine Spectator awards.
Colombo estimates that about 30 percent of Crú's guests are knowledgeable about wine. “They're probably the guys and ladies ordering the bottles. They know what they want to drink, and they're not concerned about tasting three pinots from around the world.” Those most willing to experiment tend to be younger.
“I think the whole wine drinking market is much more knowledgeable overall,” he adds. “Ten years ago, the average age when people started to drink premium wines was 27-28; now it's 22.” More colleges are putting wine classes on the schedule. Colombo also points out that wine storage closets are a growing trend in new home construction.
Heavily Female Demographic
Crú is designed to provide an intimate, relaxing environment. It's also tailored to appeal to women, which it's succeeded in doing. Two-thirds of guests are female.
The appeal for women traces back to the design. “One of the nice things about a wine bar is that it's not a boisterous pub, it's not a sports bar — it's an easy place for conversation,” says Larry Bogdanow, principal of Bogdanow Partners and the architect of the original Crú location. At Crú, weeknights might be crowded with groups of women hanging out with friends (especially on Thursdays, when all champagnes are half-price), while weekends are more couple-oriented.
The 2,000-square-foot spaces are divided into three sections that serve guests' different needs: a café, a lounge and a wine bar. French doors also lead to seating on a patio. So guests feel comfortable, whether they are stopping in for a before- or after-dinner or theatre drink, meeting with friends to hang out or enjoying a dinner date. Each location seats 40-60 indoors.
“The spaces are very intimate and cozy, geared toward quality interaction,” Colombo explains.
The first Crú opened in Dallas in 2002; it's been followed by two more in Dallas, two in Austin, one in Houston and another in Denver. A second Denver store will open next month. By the end of 2009, a dozen will be up and running.
Slow But Steady Expansion
After the first store, it was three years before the second location opened, which gave Restaurant Works a chance to evaluate and refine the product. At first, for example, the menu consisted mainly of appetizers, which yielded good numbers in the early and late evenings, but a gap in between. “So we added an entrée section to fill in that middle between 7:30 and 9, which was our weakest time zone,” Colombo recalls. So far, most of the Crú locations are open only in the evening, but at future locations, depending on the neighborhood traffic patterns, more will be open for lunch as well.
As for sites, Crú is a candidate for markets that can support at least three units, Colombo says, to ensure synergies in purchasing, management and advertising. Local advertising positions Crú as an independent operator and often focuses on special events, such as champagne brunches or winemaker dinners.
One of the advantages of a concept like Crú, according to Colombo, is the relatively low cost of entry. The preferred location is in a lifestyle center, near other upscale restaurants and retail. Developers see Crú as a magnet, so they offer generous tenant improvement allowances that bring the construction cost down to about $500,000. “Now that we're doing second projects with some of the same developers, that (improvement) money has gone from $30 a square foot to $100,” he adds. Because of the comparatively small average size, other restaurants in the centers don't perceive Crú as a direct threat, but Crú is able to lure guests from them.
Sales at Crú break down into 60 percent wine, 40 percent food, which poses some problems getting a license in municipalities that insist on at least a 50 percent food mix.
So far, all the stores have been built by Restaurant Works, owned by Colombo and a limited partnership. The plan is to continue opening locations under that structure, then revisit the situation in two years. Colombo says he might consider either franchising or joint ventures at that point.
How has Colombo measured the success of Crú thus far? “When we had one and got to two, a lot of people asked me ‘how do you know it will travel?’ Then we went to Denver and Austin.” He's not sure how Crú would play somewhere like California, where wine bars are already more established. And while there are other wine bar concepts slowly making their way across the country, he thinks they may be trying to do too many things. “They want to be a retail store, a wine bar and have food, and they do all of them kind of just okay,” he observes. “We're trying to be a wine bar that pairs food to match the wines.”
Now, he's waiting to reach the next milestone, a critical mass of 10-15 units, before evaluating the concept's potential going forward. If the new locations do as well as the older ones, he thinks he'll have a winner.
On the Menu
Pistachio Crusted Salmon
With braised red cabbage and ginger carrot sauce
Rosemary Roasted Chicken
With fingerling potatoes and Brussels sprouts
Sinful Experience cheese flight
Humboldt Fog Cypress Grove Chevre, Robiola Bosina, King Island Roaring Forties Blue Served with bread, apple, pear, olives and grapes
Cru Steak Pizza
Sliced beef tenderloin with mixed greens, red onions and balsamic vinaigrette
With white wine, lemongrass, shallots, parsley and garlic
Will It Fly?
Orlando Espinosa, an operations and design consultant based in Glen Mills, PA, thinks Crú is “a neat idea,” calling it a grown-up version of Starbucks. For obvious reasons, it will never achieve the saturation of a coffee house, but for Crú to grow past its current base the company will “need to look for environments where people have the expendable income to do that kind of rest and relaxation with wine,” he says.
One potential negative for this young brand, he adds, is its ability to sustain a delicate balance of three different environments under one roof. At 52, he and his wife match the target demographics for Crú. But he wonders if the lounge, for instance, will attract “a crowd a lot younger than I want to be around — a lot noisier.”
CRÚ-A WINE BAR
CONCEPT: European-style wine bar
OWNERSHIP: Restaurant Works
SITES: In lifestyle centers, typically affluent communities
CHECK AVERAGE: $26
UNIT ANNUAL SALES $1.7-$1.9 million
MANAGEMENT: Patrick Colombo, president and c.e.o.; Jeffrey Denmon, director of operations; Paul Singhapong, corporate executive chef
EXPANSION PLANS: 15 by 2010