Last week I wrote about the concept of the Overton Window and speculated about what it might be able to tell us about the constantly evolving wine market. This week I follow up with an interesting study that finds a kind of “Overton” effect in restaurant wine programs and suggests that many restaurants may be leaving money on the table by the way they bind themselves to a particular narrow wine “window.”
Briefly, the Overton Window is a concept taken from the world of political analysis. It refers to the range of public policy options that are deemed generally acceptable at any particular moment. Political success, according to this theory, is all about either embracing the window to gain public support or finding ways to shift it in the direction you favor.
Financial Times columnist Tim Hayward applied the Overton Window concept to restaurant food. He noted that many creative chefs find themselves constrained by the customer Overton Window and the need to have “safety food” options like hamburgers, simple fish and chicken dishes, etc. so that customers feel comfortable coming to the restaurant.
If you choose to ignore the window conventions, you risk losing customers and ultimately your job. Hayward speculated that the most successful chefs stick to the window, but work on the edges to express creativity without leaving their customers behind.
I had more to say about this, of course, including some comments about giant hairballs, so you might want to read last week’s column if you haven’t already done so.
Wine Versus Beer and Spirits
The Overton Window is a new concept for me, but learning about it instantly reminded me of research that my friend James Davis did for his Master of Wine thesis, “Understanding consumer attitudes to large wine-brands as a purchasing cue in the United Kingdom (UK) multiple on-trade: a comparison of value and premium multiple outlets.”
The thesis is suitably complicated and probes many questions. I am going to simply (and probably over-simplify) and focus on just a couple of the results.
Davis wanted to understand the difference between wine programs in value restaurant chains (such as Wetherspoon’s and Harvester in the UK) and premium restaurant chains (such as Wagamama and Carluccio’s) and while he did not use the concept of the Overton Window, I think you will probably see why I think it applies.
Davis noted that when it comes to popular brands of beer and spirits, consumers expect to find them in both value and premium restaurants. The beer and spirits lists of the two types of restaurants aren’t identical by any means, but popular brands that are available in the shops are likely to be found in both types of establishments. This is consistent with the concept of staying within the consumer comfort and acceptance window.
Davis noted that the conventional wisdom is that wine is different from beer and spirits when it comes to popular brands. Widely-distributed wines like Hardy’s and Jacob’s Creek are likely to be found in the value outlets, but are not typically found in the premium segment. In other words, the restaurant wine windows are assumed to be much different. His research of the chains’ wine lists generally confirmed this finding, indicating that the restaurants treated wine a bit different from beer and spirits in terms of the types and range of brands on offer.
So, if you are following me so far, it seems that restaurants may be using their wine lists to communicate their identities (as value versus premium) more than they do with beer and spirits. Interesting, but is wine really so different from beer, spirits and food? Are the value and premium wine windows so very different?
And the Survey Says …
Davis then surveyed consumers and he found that many of them would have ordered wine at the premium restaurants if there had been a popular brand on the list. In other words, the windows in the two types of establishments may not be so distinct as conventional wisdom suggest.
Perhaps restaurant wine should be a little more like restaurant beer and spirits and not try to create its own special window? To quote from Davis’s thesis: “Premium outlets that do not list any large wine-brands are missing out on sales according to the findings of the consumer survey and also the wine-list review.”
This seems to me to be consistent with Tim Hayward’s hypothesis about restaurant food. Consumers want those safety options and you ignore them at your peril. Given that a widely available “safety wines” might be pretty popular (think Kim Crawford Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, for example, or Mondavi Napa Fume Blanc) I am not sure about the logic of avoiding them entirely, even if you want to construct a list that probes the creative boundaries or defines an image.
How Different is Wine?
As I said before, Davis explores more topics and provides more analysis, but this is where I will stop. My purpose is simple: maybe we should re-examine what we think we know about what works best for restaurant wine.
I’m not recommending that fine dining establishments limit their wine lists to what a consumer can find a Kroger’s or Tesco, just suggesting that broadening the list to include more popular (and probably cheaper) wines that fall squarely within the generally accepted wine window might improve wine sales while making customers happy, too.
If a restaurant is willing to offer a gourmet hamburger to give nervous customers something to hold on to, maybe there should be more similar wine choices available. Many do this, of course, but sometimes it seems like all the attention is on other parts of the wine list.
I have written many case studies of different industries over the years and one thing I have found is that each sector confidently believes that it is different from the rest. And of course important differences do exist. But it is wise not to ignore potential lessons from other product categories, especially when consumers see them as part of the same experience as they are likely to consider restaurant food and beverage choices.
A quick note about limitations. Davis’s study is obviously limited to those value and premium dining multiples that he studied in the UK and the consumers he surveyed there. Use caution in generalizing to other countries and other types of dining establishments.
Also please note (as if it isn’t obvious) that my concern here is increasing wine sales and the restaurants may be more interested in other things. Perhaps there is more profit (or faster table turnover) with beer or cocktail sales.