Robbi Jo first started working for the Mastro organization in 2000, beginning as a bartender and quickly becoming a bar manager. Always working on her wine and spirits knowledge, she became part of a corporate training team and helped open three California Mastro’s. After opening the Thousand Oaks store in November 2007, Robbi Jo’s aptitude for wine and spirits was recognized and she was promoted to a corporate position, Director of Quality Guest Services. In 2008, she was promoted to Director of Training, and in late 2010 she assumed the Wine & Spirits Director position while keeping the Director of Training role.
ITM: How many restaurants does Mastro’s currently operate?
RJO: Mastro’s currently has nine locations in four states: four in southern California; three in Scottsdale, Ariz.; one in Las Vegas, Nev.; and one in Chicago, Ill. We are in the process of expanding our flagship restaurant, BH. We are adding a third floor (about 120 seats) that will open in September of this year. We are also opening our tenth location in Palm Desert, Calif. this November. We are looking forward to opening many new locations in exciting cities.
ITM: I assume your core wine project takes a lot of your time. What kind of process do you go through to arrive at your decisions?
RJO: We blind taste every wine submitted for by-the-glass selections and the majority of our by-the-bottle selections. We currently have over 50 by-the-glass selections, so we taste quite a bit of wine. The whole core process, from vendor meetings, blind tastings and selection processes to rollouts and staff trainings, takes a full three months.
ITM: You have some serious wines on your by-the-glass list: Justin Justification, Etude Pinot Noir, Duckhorn Merlot and Frank Family Cabernet Sauvignon. You’re not foolin’ around, are you?
RJO: We do have some really great high-end, high-quality selections for our guests. We also have a wonderful variety of great-value as well as hard-to-get boutique wines by the glass to choose from. All of our guests have different styles and price points they are looking for, so we want to have something for every guest. The best part of our by-the-glass program is that we pour a third of a bottle in every by-the-glass. Our guests love that!
ITM: What is the best-selling varietal you sell by the glass?
RJO: Mastro’s does have, in my opinion, the best steaks so it is not surprising that cabernet sauvignon is our best seller. Of course we sell lots of pinot noir, chard and bubbles!
ITM: How many items do you have on your core wine list, and do you have a list that individual restaurants can add to their lists from?
RJO: We have a little over 150 core placements by the glass and by the bottle. This leaves room for the individual restaurant’s wine director to add wines that fit their location and guest preferences. Each restaurant has its own personality and we want the wine lists to reflect that. For instance, our Chicago guests love malbec. At our Thousand Oaks location, the guests there love Central Coast pinot noirs.
ITM: The cocktail list is impressive to say the least, with 30 well thought-out libations. What decides the cocktails for the program?
RJO: We take into consideration several factors when creating our specialty drink menu. First, we look at sales from the previous year and keep the popular drinks. With the underperforming drinks, we either completely take them off or edit them to be more current. During core, we have a handful of talented mixologists come and present the latest trends and spirits to our beverage panel, which consists of managers, bartenders and me. We then proceed to “Mastro-ize” the drinks we liked to fit into the theme we have picked for that core. This year, like lots of places, we added more classic Prohibition-style drinks and updated our current drinks with fresher ingredients and some artisan liquors and spirits. We think the list has lots of variety and hopefully something for everyone.
ITM: Do the Steakhouses and Ocean Club seafood outlets have the same wine lists?
RJO: The core placements are, of course, the same at each location. You will also find quite a few of the usual suspects on every list. But like I said before, each restaurant wine director does an amazing job enhancing their list to cater to their guests’ preferences. So it is very safe to say that you would find a unique wine selection at each location.
ITM: What do you see as the new up-and-comer varietal for by-the-glass?
RJO: Every year we add a couple of “not so mainstream” varietals to our core by-the-glass list. Sometimes they work out and sell quite well, but most of the time we know we are placing them for our more adventurous guests. We have added Ribera del Duero, Rolle, Aglianico, Chenin Blanc and Beaujolais to name a few in the past few cores. Basically, we have never really followed the trends. We just want the list to be fun and have something for everyone.
ITM: Can you give us an overview of what kind of programs you have in place for training the wait staff and bar associates?
RJO: As for wine and spirits training, we have several programs. At the corporate level, we host quarterly wine seminars. Each quarter we select a particular varietal, region or category to be the focus for the whole quarter. This past quarter we revisited chardonnay as our varietal of choice (we hadn’t pick that varietal since mid-2009). The seminar is a two-hour class that we
teach at each location. For this class we selected six to seven chardonnays from around the world that were represented on each location’s list. We begin class with a discussion of the varietal, growing regions, aromas, etc. We then have the staff blind taste each wine, one by one with the group. We use the Court of Master Sommelier deductive tasting method. The staff then will guess which wine it is on their list. We believe that by teaching our staff what each wine tastes like according to region and winemaker, they will be able to guide the guests into a wine the guest will enjoy.
Our sommelier program encourages any of our staff members to take any level of the Court of Master Sommelier. If an hourly staff member passes, we reimburse them for the entire tuition. When a manager or chef wishes to take the course, we will pay for the class up front. Including managers, chefs and hourly, we now have well over 60 Intro levels, 20 Certified and our first Advanced passed a few months ago. We have two others studying for the Advanced as well.
Every March we host our annual specialty drink class. This is when we educate and taste-test the staff on all our new exciting drinks, spirits and liquors. At the store level, our wine directors and bar managers have daily pre-shift meetings where winemakers, representatives and spirit educators are invited to taste and discuss their products. We have several wine directors and bar managers who are excellent teachers as well. They host monthly classes for staff to voluntarily come in and learn about various topics.
We are very proud of our training program and are always looking to improve and grow, as we know our guests are becoming more educated as well. All of the efforts we make for education are all for one purpose: to enhance guest experience. We believe that the more tools our staff has to guide the guest to the best experience, the more successful they will be. This, we hope, will lead to happy guests and isn’t that what all this is about?
ITM: Finally, can you touch on your craft beer program and how it’s working for you?
RJO: Mastro’s has really come a long way with our craft beer program and certainly can grow even more. We have about seven craft beer selections on our core. We leave the rest up to the restaurant bar manager. Some of the best craft beer is made locally in each market. For example, our Chicago bar manager has a great relationship with the local breweries and is able to get hard-to-get boutique selections that our guests love. With all the correct glassware needed for serving the beer selections properly, we sure have seen our glass inventory rise. But that is a good thing, because we want our guest to have the best experience no matter what they are drinking.
“Our sommelier program encourages any of our staff members to take any level of the Court of Master Sommelier. If an hourly staff member passes, we reimburse them for the entire tuition. When a manager or chef wishes to take the course, we will pay for the class up front. Including managers, chefs and hourly, we now have well over 60 Intro levels, 20 Certified and our first Advanced passed a few months ago. We have two others studying for the Advanced as well.”