December 19, 2016 | By Mike Raven
Tylor Field is an internationally recognized expert on wine and spirits, and winner of the highest honor from the Guild of Master Sommeliers Education Foundation – the Distinguished Service Award – for his outstanding contributions to wine education and wine service, which is one of only eight given in the world. As Vice President, Wine & Spirits since 2005, Field has guided Morton’s leadership in developing and providing a diverse, world-class selection of fine wines and spirits to complement and enhance the fine dining experience of our guests at Morton’s steakhouses around the world. In 2012, Morton’s was purchased by Landry’s, Inc. Field now oversees all purchasing, marketing, training and development, globally, of the wine, spirits, and beverage programs for all 98 locations of Morton’s The Steakhouse, Oceanaire Seafood Room and Mastro’s.
As the national spokesperson for his wine & spirits program, Field has been featured in many print and broadcast media interviews, including “The Early Show” on CBS and “Fox and Friends.” Working in partnership with Foster’s Wine Estates, Field also assisted in developing the World’s Largest Wine Bottle for Morton’s, as certified by Guinness Book of World Records in June 2005. He has also been instrumental in developing Morton’s Bar 12-21 bar concept, as well as the new Morton’s Grille Concept.
In the spring of 2009, he contributed to Morton’s The Cookbook: 100 Steakhouse Recipes for Every Kitchen. Field scribed wine, spirits and ale accompaniments for each recipe in the book, as well as in the 2006 cookbook, Morton’s Steak Bible.
Field holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from New York University. He resides in the North Carolina mountains with his wife Tammy.
Mike: What got you into the hospitality business in the first place?
Tylor: Well, I went to school to be an actor at NYU and I wasn’t making very much money and restaurants seemed like a place you could at least get something to eat everyday. [Laughs] So I went in and started working as a busboy in a restaurant, and then became a server to help pay for college. It was also an environment filled with a lot of like-minded people: actors, musicians and folks like that. I felt very at home in that environment, plus I was able to get a meal and save a little money. That was the beginning of when I started in the restaurant business. However, looking back over my career even before college, when I was growing up and spending summers in Rhode Island, one of my jobs was actually working in vineyards. I never knew it was going to come to anything and here I am in the wine industry. So it was a couple of different things: a) I needed a job; and b) I was really hungry, so it worked out.
M: After that, it obviously led up to Morton’s. Was that a kind of a natural progression or how did that happen?
T: I was working in a fine dining restaurant in Boston called Locke-Ober Cafe. At that time, it was one of the oldest fine dining restaurants in the country; I was a wine captain and my job was to sell wine and I got paid by what I sold. Somebody mentioned there was a job opening at this place called Morton’s, and it was dinner only and closed on Sundays. That was back when, as a manager, you worked 90 hours a week, Sundays and so on. I thought this could be a good quality of life change. So I went and applied. I was there the day the Chairman and founder of Morton’s happened to be there. I got the interview and I got the job – which was a great thing! I started working at Morton’s in Boston in 1990 as an assistant manager.
One of the roles of the assistant manager was running the wine program, which was very large within Morton’s. So during the interview, I led with my wine service knowledge in order to get the job. Once I got the job, I knew I needed to truly up my game to make sure I would be the best I could be in this new world of wine. The American wine industry was really coming into its own. I started studying and working with the Court of Master Sommeliers, which was just getting strong legs in the U.S. at that time. I started taking that angle of the business very seriously. Also, at that time, the salary you were paid – actually a lot of it – was based on a percentage of wine sales. It was a sales job with management responsibilities. The restaurant business has changed now; everyone in management is on a salary. But back in the day, I was paid to sell.
M: You worked for Morton’s The Steakhouse for many years.
T: Twenty-six years.
M: Was that 26 years before working for Landry’s Inc.?
T: No, they purchased our company over four years ago, so I had been with Morton’s 22 years before that. I was one of a few folks that joined Landry’s in what I call “the trade.” I did okay in the trade and they kept me around, for which I’m very blessed because I have tremendous affinity for Morton’s and Landry’s as an organization. With that, I have also been given responsibility for some new, really fantastic brands like Oceanaire Seafood Room and Mastro’s.
M: That leads to my next question. Being not only responsible for Morton’s but also for Oceanaire and Mastro’s, what do you see as some of the challenges of maintaining the three different personalities?
T: The first thing you have to do is recognize just what you said: They are different. No matter when you look at it as a business person would, you would say, “Wouldn’t it be easier if we did just one program for all three of these properties?” You really can’t do that. It’s not really a challenge but it’s seeing what has already been successful within the three different dynamics and then trying to accentuate those facts. You never want to make them one cohesive program that fits all three because it will never work. They each have a brand identity that you need to spend a lot of time figuring out, purchasing for and buying for; and the consumers are different. The analytics are all different also so you can’t just do one. And the key to that, when you are in a senior management role, is to find those key people who have that brand personality and have them on your team. I have a team of incredibly talented people working on the Mastro’s, Oceanaire and Morton’s brands, to make sure we are keeping them separate and flourishing in their own brand identity.
M: What are some of the differences in the three wine programs?
T: Really what you need to look at, for instance, is that Morton’s is the atypical American steakhouse. What does a guest expect when he walks into the high-end luxury steakhouse brand in America? It’s generally going to be predominantly American-based Cabernets, predominantly Napa Valley. When looking at a seafood house, what are people going to be walking into? They’re going to want more alternative whites – different types of experiences that go well with the cuisine. Then, within Mastro’s, a super-elevated steak and seafood concept mixed into one, it’s more about elegance and finding those smaller niche and boutique wines available to the guests.
The big thing is the footprint, too. When you’re buying for a Morton’s property that has 70 restaurants, it’s very different from buying for a Mastro’s or Oceanaire property, with 12 or 13 restaurants. There’s a lot more available when you are smaller, to create a much more, I want to say, intimate experience. Now, with that said, there’s a very big difference in how you purchase based on regionality. In America, for instance, in Morton’s, most of the sales are going to American reds from the Pacific Northwest or California; however, that totally flips when you move into our eight restaurants in Asia. There, it’s primarily French and Spanish wines, Old World wines that community has grown up with. Then regionality within America: At Morton’s in Miami, we’re going to have many more Spanish wines on our list; in Portland, Oregon we’re going to have a lot more wines from the Willamette Valley. So even the demographics of where you are will be reflected in what wine selections you have, in any of the three concepts.
M: Are you responsible for the Morton’s that are in Canada, Mexico and overseas?
T: Absolutely – yes.
M: Are all the American Morton’s wine lists different, or is there a core list with flexibility?
T: Morton’s has an 80 percent core program and then 20 percent is given for regionalization. The same goes for Mastro’s and Oceanaire. Some have captain’s lists and different ways to have that 20 percent presented to guests, but there’s going to be regionality in them.
M: You used to do a lot of work with wine companies formulating wines that were exclusive. Do you still do that?
T: Yes, both with wine companies and wineries. We call it the private label, or control label part of our business and it is growing exponentially versus other parts of our business. With the advancements of winemaking all around the globe, the growth in number of wine varietals and the consumer passion for experience and experimentation – this is a very good time for custom winemaking and wine in general. Landry’s has allowed me the privilege of working with the best wine companies and the best and innovative winemakers to create labels that resonate with our guests. Our future successes in the restaurant industry will be told in our abilities to attract “bevtain” (Beverage Entertainment) and retain loyalty with the highly mobile Millennial-age guest.
M: Do you work with the spirit programs? Are you involved as much as you are with the wine programs?
T: I do all the spirits, all the beer, I do all the water, all the non-alcohol beverage – anything that is beverage I have my stamp on it as far as what I’m in charge of, the profitability and so on. Spirits are on a tear right now in our restaurants, taking share from wine – beer has never been that strong in the restaurants that I am responsible for – all driven by the magic of mixology.
M: So that takes a little bite out of the wine sales?
T: It takes a bite out of the wine sales, but what you find is that the liquor sales are making up for it as far as a percentage of sales. But people are still drinking in this country – that’s a good thing to see. They also want to drink well, just in smaller amounts. So that’s one of the nice things – just like a craft beer. You can have a small amount of luxury in a $14 cocktail or an $11 great craft beer instead of, like before 2008, when it just didn’t matter in this country, everyone would come in and drop a hundred dollars on a bottle of wine. That’s just not the reality right now because of the reduced expense account dollars, the different ways conventions work and corporate America after Sarbanes-Oxley – it’s changed the model of how high-end business consumers drink. Now, it’s more about smaller packages like wines by-the-glass, where we use Coravin to be able to pour great wines by-the-glass, great spirits to great beer and so on. It’s still exciting; it’s just changing very, very rapidly.
M: Speaking of that, my next question was what is your wine preservation method of choice?
T: Coravin. That’s it, dialed in. It does two things. The great thing about Coravin for restaurants is there is technology out there to preserve wine in the same method that Coravin does, but what Coravin allows you to do is bring it right to the table. So there’s a whole service piece to it and an elegance, because someone is coming and actually doing something for you at your table, which is important in fine dining – instead of putting your credit card into a machine, picking the ounces and watching the wine come out of the machine. I think those machines have their place but in a formal dining room setting, the Coravin is more experiential. It causes a conversation.
M: You pour it right out of the tool, right?
T: Yes, it’s a manager function. So the bottle comes to the table and you pour it in front of the guest, into their glass.
M: Going back to the spirits – we are doing a story in this issue about the popularity of riffs on classic cocktails. Are classic cocktails a big part of your sales? And do you riff on them?
T: We don’t do too many riffs. Sometimes I think we get a little diluted; maybe it’s because we spend too much time with salespeople. I like riffs but I don’t want to make a Tuaca Manhattan. It’s not a Manhattan; it needs to be bourbon or whiskey. I don’t want a Cuba Libre to be made with bourbon or tequila; that’s not a Cuba Libre. So I think sometimes folks take a little to much latitude. The classic cocktails are a backbone. I think you can accentuate them with different types of bitters and presentations, but they’re classic recipes for a reason, because they work from a flavor profile. So we stay very, very true to what those classics are but we have a lot of different whiskies to use now. We used to only have four choices (in the past). We generally use the high-end, “what’s trending” and that’s how we will make a Manhattan.
M: I’d like to talk about the types of trends you look for, or in your case, the trends you are creating in the luxury market.
T: It used to be I would study the TGI Fridays of the world or Chili’s, those types of concepts, because in 10 years, those people are going to be my guests. I had to study what they were doing. There was a time when I think the casual theme segment was the most creative cocktail ideation, in the ‘80s. Then this whole mixology thing happened in the 2000s. In the luxury brands, we could afford to make cocktails that were more expensive using the better ingredients because we could sell a $14 or $15 cocktail, no problem, I think the way we innovate now is we are able to take something, say a Manhattan, and then put it on steroids. We just came out with the State Street Manhattan. It’s in honor of our original Morton’s location on State Street. We have this giant infusion system – it’s actually a cold drip coffee maker – and we infuse the vermouth and the bourbon through it. We have a special ice cube for this drink and we have a special glass just for it that’s heavy cut crystal. We have a special pick; we are actually using a steak garnish. We create things that are just over the top, voluptuous and we also know that we can charge for it. So that’s a good luxury.
In other concepts within Landry’s, you can go someplace and have a great cocktail – then you hit the cup and it lights up and sparkles, and you can take the cup home. It’s just a different way of doing it. In the luxury segment, you just have to do it a little bit differently and just make sure it’s more elevated for your core guest. That’s what we endeavor to do, and we’re pretty successful at it.
M: You just sit around all day and think up things to try? [Laughing] You must get a lot of input from suppliers and distributors and whatnot.
T: I also solicit best in class, and yes, the supplier and sales community bring valuable information. But really what you want to do is find that mixologist who doesn’t have the tie to any specific supplier. I work with Francesco Lafranconi and Tony Abou-Ganim, for instance. They are part of this community but I find they are actually working behind the bars, they actually know how to make things that will work in a chain environment. They’re also being sent the newest ingredients that might not be here in the U.S. The conversation starts with them – I’m certainly not a master mixologist and I don’t pretend to be, but I make sure I have three or four people on my team that I am talking to all the time, to make sure I’m up to speed on innovation like that.
M: Throughout the years, you can even say recently, is there any one varietal that you thought would completely go over with customers, but just hasn’t gone anywhere? In other words, using a Riesling as an example, maybe you think it’s going to be a great seller and all of a sudden, it just flops.
T: I’ve given up. You can talk to most any sommelier in the world and they will say, “All we want the world to do is drink Riesling.” It’s not going to happen.
M: So, I just said that because I figured that might be one of them.
T: No, that is one of them. The best white wine in the world to me is well-made Riesling – German, Austrian, all this – but it hasn’t translated yet. Hopefully it does. But still you need one or two on your list. I work in the steak world, so it’s a little bit different but even in the seafood world, Chardonnay is really kind of the ruse.
M: Even Oceanaire?
T: Not a giant Riesling house. We have them and we have more there than we do in other places.
M: Are there any others – maybe Grüner Veltliner or, say, Albariño or something like that – you’ve tried but it never really gave you the sales you were hoping for?
T: Syrah from Washington State, especially Walla Walla.
M: I wouldn’t have expected that.
T: It’s amazing Syrah, and so I thought that was going to happen more and more when there were a lot of vineyards who planted Syrah after the Shiraz craze from Australia. But it never latched on in America in large volume. That’s another grape that hopefully will come into fruition because I think it’s amazing, but we just haven’t seen real growth in that yet.
M: I’m a big Grüner fan.
T: Grüner is great.
M: If the dish is right, I like to order a good Grüner. Have you seen any traction there?
T: We carry a Grüner at Oceanaire; it sells all right.
I think in the alternative white category, Sancerre seems to be having a real uptick right now. I’m not sure how much the consumer knows that it’s Sauvignon Blanc; but they know Sancerre, it’s different and it’s elevated. That’s a different flavor profile, too, than the New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs and things like that, so we’re seeing an uptick in that. Again, one of the things that’s surprised me too, is everyone is on the Rosé bandwagon.
T: We sell some Rosés within Mastro’s at brunch; we sell some Rosé at Oceanaire; can’t give it away at Morton’s. In the steakhouse environment, before you walk in you’ve already decided you are going to have a glass of great red wine with your steak, so we never saw that great Rosé charge within my concepts at this point. But I know it’s popular.
M: It seems you have a love for large format bottles. I don’t know, but every Morton’s I’ve ever been into has about fifty of them hanging on the shelves and I was a collector of large formats myself. I read when you created the world’s largest wine bottle in 2005 with what then was called Foster’s Wine Estate, that the bottle was recognized by Guinness World Book of Records as the largest ever. Does it still hold the record?
T: No, someone beat it about two years later [laughing], but it was a great form of flattery; it was awesome. What I did learn from it was that nothing’s easy and the big challenge from a physics and engineering point was to find the right glass blower. We actually found one in the Czech Republic who could, in fact, make something to hold the weight of the liquid that’s inside. It’s extremely difficult – we had things blowing up. We had to travel the world to find the right manufacturer.
M: I never thought about the weight and pressure of the liquid.
T: It’s extremely, extremely hard. It took about a year to find the right glass person and then get a commission to make one, but we made three just in case the first one blew up. So there was a lot of stuff that went into it but it was a very cool marketing endeavor. We also hired two people just to live in a truck that carried it around the U.S. with it painted on the side. We had a really good marketing campaign where you could go on the website and follow the bottle around the country, so that was a very fun time. It was back when the head winemaker at Beringer, which at the time was owned by Foster’s, was Ed Sbragia, so he made the wine and he’s obviously a big shot in the wine community. So it was pretty neat.
M: And the wine was pretty good, I imagine.
M: Where’s the bottle now? Did you drink it at a big occasion?
T: No, we sold it at Sotheby’s. It was bought by a wine merchant from New Jersey and the profits went to the charity, Make-A-Wish Foundation.
M: I wonder if the bottle is still intact?
T: I don’t know; I hope it didn’t blow up [laughing cautiously]. And also with that, we needed a name for it and I remember calling the President of the Court of Master Sommeliers, Fred Dame, and we named it Maximus.
M: You’re the recipient of the highest honor from the Guild of Sommeliers Education Foundation, the Distinguished Service Award, for outstanding contributions to wine education and wine service. How does that rank in your lifelong experiences?
T: Besides my marriage to my beautiful wife and the birth of my son, that’s probably one of my most cherished accolades. It’s just a little pin but I’m so proud of it.
M: There are not many given out, right?
T: No, there are eight and I’m the eighth. And so my nickname within our company is “Ocho” – they thought that was funny because I’m the eighth. I still have managers who call me Ocho at work. I’m very proud of it, very humbled by it but it also inspires me to keep moving forward with training and moving the wine industry forward.
You know, it’s my goal. I think sometimes as agents of the wine industry or master sommeliers, or things like that, we have so much knowledge, but if we’re not kind of moving the bar forward – if we’re just regurgitating information but not moving our business forward – we’re not creating more jobs for the people behind us. It’s a beautiful business; it’s a beautiful honor that we’ve been given. Thirty years ago when I got into this business, my job now didn’t exist. The whole American wine industry exploded on the backs of great winemakers in America and then also the educators who came in behind them. We’ve created this beautiful place where we can all work so I’m very in tune with that and still want to push it forward everyday.
M: It was a real nice honor to bestow on you.
T: But what I’m most proud of about this award is that it is not based on passing the master sommelier exam. It is based on is your body of work in our industry, and that’s what is critical for me. There are certainly people who are smarter within my company who can tell me the different chemical properties of a rock in Austria that I wouldn’t know, but I can drive wine and educate about wine to a vast number of people and create a great environment.
M: I didn’t really realize you were one of the co-writers of Morton’s The Cookbook: 100 Steakhouse Recipes for Every Kitchen back in 2009. And you did all the wine pairings for that book.
T: And the cocktails.
M: And the cocktails, okay. How were those – fun? Was it a fun project?
T: It was was an honor because I got to work with the founder of Morton’s, a gentleman named Klaus Fritsch, who is also a close friend. We had such a good time and the book sold so well we penned a second book right after that.
M: Do you like to cook?
T: I love to cook.
M: So you’re pretty much a foodie at home with your family and wife?
T: I enjoy staying at home, making glorious meals, having people over and drinking great wine.
M: When you’re not traveling, right? Do you travel a lot?
T: I spent 250 days in hotel rooms last year.
M: That’s a lot.
T: It’s a lot; it’s a lot.
M: Is it hard to be away from home that much?
T: Yes. Well, my son is out of the house now. My wife understands it and on some of the larger trips that we do, I bring her so we can share time together. But it’s what I have to do to reach all the places that we’re at globally. And then we also do what are called Morton’s Wine Flights, in which we take guests on different trips around the world. They pay for their airfare and their hotel, and then I lead them through different wineries that we have relationships with. They tend to get a much greater experience than if they went by themselves. We just got back from Australia and the year before, South Africa.
M: So that trip you were on recently was one of those?
T: Yes. I had 40 of our best VIP guests and I took them to Australia and New Zealand for two weeks, so that’s the type of trip where my wife would come. And then we do some domestic trips, too.
M: Well, that’s fun traveling there, isn’t it? No – it’s a lot of work, huh? Because you’re constantly “on,” right?
T: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. It is fun travel but you have to remember I’m in charge. We went to Napa this past October.
M: You can do that with your eyes closed.
T: Right, exactly, it’s easier on your home turf. It engages the guest outside of our four walls. You’ll find when you do these, they spend four times as much within your four walls, and so it is an interesting lesson in marketing.
M: Right – it’s a customer for life.
I want to touch on a big subject, and that’s training – how important it is, the right ways, the wrong ways, and what your philosophy is on training people. It’s a very time consuming thing and it has to be done intelligently, or they don’t want to do it. So, what are your thoughts on that? What can you tell us?
T: Well, first of all training is the most important aspect of the food and beverage industry in order for it to move forward, period. Period. There’s nothing more important. You can have great food, you can have great wine, you can have great whatever, but if someone comes up to you and their presentation is all off and they put you off as a person, then that’s not good. We’re human beings, so it’s all about being taken care of and having someone who knows what they’re talking about, that you’re paying, who hopefully will take you through this experience. So, with that said, within Morton’s, Mastro’s and Oceanaire, the training for liquor, beer and wine is where we spend a tremendous amount of time making sure our staff understands everything we serve. With your company, Mike, I’m doing videos tomorrow of all the new wines by-the-glass. Talking to someone in video communication, especially for Millennials, making sure they have something they can watch, is much more powerful than sending them a piece of paper and putting it on a bulletin board.
M: Yes, it makes a world of difference.
T: World of difference. And then one of the things Mastro’s is very successful with is they actually have quarterly trainings where the whole staff is required to attend, and it’s just for liquor, beer and wine. You can see the results in their check averages. Obviously, it worked for large corporations and so the issue with training is, is the spend worth the ROI? And every single time where you do have that spend, you can see the return on the investment. But I still think at many companies, especially public companies where people are trying to hit the number, they’ll try to do it via telephone calls or they’ll try to do it in different ways. And really, most of the people who work for us are young people so they respond very well to the electronic mediums, be it websites or videos – different platforms are really the only way to grab their attention right now. So, we’re seeing great success in this venue.
And then it’s also important, too, when you’re training in wine and spirits to be aware of this: You look at some of these tech sheets sometimes and it says “this was aged in French barrels and it tastes like blackberries and cranberries.” That doesn’t mean anything to a 24 year-old or to a guest. We always want to try to train the stories – like “this was made by a kick-ass winemaker named Aaron Pott, who found this lot of grapes in this cool vineyard called Vineyard X and he only made 500 bottles of this. And it’s just for our guest.” You need to create a story because people want to learn stories – they want to learn something interesting. We’ve done a really good job in the beverage industry of coming up with these obscure scoring systems and reviews like “this tastes like bramble wood cat pee.” It doesn’t translate into a great guest experience. Nothing sells better than a smile and a great story – it still works.
M: Instead of rattling off a bunch of statistics that nobody cares about. How many people know what stone fruit tastes like?
T: And this had 7.0 brix when it was harvested – I don’t care.
M: Some of the things they say it tastes like – I mean, I’ve been in business 30 years but what does flint taste like? I’ve never chewed on flint. Do you test them (the employees)?
T: You have to follow up.
M: You have to go to a computer terminal at the restaurant or at home?
T: No, they’re tested at the restaurant. So if I’m coming out with a new cocktail program and before all the new drinks were rolled out, they’ve seen them on video and they have training tools, pictures and recipes, all within the restaurant, that they can study. All this beforehand and then, before you roll, before you’re allowed to be on the floor selling these drinks, there is a written test. It has questions about what the ingredients are of the Morton’s Negroni or of other drinks, just to make sure that they know what they’re doing. That’s really important because we live in a world now where young people take pictures of everything. I just did a drink rollout and a vendor was in, with one of the drinks. He sent me a picture of it and it wasn’t right. That’s embarrassing; you know what I mean? So you’re going to hear about it.
M: Nothing is secret these days.
T: You have to know the flavor profile, what food items might go well with this, and all that information. But you also have to be very cognizant of the fact we’re in a chain environment. We still have specialness but we’re operating on such a large scale that we’re never going to have that employee come in, who’s from Please Don’t Tell, and all they’re doing is just drinks. There are a lot of things in our image that we’re selling, so we just need to make sure we have professionals who care. We’re not necessarily looking for master mixologists all over Morton’s; we’re trying to create consistency, so it’s a little bit different.
M: I have a couple of personal questions for you: What do you like best about your job?
T: I get up every morning and think about ways the wine and spirits business can be better in America and around the world, and I’ve been given the tools to be able to do that. So in my job, I like the entrepreneurial aspect. What we do in our industry, if you really look at it, is something that’s been going on the last twenty years. Before that, it was kind of the same for a very, very long period of time. And now we’re coming into an age of great mixology and we’re coming into an age of great wines from all parts of the world. Now we are also coming into an age where there wasn’t such a thing as a chain called Morton’s 50 years ago; you wouldn’t even think about it – it was McDonald’s. A lot of things like that are changing and it takes different ways of looking at it to try to make it better. So, I wake up everyday thinking, okay, how do we move the needle now? The business is still pretty much in its infancy, so you’re really creating history in programming for what’s going to happen for the next generation. Does that make any sense?
T: I get to innovate.
M: You took the word right out of my mouth – innovate.
T: And my favorite thing in the world, too, is – whether you’re religious or not, is not the point – the reason Jesus turned water into wine was not to loosen up the crowd for his sermon, it was to give the event a state of grace. And I really believe that the responsible service of beverage alcohol really enhances life and makes people extremely happy. If you do it in the right way, you can go to bed and feel really good, because 20 people may have gotten engaged with this beautiful bottle of Champagne that night, that you put there. However you want to think about it – but nothing makes me happier than walking in and seeing people enjoying beverages, forgetting about life, to a Billy Joel song and all of that stuff; and that I can heighten the whole experience to make people happy. I think that’s a kick-ass job. You probably feel the same way.
M: I do, I do. I was blessed to be in the business. Once you start, there is nothing else.
T: Yeah – I would be horrible at sitting at computers or selling cars.
M: What do you do when you’re not working? What do you like to do?
T: Ah, let’s see. I’m a tennis player; I like to golf but I don’t play enough to be any good. I play guitar; I play piano. I’m constantly reading. It’s so funny – five years ago, I would’ve said raising kids, but now I’m an empty nester, so all the stuff’s coming back. It does get better for the parents. So now, again, I’m finding things that I enjoy – family, friends and keeping active.
M: You recently moved up into the mountains of North Carolina. How is that new experience, being from Palm Beach, Florida the majority of your life? Are there some new things up there you like to do?
T: It’s awesome. There’s hiking and fishing and just sitting out on your patio. In Florida, we didn’t have bears coming to hang out, but sometimes you have those in North Carolina. As I tell my wife, we’re buying our retirement home about 10 years early; and because I travel so much, I really want to be off the grid when I’m home, to decompress a little bit more. As I was driving to your office today, swearing in traffic for two hours here in Atlanta, all I wanted to do was go back home to my little cabin in the woods.
M: It’s nice to have four seasons also.
T: The leaves are changing right now; it’s remarkably brilliant. It’s a lifestyle change that makes me more effective in my job. So, it’s been awesome.
M: What advice can you give to the newbies in the business who would like to emulate your success? I’m sure there are tons of young kids at Morton’s who look at you and say, wow, I’d love to do what he does.
T: Yes, I get asked all the time. There’s a couple of different ways to look at it. One is, in this business integrity is the number one thing you have to have, especially when you’re purchasing large volumes of items. People are giving you a lot of responsibility to spend money that’s not yours, and you have to do that in a most professional way. The biggest mistake I see out there are folks that might not have the integrity needed to do this. Your word needs to be your bond.
Now, that said, even when you have a ton of integrity, you also have to look at your talent set and figure out what’s going to make you indispensable within your organization. Being a bartender is great: I know all the drinks, I know all the systems on the computer, my uniform looks great, so that means I’m going to be the next great bartender of the world. No – not at all. You have to continually educate yourself on everything that you serve. You need to have a personality so engaging that guests want to come and see you. You have to create yourself as indispensable and one of a kind within your own environment, and with everybody else. And it goes back to Darwin – the survival of the fittest.
So, if you’re stronger, better and work harder, all those axioms are very, very true. You will succeed and you will move forward, and if you can, add in a great idea or two at any time. Also if you can, go beyond the level of service and do something to create an experience. For instance, let’s say you’re working in our environment and there’s someone who’s had too much to drink – are you the guy who drives them home or are you the person who calls them a cab? What separates you? And what I find is that if you lead with kindness, intelligence and integrity, it comes back to you in spades. That would be what I would tell somebody.
M: Who would you say was your mentor or had the most influence on you, in the wine business? In other words, who did you want to emulate? Did you have a certain person or persons that you looked up to?
T: One would be Fred Dame. I never knew what an amazing world this wine world was and what an honor it was to be professional within that industry. I didn’t know that subgroup existed, in my early twenties and late teens. It was a different thing. And so that was very honorable to me, and it was kind of a great path. I grew up in the military so that offered me structure, which I could look at. So from the wine side in this business, he certainly was a mentor of mine.
And then the founder of Morton’s, a gentleman named Klaus Fritsch, was another mentor. He gave me this wonderful job at this company that was just starting out. We had three or four restaurants and I got to work through the dynamic of growing it to 70 restaurants, and going public and going private. During that whole time, he was a great mentor, taking me through the ups and downs. But there are countless other people, from servers to managers to bartenders, who have been kind of these angels along the way – too many to mention.
M: In our last magazine issue, I interviewed Wolfgang Lindlbauer from the Marriott. You know, he’s an old-school guy – he started off as a busboy and so on, and worked his way up through the ranks with old-school methods, and it sounds like you’ve basically done the same thing.
T: Same thing. My starting salary at Morton’s when I started was $11,000 a year.
M: I just hope that the newer generation – whether they are Millennials or the next wave – don’t just expect things because they went to a trade school or took some beverage classes. It’s what you said earlier: It’s about you, it’s about your personality, and it’s about how you establish yourself in a company. At the end of the day we are here “to serve others.” This is the noblest endeavor and profession in the world and what is most important.
T: And let me tell you another thing I think is for the younger generation, and I felt this as an actor, too: It doesn’t come overnight and so don’t expect it to. To your point, they think if they go take a bartending class, then all of sudden, they’re going to be making $150,000 tending bar in the hottest joint in town – it’s not going to happen.
And I think it’s great that you want to be a mixologist and I think it’s great that you want to get your wine pin, or whatever it is you want to do. That’s good, that’s learning, but what happens is, it’s the body of work and passion to serve – it’s just not something you do right away. It’s application. And also know during this time, when you’re working so hard and when you’re not making very much money, there are people watching you who could be very influential in your life, so keep it up. Keep the nose to the grindstone and I promise you that things will happen. So, it’s not going to happen overnight – it’s going to be your body of work, and just don’t give up because it’s super hard in the beginning. If you really, really stick to it, you’ll end up just fine – because cream always rises to the top. As the old saying goes, “In business you have three choices: lead, follow or get out of the way.” Go lead!