June 20th, 2017 | By Mike Raven
When you’re out with Mary, you’ll have what she’s having. Maybe it’s Albarino before your meal comes, a gin and tonic as you wait for the band to come on, or the new local IPA? There’s a time and a place for everything.
Mary found her calling first bartending in Kansas City and then San Diego, managing restaurants and nightclubs. She decided to make a career in the beverage industry, so she sharpened her sales skills as a sales rep for Regal Wine Company and, upon moving to Arizona, she honed her knowledge as a fine wine specialist at the prestigious Henry Wine Group. Now, with over 25 years of industry experience, Mary is the Director of Beverage at P.F. Chang’s where she plans and manages the beverage program for all 214 restaurants, including a full beverage menu with an extensive wine list, local craft beers, classic bartender education and drink innovation.
Mary and P.F. Chang’s were awarded top national honors for Best Chain Restaurant Wine Program at the VIBE VISTA awards in 2010, Best Chain Wine Program in 2011 and Best Overall Beverage Program in 2012, both at the Cheers Beverage Conferences.
Interview with Mary Melton
Mike Raven: How many outlets does P.F. Chang’s have?
Mary Melton: As of today we are at 214 domestically. Isn’t that crazy? Internationally, we’re at 75.
MR: Are you responsible for the international ones?
MM: No, just the 214 domestic restaurants.
MR: That’s a handful.
MM: It keeps me busy.
MR: You were a bartender for quite some time. Do you ever go to one of the outlets and get behind the stick and work the bar, say, for special occasions? Or just for fun?
MM: I still love the bar; obviously I love to go back there. I’m not as fast or proficient as I once was, but I’ll go back there. I handle all the workshops for the bartenders, so I like to go back and set up the well, and I can show them precision-wise how to make drinks. I don’t do special events or anything, though I will for wine but not for cocktails – that is a little harder.
MR: Right – you slow down after a few years if you don’t do it enough.
MM: Well, it’s a skill for sure. It’s definitely something you use certain muscles for and if you don’t use those all the time, you kind of lose it a little bit.
MR: In looking at your drink list, it is obvious you have an affinity for the classics. (Mary laughs.) You have a whole section you created called “Classics with a Twist.” You mention Dale DeGroff (King Cocktail) in a lot of things I’ve read about you, so I am wondering, has some of his influence rubbed off on you?
MM: Absolutely! I loved reading his book The Craft of the Cocktail, and I use it often. I love the classics of bartending and the classic cocktails he brought back to life – everything from Sidecars to Manhattans.
MR: He is really the patriarch of the business.
MM: For sure. I’ve done BarSmarts* with him and taken a couple of crews through the training so I get to see him every once in a while. I’ve learned a lot from that group. (*BarSmarts is an acclaimed, industry-leading bartender education program.)
MR: Is that a good program?
MM: Love, love it!
MR: It has different levels, right?
MM: There’s BarStarts, which is meant for the average bartender to understand the classics and more. And then there is BarSmarts, which is a little harder; you really do have to study for it.
Then there’s BAR (Beverage Alcohol Resource®), a five-day class in New York, which is really hard. I haven’t taken that.
MR: What’s your choice of elixir for everyday, well maybe not everyday, drinking? What do you drink the most of?
MM: Depends on the occasion. I mostly drink wine but love good cocktails and of course, a good beer.
MR: What about sake?
MM: Definitely, I have learned a lot about sake and can enjoy sake. I love it when we are having Asian food or sushi; I don’t necessarily reach for it when I get home (laughing) but I definitely appreciate it.
MR: I’ve been trained so many times on sake; I tend to forget most of it because I don’t use it much. It’s such a deep subject.
MM: It is! There are a lot of different flavors that come from sake.
MR: I always thought that when I was selling wine in the old days to an Asian cuisine restaurant, it was very hard. We had plum wine and sold a little Blue Nun but that was about it. Now it seems so natural. I’m sure P.F.Chang’s had something to do with that.
MM: We were definitely the first ones to bring Asian food and upscale wine together. They do pair well but there are definitely some things I think pair better than others. Slightly sweet or low-alcohol, soft tannic reds – a little juicier – they pair very well together with all the different influences of Asian food, whether it’s heat or spice or sugar, texture, whatever it is that we have that’s different than, say, a steak house. Even cocktails pair well with a lot of Asian food.
MR: You still do your wine menu by fruity, floral, tangy and so on. Do the guests love that?
MM: I do hear people say that’s the way they think about and order wine. The idea started many years ago when I first started in this business. One of my first jobs was as a wine steward in Kansas City at a French restaurant. The book was thick and I needed to learn a lot quickly. Someone suggested I arrange the wine list in a way where I could talk about the flavors of the different wines and then put them in progressive order. I’ve been doing it for 30 years now. It just helped me if someone said they like “such and such,” I could look where it was on the list and I could at least start to talk about the wine a little bit. I find it very helpful, and I think it’s great for servers who don’t really know how to talk about wine. If they don’t know what flavors a Sauvignon Blanc would bring or say, a Riesling, they can talk about it in those terms. I think it helps the guest but more importantly, I think it really helps the server.
MR: I didn’t really think about the server aspect of it. They could talk a bit about, say, an Albarino, even if they are not totally familiar with it.
MM: Right. So where it is on the wine list, they can just talk a little bit about its floral aromas and that it’s not quite as heavy as a Chardonnay.
MR: Peach, pineapple and lychee nut it says – wow!
You mentioned working in Kansas City. One of the few Masters of Wine and Master Sommelier combined is from Kansas City, Doug Frost.
MM: I met Doug Frost when I was in my early 20s and he was studying for his certificates. I was a bartender in a place where he came and studied with the owner. Part of my first introduction to wine was listening to him study wines. I would set up a blind tasting for them and I would listen as they talked about vintage, appellation and varietal. They could just nail it; it was fascinating! True story: I was an art student at the time and planned on going to art school in Chicago to get my master’s. I came home and told my dad that I no longer wanted to do that and that I was going to be a beverage professional. He said, “Whatever that is, I will support you.” He did, and here I am, all these years later.
I have always wanted to be in this field and have always taken the direction of beverage throughout my career and worked at places where I knew I would get more beverage education. Back in those days, it was really about wine, and in Kansas City we had a lot of great wine people. I was taking classes Wednesday nights, Saturday mornings, the whole thing. I stayed in Kansas City for about seven years as a wine steward and a bartender before moving to San Diego where I started to work as a manager for a restaurant group, writing their wine list and keying in on the beverage side of it, training servers and bartenders and so on. After a while, I moved into wine sales with Regal Wine Company as a wholesaler. I then moved to Arizona where I worked for Henry Wine Group and learned more about small family wineries and really the finesse of wine. I stayed there until I started working with P.F. Chang’s.
One thing we have done recently that’s really exciting is that we have partnered with Browne Family Vineyards out of Walla Walla, Washington. We know there are certain characteristics of wine that pair better with Asian food and so we created a red and a white blend that we felt went great with our food. Those will be going out live the end of May to all the locations.
MR: Really? They’re blends?
MM: Yes. The white is a Riesling base with some Sauvignon Blanc and a little Pinot Gris. The red is Merlot with Cabernet and Syrah.
MR: Those should be really fun, good blends for your food.
MM: Yes, and I think it will be fun for the servers to have something they can specifically look at and sell easier. They’ll have a good understanding of these wines. I wanted to do something with a family-owned winery. Real people, real vineyards – very exciting!
MR: How did you get into that?
MM: Well, actually it all started over a glass of Chardonnay (laughing). I met Andrew Browne at a dinner. He had his Chardonnay and we started talking and realized we were both in San Diego at the same time. He was with Southern Wine and Spirits. We knew the same people, went to the same places and talked about the good old days in the wine business. We started talking more about the art of wine and Asian food and decided we should partner on a project. That was in August. So in less than a year, we turned it around and created the two wines.
MR: Will they be on the list or just as a special LTO?
MM: Yes, they’ll be on the list in all of our locations. We’re really excited for that.
MR: That’s going to be a lot of wine he just got an order for.
MM: Yes, we hope so. It took us about three times to get the white blend just right; the red took a lot longer and it just turned out beautifully. It had just exactly those things that we knew would work with Asian food.
MR: I have to ask about your integrating honey into your drinks. I read that you use orange blossom honey as opposed to simple syrup.
MM: I started working with that about a year ago. People were talking a lot about honey, so I started learning about it. There are over 300 different varieties of honey with different flavors and availability at different times of the year. So I started playing with them in cocktails. I just had a Honey Thyme G&T last night. The honey adds a lot of depth to a cocktail. While simple syrup is great, honey just adds another dimension. It was fun to play with so we put it in four different drinks, all different based spirits – whiskey, vodka, gin and tequila. It worked great with all of them.
MR: Is the orange blossom honey used in all the outlets?
MR: That’s a lot of honey. The beekeepers must love you. Do you ever have availability problems with it?
MM: At first we were working with smaller beekeepers. They taught me so much about honey, but when it came time to use it in all the locations, we did partner with another source, Nature Nate’s Honey. They are able to collect from all different areas around the country. The orange blossom is great because it is actually a little more available than some of the other honeys we were looking at. We haven’t had a problem yet.
MR: And you work with Kim Haasarud?
MM: Kim Haasarud has been with us for years and she’s extremely talented. She brings us great ideas and great trends. She’s really good at understanding our challenges with 214 restaurants, all with different bartenders. She brings that mixology world to us but understands how to make it scalable. That’s always a big piece of the puzzle – training that many bartenders and making sure everything is made simple, quick and fast.
MR: It is a big deal and if you overdo it, it slows everything down.
MM: Oh, yeah – then I hear about it.
MR: P.F. Chang’s food philosophy, from what I read, is “Made from scratch every day, clean ingredients, purposeful recipes and the power of a fiery wok.” Would this apply to the beverage side, sans the wok?
MM: Yes, we call that our farm-to-wok philosophy. We try to work with whomever we get our produce and products from and stay with that thinking. We do the same thing on the beverage side; it’s called “Garden to Glass.” Whether it’s the honey or any of our other products, all the items we use are fresh and all our juices are squeezed fresh every day. One of my favorite things that I’m really proud of is that we make our own ginger beer. It’s a big deal for us! We juice ginger every morning, then juice fresh lemons and add simple syrup. It tastes great. We also make our own coconut colada mix.
MR: How do you carbonate your ginger beer?
MM: With soda water. We make the mix first with the lemon, sugar and ginger. We can use that mix in a lot of cocktails. For the ginger beer, we mix it with soda water, roll it and you have ginger beer!
MR: How often do you change the drink list?
MM: We’re always innovating and trying new things. We put drinks into test a lot to see how they work operationally and how they’re accepted by the guests and servers. We change our drink menu at least once a year, but lately it’s been two to three times a year. The last two new additions were martinis, the Dirty Olive and the Blackberry Spice; they rolled out in February. It’s a great way to keep things fresh and new for the guests as well as keeping the bartenders interested.
MR: In our discussion about beer, you mentioned you’ve learned a lot about it and like it more and more. With all the craft beers and thousands of IPAs available, you let the outlets have some leeway on their offerings, right?
MM: Yes, beer takes a lot of my focus. The beer list consists of 24 beers; out of those, each restaurant gets to pick five of their local craft beers. That way they can bring some of their own style to the beer list. Their beer-loving customers love when they get to try new beers. We want to make sure we’re offering something that’s hot in the market and something that’s local.
MR: They get to change that often?
MM: All the time. That’s why I said it’s a lot of work for me because I do every beer list by hand.
MM: Yes, we love having our operators involved in creating their beer lists. Some have draft and some don’t, it just depends.
MR: So, for example, here in Atlanta you probably have a lot of Sweetwater beer on the local lists.
MM: Sure do. We have a lot of Sweetwater here in Atlanta.
MR: I love the happy hour menu. When I was younger, everybody had a happy hour; it was just a way of life. Then it kind of went away, a lot of it for legality reasons I suppose. Tell me about how you started that.
MM: We started happy hour five years ago or so, maybe a little longer. It’s a great time of day to have people come in and try different things and have the bar fill up. We offer happy hour everywhere (at the bar, dining room or patio). We also have special food items in all our locations from 3:00-6:00 p.m. In the states where we can, we offer discounts on cocktails, wine and beer. It’s a fun time to try new things and to be at the bar. We also have great patios in many of our locations; they make great gathering spots.
MR: You send out an electronic “paper” every week to the outlets. Tell us about that.
MM: It’s our newsletter that comes from the office and it’s called the Let Us Wrap. The Wrap goes out every Wednesday and it is a great tool to reach the field, the managers and servers. There’s always a section at the end of it that is about beverage. I think this week we talked about selling Bonny Doon Syrah.
MR: Whenever I go to a P.F. Chang’s, it seems there’s a large mix of ages and demographics in the restaurant. Do you target Millennials? Do you have a target audience you want to hit?
MM: Ever since I started with P.F. Chang’s, the message was to have something for everyone. We definitely have a lot of things that might appeal to certain age groups; these could be comfort wines or traditional cocktails. But it’s fun to play with some of the younger drinkers out there; they’re really open to trying things. They’re not brand focused – they want flavor and they want a story to it. I find that really fun right now, especially on the wine side. They drink a lot of wine but not necessarily their mom’s Chardonnay. They explore wines from a lot of different countries – they’re not afraid.
MR: The labels have changed to match their curiosity.
MM: Yes, a lot of graphics and fun names.
MR: When we were young, speaking for Baby Boomers, we would order a brand; we were very brand loyal. I ordered Dewar’s Scotch and Heineken, for example. Brands like Cutty Sark died on premise when their drinkers started dying off. Nothing is forever.
MM: I still see a lot of established brands in the mixology bars, brands that have been around a long time.
MR: Tried and true.
MM: Yes, take the gin category for example. You see a lot of new and local gins popping up but you still see the Tanqueray and Beefeater’s still hanging in there, and people love them.
MR: You live in Phoenix?
MM: Yes, with my husband. We’ve been there about 15 years or so now; we love it. We do outdoor things a lot.
MR: Interesting weather there …
MM: It is – hot and dry.
MR: How does your dog like that climate? (Laughs)
MM: I do have a big furry dog. The summers are hard on her but we take her to our cabin in the mountains every weekend; she likes it there. It’s beautiful up there.
MR: What is inspiring to you, outside of work?
MM: My husband and I love to travel. We also are very much into food and dining out. It’s a big part of our lives – we are always trying out the new restaurants. We also cook a lot from home; we have a garden we pull fresh vegetables from, along with fruit trees. We also have chickens, so we have a lot of fresh eggs. They’re really fun pets to watch and take care of.
We love to travel with a little beverage (wine) twist mixed in. We’ve been able to visit a lot of interesting places and learn about the culture and cuisine through the eyes of beverage.
MR: Where’s you next destination?
MM: This year our summer vacation is in Panama. Not a lot of wine there, but we like to see different places.
MR: What made you pick Panama?
MM: He picked it. (Laughs all around) He likes to surf so we’re going to stay on the beach for a week. It will be really nice.
MR: Sounds idyllic. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us.
MM: My pleasure!