Food-and-beverage education delivers ROI for Valencia Group

The restaurant and bar staff of Radio Milano are treated to weekly classes.

For hotel management company Valencia Group, continuous education is key to community building and food-and-beverage staff retention. Like hotel guests, dining patrons also want more value for their money, so Valencia Group’s approach to elevate the dining experience even further has been to invest in staff education. The restaurant and bar staff of Radio Milano—the restaurant in Houston’s Hotel Sorella CityCentre—are treated to weekly classes hosted by sommelier Joshua Theis andbar manager Brandon Hernandez in conjunction with various winemakers and distillers.

“Customers are more value-oriented since the 2007 economy and they want to receive more if they’re going to part with their dollar,” Mark Jaeschke, GM of Radio Milano told HOTEL MANAGEMENT. “More educated staff speaks to value for guests and more education is likely to retain staff because they make more of an investment that isn’t just about dollars and cents. This helps speak to the future of their careers.”

Sharing a Passion

But the audience for these seminars also extends to neighboring restaurants and local hospitality industry members as well as restaurant patrons.

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“This really extends our commitment to the local community and to our staff’s education on wines and spirits,” Jaeschke said. “This also attracts front-of-house staff, and particularly seven employees doing internships, who want to build careers in hospitality.”

The thrice-monthly classes, which Jaeschke described as “a strict classroom environment,” take place on Thursday afternoons. Two of the classes focus on wine and may include a winemaker while the third is centered on a particular spirit where an agave producer or master of scotch might join in leading the session. Labor is the only incurred cost for Radio Milano because staff clocks in to attend, but products are typically provided by purveyors and invited local industry members and dining patrons pay a nominal fee to attend.

Getting the Word Out

Inviting local hospitality industry members as well as customers is intended to build brand awareness as well as community. “Education is something people can agree 100 percent on because it’s nonbiased,” Jaeschke said.

The classes are promoted on the restaurant’s Facebook page, but from a social media marketing standpoint, they also represent an opportunity to create some buzz for Radio Milano: Attendees take pictures that they then post to Instagram and Facebook, as well. Jaeschke noted that employees who are passionate about what they do are attracted to the classes so they actively want to share with their pursuits in the field with their social media networks.

The wines and spirits featured in each month’s classes are usually selected based on menu updates and a special degustation dinner offered that month. Staff can also keep current on menu updates via the free app Quizlet. “Our sommelier used it when he was getting his degree and our other employees also use it for their college studies, so our staff was already familiar with it and the fact that it’s free is a nice touch,” Jaeschke said. “Plus, it allows staff to study the menus on the go or whenever they have free time.”

Kitchen Lessons at all Levels

For less experienced staff, the restaurant also provides service mechanics workshops on wine service, table clearing and basic hospitality skill sets. The restaurant has also launched a scholarship program for wait staff to become certified in executive wine and Champagne service by the Court of Master Sommeliers with the goal of increasing the number of staff who are educated in Champagne service and the decanting of red wine to the Court’s standards.

The Valencia Group also extends additional learning opportunities to its top kitchen brass, particularly as the company quietly grows its portfolio of boutique hotels with The George set to open in College Station, Texas, in August while the Hotel Alessandra in Houston is slated to make its debut in October.

According to William Barba, director of operations at Hotel Sorella CityCentre, the hotel company organizes an annual trip for all of the chefs of its five existing hotels in Texas and California to explore the dining scene in culinary meccas that have included New York City, Napa and San Francisco, Las Vegas and Houston. While these trips help to keep the chefs current on the latest trends in dining, the Valencia Group will also send chefs and F&B executives on research excursions to develop new restaurant concepts, which is how the Argentine restaurant Dorrego’s at the Hotel Valencia Riverwalk in San Antonio was created. Barba, along with the hotel’s executive chef Anthony Meza and GM Trent Freeman, embarked on a 15-day visit to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where they visited 20 of the city’s best restaurants and spent about a week in the kitchens of local chefs, cooking alongside them.

“Retention is very important for the company and when you spend money on these types of experiences for chefs, it creates value for the whole company,” Barba said. “If you have a happy chef, the whole hotel is happy.”