Husband and wife sommelier team Chris Gaither and Rebecca Fineman first linked up at the Advanced Sommelier exam in 2012. Their early dates included sharing their dreams of one day opening a space together. They both went on to achieve individual success with Fineman becoming the 25th female Master Sommelier in the United States, and Gaither being named a Best New Sommelier by Wine and Spirits magazine.
Six years, marriage, and one baby later, the pair opened their dream restaurant and bottle shop, Ungrafted in San Francisco’s Dogpatch neighborhood, with a focus on wine education, community involvement, and a family-friendly environment. They began offering weekly wine classes at the shop in April 2019, bringing in anywhere from a handful to a dozen people for blind tastings and regional surveys every Sunday. With class names like “Level Up!: Central Italy” and “Power Hour: Think Pink!”, Ungrafted aims to inject celebration and inclusivity into their class offerings.
When the pandemic first hit San Francisco in mid-March, Ungrafted was allowed to stay open due to its status as a wine retailer, and thus its classification as an essential business. While they drastically reduced their hours, Gaither wanted to ensure his staff was still able to earn an income. “We are dedicated to taking care of our staff, especially those that couldn’t receive unemployment,” says Gaither. “So we offered a very limited menu for takeout and had them come back to work to keep them getting paid and keep them busy.”
But the amount of revenue from takeout wasn’t going to be enough to sustain the business alone. At the end of March, the team moved their signature weekly wine classes to an online virtual format through Resy At Home. “People were very excited about it, and it was easy to set up on Resy because I was already dealing with table inventories at the restaurant,” says Gaither. The team quickly saw attendance skyrocket, starting with 19 attendees at the first virtual event to a peak of 75 attendees just a few weeks later.
Nearly every virtual event they’ve held since the pandemic began has had 2 to 3 times more attendees than any of their previous in-person events. From April through July of this year, Ungrafted generated 580% more in event ticket sales than they did during the same period last year. “Our classes are more successful virtually than they’ve ever been before,” says Gaither. “While the classes weren’t necessarily our main business focus before COVID-19, they’ve become one of the staples of our business and account for a significant portion of our revenue.”
Offer a Variety of Experiences
Gaither ensures the financial success of his events by offering different items that guests can add on to the purchase of a class ticket. The base price of an individual ticket includes a link to the livestream and the recording, but the team estimates around only 10% of attendees stop there when filling their cart.
“People can add a delivery of the wines we’re going to cover, a meat or cheese plate, or even extra glasses of wine to sip on and listen in,” says Gaither. “All of those things have been very helpful for the business.” To communicate about the various options, Gaither downloads the signup data from Resy and sends an email blast a few days before the event.
Be Mindful of Your Audience’s Attention Span
With Zoom fatigue setting in for many, Gaither stresses the importance of a “less is more” approach to virtual events. “My classes started around an hour and 45 minutes long, but I’ve learned to cut them down to about an hour and a half. There is only so much time people want to be online.”
To keep the audience engaged, the team chose a more interactive format where participants can see each other and speak up. “Everybody has an opportunity to say something,” says Gaither. “While I thought about doing the classes webinar style, where everyone just watches from behind their screens, I think there’s a very important communal aspect of participating that people really enjoy and are missing in their daily lives.”
Attract New Participants Through Social Media and Partnerships
Ungrafted promotes their events through email blasts, Facebook and Instagram. They also see the opportunity to feature products from local retailers and producers to boost their message outside of their own bubble.
“We’re interested in talking to other small businesses like wine retailers that don’t have their own education program so we can cross market and help each other bolster our businesses,” adds Gaither.
Ensure You Know What You’re Doing Before You Do It
As a final pro tip, Gaither stresses it’s important to get the logistics of your event planned out in advance. “If you’re using Zoom, or any other streaming platform, make sure you know how to operate everything before putting the event up for sale on Resy.”
You can find more information about how to set up Virtual Events for your restaurant here.