Inventory gets an upgrade

BinWise, a data-driven program, has made managing inventory much easier. Jim Clarke reports.

Isabelle Hong
Isabelle Hong, CEO, BinWise; Photo: Maarten Van Dijk

"Inventory” is probably the word sommeliers dread the most. Whether it’s once a week or once a month, most somms would rather drink over-oaked Chardonnay for a week than count bottles, check for variances and errors, and so forth. It’s an important but tedious part of the job. Fortunately there is, as they say, an app for that. In fact, several programs have appeared dedicated to assisting with wine inventory, and BinWise has emerged as a leader.

Created by users

BinWise’s creators were both sommeliers themselves. In 2001, Grant Gilligan was working at the now-closed Michael Mina restaurant Aqua in San Francisco, appropriately close to Silicon Valley. Gilligan, a sommelier but a software developer by training, was frustrated by the trials of managing a large and fast-changing program. As it happens, his brother was working on a large web-based program for the clothing industry; its structure, which organised supplier information, pricing, and purchase history, would inform much of what eventually became BinWise. 

In 2008 or so Gilligan and fellow sommelier Tony Cha began working in earnest to create a program that would  be useful not just within the Michael Mina Group but for colleagues elsewhere. They were well connected with the San Francisco sommelier community, and feedback from their peers helped focus and refine the application. Hence their tagline: “Created by sommeliers, for sommeliers.”

Their first client outside of the Michael Mina restaurants was Thomas Keller’s French Laundry in Napa Valley. While a number of other beverage-specific programs and applications such as AccuBar and Tastevin developed around the same time, BinWise has remained the one most closely connected with high-end dining and the influential US sommelier community. “We mainly focus on the one, two, and three-star Michelin restaurants, the fine-dining world,” says CEO Isabelle Hong. “If you look at the three-star Michelin list, I would say 80% of the US restaurants on that list use BinWise. One hundred per cent of the US restaurants on the [San] Pellegrino top fifty restaurants in the world [list] use BinWise.”

The core of BinWise’s functionality lies in connecting all the relevant components of a beverage program: the list, inventory, point-of-sale, and supplier information, including pricing. As wines are received, they go into the program. Once there, BinWise collects each day’s sales from the POS system and adjusts inventory accordingly. Barring unrecorded breakage, over-pouring, or theft, inventory is up-to-date day-by-day. This has a number of advantages; it can help isolate exactly when theft is occurring or what bartender has a tendency to over pour, shine a light on sales trends as they happen, and enable ordering decisions to be made appropriately without waiting for the end-of-the-month physical tally. When the time comes to do that physical inventory, BinWise’s app can work together with an iPod Touch and a handheld scanner to streamline the process. Hong estimates that it reduces the time spent by 60% to 80%. 

Haley Guild Moore, beverage director for the Stock & Bones restaurant group in San Francisco, was an early adopter and has used the program since 2009. “I use nearly all the reports, but one of my favourites is the price change report,” Moore says. “It helps me dial in and see if there was an entry error on our part, or if we were charged wrong by the vendor. I also love the variance reports for inventory.” Jon McDaniel of Second City Soil, a former beverage director for the Gage Group in Chicago, says the ability to access all the data remotely can be a great help for sommeliers who oversee multiple locations.

Creating wine lists

Using information and straightforward pricing formulas provided by the user, BinWise can generate a wine list itself for iPad or tablet, or for printing. The list, therefore, can be adapted daily, sparing the missed sales and frustration that come from working with a list bedevilled by out-of-stock items. As a document in its own right, however, the list is not particularly flexible. “Any time you have automation in list creation it takes away the creative aspect of it,” says McDaniel. “As far as the ability to add into it and add design elements and things like that goes it’s still at a formulaic point, but a lot of wine programs aren’t looking to be innovative in that way.”

Where there may not be a sommelier on the floor, the list itself might need to do more of the work by offering descriptions of the wines or pairing suggestions. To address this audience, this year BinWise introduced BinWise Craft, a streamlined, much cheaper program that is designed with the small restaurant owner in mind. It actually does away with the list creation feature, since smaller lists change less frequently, and instead emphasises ease of ordering. “In New York we’re working with Beverage Media [a publication which tabulates the official listed prices for wines; in New York state, all alcoholic products are required to declare their pricing with the state liquor authority], so now you can search for items and place an order directly with your rep, and we’ll give what the pricing is, minimum orders, and whether it’s available or not.” A related feature called ‘quick count’ automatically places wines that are running low into a shopping cart. The owner or manager can simply check the cart and press one button for orders to go out to all the relevant suppliers.

That interactivity means all of this is happening via the web and passing through BinWise’s servers. With more than half a billion purchases and sales processed each year, it gives them an in-depth look at the on-premises wine scene. According to Hong, that data demonstrated, for example, that in December 2015 grower-producer Champagnes outsold the large houses in New York City – a surprise for those who thought holiday revellers might play it safe with well-known, bigger brands.

Data comes into its own

BinWise is applying that data in a number of ways. “Let’s say you’re looking for a Pinot Grigio,” says Hong. “We can actually make recommendations based on sales data we’re getting from your zip code,” so a restaurateur can know what people in their neighbourhood are fond of, instead of relying on national critics’ ratings. A broader program, BinWise Insight, has not been launched yet, but will eventually provide analytics for both restaurants and wine producers. Hong says there are also opportunities for retailers such as “What they’re looking at is licensing some of our data. With it, could actually tell you, ‘If you’re looking at this Champagne, go down to Marta’s. They have it by-the-glass. Try it first; if you like it, come back and buy it.’”

Hong says they’re also exploring partnering with distributors and distributors’ sales reps to help roll out BinWise Craft. In return, distributors could access data and have a better idea of sell-through of their products. “Distributors know what everybody’s buying; they just don’t know when you stop ordering from them whether it’s still sitting there.”

Many of BinWise’s users are small to medium-sized companies, often high-profile restaurants but with a single location. The data the company is amassing could be very valuable in giving small companies aggregated data that often only large chains have the economies of scale to gather in meaningful amounts. It can also cut across the three-tier system, which often obscures important feedback by making it difficult for producers, wholesalers, or retailers to see what is happening outside their own tier. As BinWise becomes more comfortable with parsing and sharing that data, additional opportunities for building sales and understanding the on-premises market are sure to emerge; sparing sommeliers the hassle of inventory was just the beginning.   

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