At 6:30 p.m. on a warm summer evening, Caffe Gelato’s customers sat down to a five-course dinner—complete with thoughtfully paired wines—and a show.
The event featured Fred Dame with Daou Vineyards in Paso Robles, California.
Just another wine dinner? Hardly.
Caffe Gelato is in Newark. The master sommelier, however, was in California, and he talked to his audience via smartphones, laptops and tablets.
The diners, meanwhile, were in the restaurant—and in their homes.
Welcome to Caffe Gelato’s wine dinner series during the pandemic. The next event—a Sinatra Sing-Along dinner with tribute performer Sean Reilly—is scheduled for Thursday.
The virtual hybrid is the brainchild of Ryan German, the owner of Caffe Gelato. But the Main Street restaurant is not the only eatery to take a high-tech approach to a meal with a winemaker.
SoDel Concepts, which has 12 restaurants in coastal Sussex County, also has offered virtual wine dinners.
On Aug. 27, the hospitality group’s Lupo Italian Kitchen in Rehoboth Beach is offering a wine dinner with contactless pickup. On Sept. 3, Catch 54 in Fenwick Island is featuring Lamoreux Landing Wine Cellars.
The dinners have several advantages. For one, restaurants, which currently have limited seating, can boost their income.
For another, the meals satisfy a thirst for fine wine, good food and knowledge—and you don’t need to dine out.
The necessity of innovation
When Gov. John Carney ordered restaurants to shut down their dining rooms on March 16, SoDel Concepts had wine dinners scheduled. The events draw diners to the beach-area restaurants during the off-season.
“Instead of canceling, we made the switch to virtual,” said Mike Zygmonski, who oversees the company’s wine program. The first event was in March.
German followed a similar path. The restaurateur, known for his wine program, had already booked wine dinners, including an event with Justin Vineyards on April 30.
The distributor wanted to cancel.
“I said instead of canceling it, let’s get the founder, Justin Baldwin, on Zoom,” German recalled. “The initial response was no; he’s busy.”
“Finally, someone asked him, and he said: ‘Oh, I’d love to do it!’”
Riedel agreed to provide exquisite stemware for the restaurant to offer at a reduced price.
Customers picked up food and wine to go, which was the only option at the time. The promotion went over so well that Caffe Gelato partnered with Pizza By Elizabeth and The Starboard to hold a dinner and virtual concert to celebrate restaurants’ reopening. The event, sponsored by Maker’s Mark, featured Ben LeRoy and The Snap.
For Caffe Gelato’s Daou dinner on Aug. 13, diners had the option of the to-go or dine-in format.
“It was a little trickier,” German acknowledged of juggling both scenarios.
Via Zoom, diners at home saw their counterparts at the restaurant. People were eating outside on their patio or on the restaurant porch. Some sipped wine in their dining room or at Caffe Gelato’s tables.
SoDel Concepts, however, has retained the virtual-only format, except, that is, for events at The Clubhouse at Baywood in Millsboro, which has plenty of room for social distancing and a spacious veranda.
Refining the process
SoDel Concepts initially maxed out its virtual wine dinners at 60 to 80 guests. Now the company can handle 120 to-go wine dinners, and the meals are prepared before the kitchen gets busy with in-house orders.
“We’ve found it works best if the first, second and dessert courses are cold, and the entree is hot,” Zygmonski said.
Beginning with the sold-out Daou dinner, Caffe Gelato created a YouTube video to show customers at home how to reheat and prepare each course.
Wearing a mask, Executive Chef Jeovany Valle put a generous dollop of garlic-and-compound butter on the oysters and popped them in the oven. The gazpacho “salad” only required an attractive dish.
Purple potato puree with goat cheese and grilled summer vegetables came in sealed bags for a quick boil, and the New York strip steak was already nicely grilled.
The steak, dusted with a cocoa-espresso rub, came rare so that it wouldn’t overcook in the customer’s oven.
Valle demonstrated how to spoon the roasted strawberry-cabernet sauce over the top to make a pretty pattern.
Did guests in the restaurant get a more polished presentation? Undoubtedly. But those at home got a cooking class with ingredients that beat Blue Apron.
Red, white and zoom
Technology, of course, is the tie that binds these events together.
When Sam Calagione joined Caffe Gelato guests on Zoom for a Dogfish Head beer dinner, the restaurant set up a big screen. Everyone in the room was there to see the brewery’s founder.
But, for most events, guests use their own devices at their table or at home.
Zygmonski, who uses GoToMeeting for his virtual dinners, said about 80 percent of the customers who purchase the package tune in to the feed.
“I host the event, and the chefs talking about the menu,” he said. Winemakers and winery owners discuss the vintages. “We use pictures and Google Earth to show and highlight the vineyards, which has worked well.”
Will these events continue in the future? German, who is prepared for ongoing COVID-19 restrictions, is pondering Valentine’s Day wine dinners to-go in 2021.
As long as restaurants can sell alcohol to go, SoDel Concepts will feature virtual wine dinners.
“The advantage is that we can sell more dinners than we can typically do in-house, and we don’t need to close the restaurant for a wine dinner,” Zygmonski said.