Navigating Corkage Fees: Should Restaurants Allow BYOB, and What Should They Charge?

By | 2 June 2024

Nowadays, very few restaurants maintain a wine cellar due to the high costs involved, though some admirable exceptions still exist. Wine collectors, on the other hand, often have remarkable bottles they are eager to savor with outstanding food and friends. Usually, home cooking might not rise to the occasion, underscoring the appeal of enjoying one’s own wine at a premier eatery.

This practice, known as corkage, where diners bring their own bottle to a restaurant and pay a fee to have it served, is a boon to those wishing to pair aged, fine wines with gourmet dishes. Understanding which establishments welcome this practice can enhance the dining experience significantly.

However, navigating corkage fees can be delicate. Patrons should view this as a privilege rather than an entitlement, and compensate the restaurant appropriately to avoid financial loss on their part. Restaurants, for their part, should mitigate fears about losing revenue. Consider the scenario where a diner pays a corkage fee of £30 to drink a premium wine that the restaurant might list for £450. This shouldn’t be seen as a loss of £350; rather, it’s an opportunity to cultivate loyalty with a wine lover who might frequent the restaurant regularly, spending comparably to patrons who order mid-priced bottles.

The reluctance to offer corkage stems from the fear of not selling expensive wines to wealthy customers who might opt to bring their own. However, it’s not always reasonable to expect that a wine collector will consistently splurge in a restaurant environment, particularly if the wine was purchased at more moderate prices years ago. Thus, a balance of understanding and flexibility regarding corkage could benefit both restaurants and wine lovers alike.

One challenge with corkage is the sense of entitlement some patrons exhibit, failing to understand the restaurateur’s viewpoint. Restaurants rely on table turnover, and a significant portion of their revenue often comes from wine sales. In London, a 12.5% tip is added to each wine bottle, a standard practice that contrasts with even higher tips in the USA. Expecting to bring your own bottle with little to no corkage fee overlooks the fact that beverage sales are critical for a restaurant’s profitability in the UK.

Normally, I would advise against bringing personal wine to restaurants unless warranted by special circumstances. This could include unique or aged wines not available on the menu. Seeing corkage as merely a cost-cutting measure undervalues the effort a restaurant puts into crafting an intriguing wine list. At wine enthusiast gatherings, we ensure to bring exceptional and rare wines and choose times that are less busy to be considerate of the restaurant’s operations.

The type of dining establishment affects the corkage dynamic significantly. Fine dining venues that provide detailed wine service for every bottle brought can justify higher corkage fees due to the added workload. Conversely, a casual neighborhood bistro, which might simply open and serve the wine, can reasonably ask for a lower fee. Thus, the context of the restaurant plays a crucial role in determining appropriate corkage practices.

Furthermore, the decision to bring wine should consider the restaurant’s wine list. If a venue has a limited or unimpressive selection, bringing a bottle might enhance the dining experience. However, if a restaurant offers a diverse, carefully selected collection of fine wines, customers should bring bottles only if they are truly special or not represented on the menu, such as a vintage treasure from one’s cellar, a rare find, or a bottle with sentimental value—though this should be an exception, not the norm. Corkage is not a strategy for economizing on a good drink.

When bringing your own bottle to a restaurant and paying corkage, it’s considerate to also order from the wine list. This practice highlights that the privilege of bringing your own wine is intended for enjoying selections not available on the restaurant’s menu.

Corkage fees might be applied in situations such as a wine lover’s dinner, where each guest brings a bottle. It would be reasonable for the restaurant to expect that guests will not require a new glass for each wine, can open their own bottles, and serve themselves. This can ease the workload on the restaurant, especially in more upscale establishments, allowing them to simplify wine service for such occasions. Leaving some wine in each bottle for the sommelier to taste later is a courteous gesture if they are not directly serving the wine.

Entering a restaurant, nobody wants to feel merely like a profit opportunity. While understanding that a business needs to be profitable, guests primarily seek hospitality. They expect to receive professional service and delicious food without feeling exploited financially. Therefore, corkage policies that appear overly complex or expensive, especially those based on the market value of the wine, can diminish the dining experience. Similarly, justifications that focus on operational costs or staffing levels might detract from the charm of dining out.

My ideal corkage policy, if I were to manage a restaurant, would focus on simplicity and hospitality.

You might be able to bring your own wine for a corkage fee of £30. This is contingent on the type of bottle you bring; it shouldn’t be a budget wine primarily to cut costs. Corkage fees are typically charged when you bring a unique bottle that our selection does not offer. If you arrive with a high-quality wine and treat our staff respectfully without making undue demands, you will most likely be permitted to open it. Additionally, purchasing other beverages from our menu can also positively influence our decision.

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