Adam Halberg, CEO of Barcelona Wine Bar
About the Guest
Adam Halberg is the CEO of Barcelona Wine Bar, a Mediterranean-inspired concept with 18 restaurants around the country. Halberg began his career as a chef and has developed award-winning menus for both of Barteca Restaurant Group’s two concepts: Barcelona Wine Bar and bartaco, and oversees a strong team of creative and collaborative chefs. Prior to becoming the CEO of Barcelona, Halberg served as its Culinary Director for several years, championing a chef-driven, personal dining experience.
In this episode, we chat with Adam Halberg, long-time chef, culinary director, and now CEO of Barcelona Wine Bar. Tune in to hear Adam talk about prioritizing long-term customer relationships and lifetime value over short-term upsells, and how Barcelona commits to creating personalized guest experiences despite a challenging COVID-19 environment. Adam also discusses the importance of curating a team and culture that embrace altruistic hospitality, and shares how he helps the company focus on the core values that matter, even amidst turbulent times. Learn more about building the strong foundations of a truly guest-oriented brand in this latest episode of Food Fighters!
From fake meat and robot chefs to ghost kitchens and delivery drones, the restaurant industry is rapidly evolving. Welcome to Food Fighters, bringing you interviews with the leading industry trailblazers. I’m your host, Zach Goldstein. Welcome back. I’m excited to be here today with Adam Halberg, CEO of Barcelona Wine Bar, a Mediterranean inspired concept with 18 restaurants around the country. Adam began his career as a chef and has developed award-winning menus for both of Barteca’s restaurant groups: two concepts, which include Barcelona Wine Bar and Bar Taco. He’s been a champion of chef-driven personal dining experiences, and I’m thrilled to welcome you to the Food Fighters podcast, Adam.
Exciting to be here. Thanks for the opportunity to chat.
So maybe we should just start telling the audience a little bit about Barcelona and what makes your concept unique, because you’re doing so many things with this idea of really delivering a chef-driven restaurant experience. I look forward to diving into that, but let’s just start with the overview of Barcelona.
Sure. Barcelona is, as you said, Mediterranean-influenced, we use Spanish food as our pallet that we paint with. We’re sort of alternating depending on how you look at us, either the most traditional type of restaurant where, you know, everybody knows your name and the chef is coming out and cooking something special for you. And there’s a command of these personal, individual one by one relationships. On the other hand, we’re a bit contrarian, in that most restaurants, as they become restaurant groups, quickly become by necessity, more efficient, more sterile. And we have remained wildly inefficient in many ways, as we’ve continued to sort of doggedly pursue that individualistic and creative nature in each of our locations, it really is something that makes Barcelona unique.
And I would imagine there’s two ways to look at that right now, as so many brands are rapidly adapting to a different service model, a largely off-premise service model that moves away from some of what you just talked about. You’re going the opposite direction and leaning into experiential. What led to that decision, and how has it played out at your restaurants?
Sure. Wonderful question. You know, I think first and foremost, it’s important to sort of separate the industry because when we talk about the restaurant industry as a whole and how people are really diving into off-premise and digital exposure, there’s difference between “I’m hungry and I want to put something in my bag and how do I get that in the most efficient way possible” versus “I want to go and experience something. I want to do something fun. I want to spend some time with people that I know and I like,” and we’re really after answering that second question more than we’re answering the first one. So it becomes by definition, more difficult for us to deliver the fully curated Barcelona experience, the lights, the music, the quality of people, the full atmosphere to your home, in the way that I can deliver a hamburger to your home or pizza to your home. So when we look at where we stand in this current pandemic, we know that people want to be safe, but we also know that they have an equal hunger for normalcy and an equal hunger for the type of fun experiences that they had in the past. And I think we’ve recognized that that second piece is where we excel, where we’re going to keep everybody safe. We’re going to pay the added attention to sanitation. And we’ve got great systems in place for that, but we can’t do that piece at the expense of the overall experience that everybody’s getting.
Yeah. And you’re right to point out, the pandemic has been across the board challenging for every corner of the restaurant space, perhaps with the exception of those with very robust drive through business. But overall much easier for QSR and fast casual. They’ve been training their customers to adapt to an off premise type of experience. You, by not going that direction, you’ve had to get more creative. So you’ve looked at various ways to bring the Barcelona experience to online wine tasting and in house retail markets and some various things that allowed you to adapt quickly, but to remain top of mind for customers with the goal of getting them back to your restaurants as soon as they were comfortable to do that.
Yeah, I think the important note there is that most of these are not my creative ideas. Most of these are our cultivation of a really talented and creative group of people, right? We’ve always had this spirit within Barcelona where our chefs are making up their menus every single day, where the interactions from the guests, from the teams in the restaurants to the guests is really individualistic and personal. And with that when the time came for, okay, how do we reconnect? Or to your point, how do we remain engaged with our guests, with our regulars, it was individual teams within the restaurants that were really coming up with the best innovations. We had a restaurant in Fairfield, Connecticut who put on a full paella cooking class and wine tasting, and they did it over Zoom. And we had everything from musicians to people who are able to taste wine, people were coming to the restaurant and picking up their paella packages and bringing it back to their home and sitting and cooking along with the chef. But also, you know, you could see that there was a mix of people that were on the screen. Some of them were in their kitchens, cooking together. Some of them were just sitting on the couch, having a glass of wine and watching it as entertainment. And some of them were really interacting and sort of chiming in with questions as time went along. That was an innovation that came out of the team and the restaurant there, it wasn’t a top down, “Hey, everybody, this is what you’re going to do from now on, on Friday nights, you’re hosting these wine classes.” That was the team saying, “Hey, this is how we think we can remain engaged with our guests, retail.” Sure. There’s a ton of restaurants out there who quickly pivoted and decided that they were going to follow the conventional wisdom, which is that all restaurants had to become groceraunts, and people were going to stop going to the grocery store, but they would come to the restaurant instead. And we looked at that as an option and said that doesn’t quite fit us, or we don’t expect ourselves to become, you know, the local provisions for everybody in our community. However, we did have this demand. We did have people coming to us and saying, your olive oil is better than any olive oil that I can find in the grocery store. And it’s one of the things that we come back for. Normally, if somebody is having dinner and they comment that they love the olive oil, we just pack them up a pint of Alamo and gave it to them for free. And that was an opportunity where we could say, Hey, there may be things that we do. There may be things that we offer, parts of this curated experience that people may want to bring home with them. And that turned out not just to be things like olive oil or paella rice or specialty spices and vinegars, but it also meant it’s the glassware that we’ve chosen for our cocktails, our beverage team has worked really hard at curating really interesting looking glasses that really fit these classic cocktails. Okay. Take them home with you, make your own cocktails and do that. We have an artist that produces these lovely cutting boards for us, that we use for our charcuterie and cheeses. If you want to take that home and bring that sort of fuller experience home with you, what we realized is we had to give people that as an option, both for our revenue standpoint, but also because, as restricted as our guests were from coming to the restaurant or spending time in the restaurant, they wanted to bring some of that piece home. They want to bring some of that experience home. And that meant more than just a prepared meal in a cardboard box. Right?
And I think the duality of that is very important of course, with people in the early days of the crisis, not coming in to the restaurants quite as much that revenue, I’m sure it was very critical. The second part about keeping that brand connection could feel like a sales pitch, and it could feel like the secondary thing, except your brand’s been living. You have been, quote unquote, skipping the upsell well before COVID ever showed up. So it’s very genuine to your brand. And that’s something that, as a chef, you have, you have trained your staff to focus on the customer, as opposed to necessarily the slightly extra amount of revenue from that one interaction.
You know, there’s an amount of training that goes in. There’s also, you know, as carefully as we curate the things in our restaurant, as carefully as we curate the wine list in a restaurant, we curate the people. One of our newest restaurants, which opened up in Dallas, Texas, about a month before the pandemic went down, brand new restaurant, new general manager to our company. He was driving to the restaurant when we were shut down for dining rooms and passed a house right near the restaurant that had balloons in front of it, you know, “honk, it’s my birthday,” something like that. He went to the restaurant, packed up a bottle of Cava and a meal and went and dropped it off at the happy birthday party. That’s not a sales, that’s not revenue. And that’s not something that you can necessarily train. I always think about, like, by the time we get employees, by the time we’d get team members as adults, we can’t teach them manners either. They got that at home, or they didn’t, there’s a genuine, desire to make other people happy, to make other people’s world better. Which, look, it’s even more important now than it ever has been. We’re dealing with a national mental health crisis coming out of this pandemic and this economic disaster. So to have people whose gut instinct is, wow, you’re celebrating something or you need something. How can I participate? How can I make your day, your world a better place? Sometimes that’s training. But a lot of times it’s really about, like I said, it’s curating people. It’s making sure that we’ve got people who are going to see those opportunities to create special moments and are going to do it really somewhat altruistically. The expectation is that that turns into revenue somewhere down the line. It’s the difference between sort of short term sales and longterm sales. We could pack in and figure out a way to get dollars out of every possible person today. But if that doesn’t create a relationship, if it doesn’t form a bond, if it’s not executed well, then that means nothing for us, or it means the wrong thing for us. Two, three, four months down the road. And as much as this really is a real financial burden and crisis now, we still have think about the longterm effect of our relationships with people, otherwise, you know, we’re really going contrary to what we believe to be true and what we’ve proven to be true in the past moments of crisis, test whether or not right, your values were right all along. They shouldn’t really make you fundamentally change.
Yeah. And one of the things that you mentioned that is the crux of this is that restaurants are inherently, often, so short term focused and a financial crisis like this makes that even harder to avoid, right? How do I make it the next day, the next week? What is my cash flow situation right now? And yet the restaurant industry is built on the concept of lifetime value. If you are doing a good job, delivering experiences and personalized communication that creates repeat purchasing from guests, that’s the lifeblood of your business. And if you’re not doing that, it’s going to be very hard to survive longterm. And it sounds like that has been inculcated into the Barcelona DNA from long before we ever heard the word COVID-19.
Absolutely. I mean, pre-crisis, we’ve all been, not just to a restaurant, we’ve all, you know, bought a car. We’ve been to the grocery store. We’ve had to buy insurance online, whatever else it is, right. Where that experience, it’s not just transactional. And I know that word gets thrown out about, but it feels predatory. You feel like you’re in an antagonistic relationship with the person that you’re buying something from, there must be a negotiation. Somebody is trying to get something from me. And we’ve all had that experience at a restaurant where a server or bartender pushes something on you. Right? Oh, come on. You’ve got to each have a dessert. You can’t share one. They’re all too good. You know that it’s about the sale and not about your enjoyment of dessert at the end of the dinner, we’ve all had that experience where you look at a wine list and you point to a $50 bottle of wine. And the server says, “Oh yeah, awesome choice. But I’ve got this $60 bottle of wine that’s even better.” And they say it out loud to the point that they know that you’d be embarrassed amongst your guests, if you chose publicly the lower price. And that is an area that we’ve always gone back and trained our team to give the guests the experience, that’s going to be best for them to give them the experience that they’re going to want. And also to make sure that our guests feel and know implicitly, that we care about them, that we’re taking care of them. And that means when you point to the $50 bottle of wine, more often than not our servers say awesome choice, but let me tell you a secret, I’ve got this $40 bottle of wine that I think is just as good, if not better. And it’s going to save you $10. That’s just not something that people are used to hearing. And it wakes them up. There’s an antenna that goes up that I’m not going to be taken advantage of here. Right? Somebody here actually cares about my enjoyment of this experience and is not going to pad. My bill is not going to sort of pull one over on me. And that piece of longterm, that guest is going to come back again and again and again, because they value the relationship instead of, “Cool, you got an extra $10 on the bill now and an extra $2 on your tip period. End of story.” And that person now may not come back for another six months because there’s some small discomfort, right? That they remember that sticks in their mind when they think about the experience of coming into your restaurant.
And this is the power of experiential dining. And I think a lot of restaurants struggle with, well, what does that actually mean to my brand? And what I really like about what you just said is you’ve simplified it. It’s not that complex: deliver what the customer wants in every element of your interactions. And you are delivering on that experiential promise.
No question. I mean, you’re right. Experiential dining gets thrown around a lot where you have to then define what the experience is. Oh, experiential dining means that we play, you know, bluegrass on Tuesdays; experiential dining means that you’re eating and there’s a bowling alley and a ping pong table and bocce, if you want to feel Mediterranean and cool, right? That somehow that is creating a capital E and probably in a very particular font branded Experience. When we’re talking about experiential dining, that’s really not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about the heartbeat of hospitality, of taking care of people, bringing our restaurant back to the idea of that original restaurant, that in a tavern that people would go to, to be restored, in a restaurant that requires a human interaction. And it requires somebody looking at you and going, “You haven’t told me that you’re cold, but you look a little chilly. Let me bring you a blanket. Let me ask, offer to move your seat. Let me bring you something warm to drink, whatever else it is.” It’s that observation of what’s going on, that interaction of what’s going on at your tables that allows you to sort of create a true experience. And I’m completely fine if that’s a lowercase pencil written word experience, instead of a big fonted branded experience, it’s more real that way. It’s more genuine that way, I believe.
Some people listening to this may say, but doing that consistently can be expensive, because you are in some cases sacrificing short term profit, for that longer term investment. And you have to have the right financial situation. And the good news is you do, although the last couple of years for Barteca has seen quite a bit of change. How has your approach here, or has it changed at all as you’ve gone through various owners and majority investors literally over the last 24 months?
Look, everybody and every organization evolves. We change. I think we have to, I think that that’s good, right? It’s how we become hopefully a better people or better organization. So I’m not saying that we don’t change, but under, sort of extreme exterior change, things that you’re forced to deal with; oftentimes the way to ensure consistency of execution is to really, to grab even more tightly to the things that matter most, the things that you value most, and that you’ve told your team that you value most, otherwise they see that the winds have changed and therefore you’ve changed with it. And that would sort of expose a really disingenuous sort of line in what you were saying. And it becomes a slogan instead of something that you’re actually demonstrating that you believe in. So we really have over the past few years, as we have moved around sort of between different ownership, try to inoculate our teams in the restaurants from that as much as possible. Sometimes that was feasible. Sometimes it wasn’t, but to keep them as focused as possible on what they know has always been important for us, which is again, the relationships; as long as they can look at themselves in the mirror and with a straight face, say, “I’m going to go to work today and make other people ridiculously stupidly happy, and everything else is second.” Then, you know, we were able to sort of double down on that. There’s no question what we do to your point. We do it the hard way. There are people who were looking forward to a moment in time when technology replaced a certain number of their employees, because they believed that they could get some real cost savings out of that. And they have used the pandemic as a necessity as a necessary moment to reduce the workforce and have married that up to what the plans already were originally, which was how do we move forward without as many people we have looked at in the past, how do we streamline our service so that we don’t need maybe as many people running around the restaurant. But we’ve done that absolutely in conjunction with, and in parallel with a desire to make sure that the changes to the service model that we made enabled our servers, our bartenders, our managers, to spend more time engaging with our guests. It wasn’t just about reducing people. It was about reallocating responsibilities, so that we could give a better, more personal experience and a more direct experience to our guests instead of reducing it; there’s no, you know, rubbing of the hands together with excitement that we had to lose, you know, some 1200 people in a furlough back in March; our goal was initially and was immediately, how do we get those people back? Because we knew without those individuals doing their work, we couldn’t fulfill that entire experience that we had promised our guests.
It’s powerful. And certainly the way you talk about, this is one of the things I love about doing these interviews on this podcast is it’s more than how to run a restaurant. And you’re talking about general leadership guidelines, right? You have an organization that’s changed ownership twice in very short succession. And your way of protecting your teams from that whiplash is actually doubling down on what makes your brand special at the end of the day. And that’s a lesson that regardless of the industry, I think transcends.
Yeah, the effects of this pandemic on restaurants all across the country have been has been tragic without a doubt. And there’ve been a lot of really cool, interesting innovations that different people have followed, but there’s also been a lot of, you know, the herd is all charging one way and then the herd is all charging the other. And that’s why the cost of plexiglass to put a barrier in between tables suddenly went through the roof because everybody’s making a lot of those same decisions at the same time. There are areas that everybody is right, and you have to join that herd, but there’s also areas that you look at and you smell it and you, and you realize, yeah, this may work for other people, but it doesn’t work for us, the way we’ve always really cautiously examined technology and determined in most ways that we were going to keep technology out of the restaurants. Obviously right now, there’s a huge push for people running towards technology that was already going on. They’re just running towards it even faster than they were before. We’re using technology in ways that we never have in ways which we maybe have never even considered pre-pandemic, but it’s not because we believe that that’s the future of Barcelona, right? We like smiling at people. We like showing that facial recognition, that I’m happy that you’re here. That doesn’t mean that we’re not wearing masks, but it also doesn’t mean that we believe that masks are the best way going forward; masks right now today in September of 2020 is a sign of hospitality. It means I care about you and your health, hopefully by next year, we’re back to an actual smile thing, the sign of hospitality and not a mask. In the same way, we’ve had to lean on certain pieces of technology just to keep people safe. And some of that, contactless payment, sure, if that makes it more efficient and more enjoyable for our guests going forward in the longterm, awesome. But the fact that we had to use a QR code in order for people to place an order so that our servers didn’t approach the table in June and July, doesn’t mean that we’re going to remove that in-person hospitality for the future. As we looked for the years to come, right, that has to get back to what people ultimately want, which is they want somebody who’s friendly, who cares about them coming to the table and helping them navigate through this experience. We’ve got a 400 odd bottle of wine list. We’ve got a huge and diverse menu of interesting ingredients. You’re not going to ask guests to read through an encyclopedia of those things on their phone. When what they really want is to spend as much time as possible talking to their friends or family or date or whoever it is that they came to the restaurant with.
Right. And I mean that’s a very interesting challenge for you because I’ve read, pre-pandemic, of course, Barcelona tried to give customers a reprieve from technology. And that’s part of that experience. And you’re talking now about places where very thoughtfully and because of the specifics of our current circumstances, you’ve inserted things that you probably wouldn’t have considered otherwise coming up as things revert back in the direction. And boy, we hope that sooner rather than later, but there’s some uncertainty still, how do you make the decision about which of these technologies stick and are part of your go forward? And which of them you’re saying, look, we’ll go back to quote unquote, normal as quickly as we can. They are short term solutions.
Yeah. That that’s one area that our filter has never really changed, which is what is the best thing for the guest experience, right? What is going to make the people who choose to dine with us, who choose to come in just for a glass of wine who choose to come in for celebratory dinner, what’s going to make their experience better. And the fact of the matter is if ordering from a person, instead of ordering from their phone is going to make sure that they had a better than we’re going to give them the opportunity to order from a person. Where it may stick is, again, this current situation, this current pandemic is going to have a longterm mental health effect on people in our country. And there’s going to be a volume of our population that is going to remain cautionary and squeamish about being in close proximity to other people. I’ve talked to people who they watch a show on TV or a movie, and they see people didn’t know each other, meeting each other and hugging each other and being in crowds. And it makes the hairs on the back of the neck come up because that’s not allowed right now, even though it’s on TV, right? Giving people that option in the way that restaurants used to ask you smoking, or non-smoking, giving people that option socializing or non socializing, if you feel comfortable or more comfortable sitting at your table and ordering off an app and having minimal contact, we want to give you that. And we’ve worked with, a company called GoTab to really help curate as much of that experience as possible. And to give the best information as possible. Our chefs, not only are they making up new dishes every day, they’re taking beautiful pictures of these new dishes and they’re uploading it onto the app so that guests can look at it and see what’s coming. If you want that experience, we want to be able to give you that. But if you want the personal experience, we want to be able to give you that as well. So there are, well, I think the transition is, we’ve already moved away from, you have to use the app to place an order back to in person service. What we’re not likely to do in the near future is to remove the option. If you would like to place an open order through the app and not have people in close proximity to the table, we want to make sure that you feel comfortable enough coming to Barcelona, that you can get that experience. But if you want that sense of normalcy, if you are comfortable with the idea of people in your personal space for short periods of time, we want to give you that back as well. So it’s about using technology, but not becoming dependent on technology. We don’t want to have experienced a crash landing of an airplane. And we’ve floated away on our floating seating cushion, and suddenly say, yeah, you know what? We really love the idea of swimming while holding onto a floatie. Like, that’s not where we’re at, where we’ve decided that that change is permanent because we had to do it in a moment of catastrophe. Like those are really two different things. And you view that there’s somehow a move towards digital or towards technology because it feels good. Now we have people are so bombarded right with their screens, that people have apps on their phone that tell them to turn them off. People are watching their kids right now doing homeschooling and staring at their computers or iPads or whatever for endless hours a day after we’ve been telling them for years that staring at these screens is one of the worst things for kids. Right? The last thing we want to do is to bring them into this fun social place, and then force them to turn back to their phone again, rather than actually have a conversation. Again, if they want it, we want to make sure we’re able to give it, but that’s not where we’re doubling down. That’s not where we’re committing to making some fundamental shift in who we are.
That’s really eloquently said. And it’s a fascinating perhaps window into the future, that there are different parts of the same restaurant that have, as you put it, socializing and non socializing, or the true full service versus a more adapted service type model. And I hadn’t thought about that, and I’m sure we’ll see some evolutions of that; look forward to seeing what you do there. Well, this has been really a fantastic conversation, Adam. So thank you for the time, as you think about the challenge of the restaurant industry over the next couple of years, we like to end these conversations often with: what food fight do you see emerging? And boy, is it hard to answer this question with anything other than the recovery from COVID-19, but as you broaden your outlook to be over the next several years, what is the biggest challenge that you and your colleagues across the industry, in your mind, are facing right now?
I wish there was a challenge, and I think that the multitude of challenges, which we have been facing, are all likely to continue. Wages are gonna continue to rise as they should, and, and restaurants are gonna have to figure out how to be appropriately profitable, within that. But you know, the biggest challenge for the restaurant industry is, and has always been, it’s also its greatest opportunity, which is the changes that we face tend not to be permanent damage. They tend to be a flux in where you need to be facing. As an example: I think if there’s a good thing that people talk about coming out of this pandemic, it’s maybe we’re not sitting as a populace in our cars and trains for an hour or two hours yelling at each other in traffic doing some, some really wacky commutes in order to get to an office. If we’re allowing people, and if this forces a culture where people can work more remotely, I think for the health of everybody, that’s probably a good thing. All that’s going to mean is that the best place to have your real estate, the best place to have your restaurant is if you were centered in the downtown area next to all the offices or by a convention center may switch, right? We have seen it, but the restaurants that we have, which fortunately is most of them that are the most residential are the ones that are doing the best because we are where the people are. And those restaurants were often in really good situations in the past. But now they are really uniquely benefiting from the fact that their people are at home more. And they’re not getting home at seven o’clock at night or eight o’clock at night after commuting from a city somewhere. So opportunities to rethink the way that that labor operates, opportunities to rethink where is best place for a restaurant to be located. Sure, I think technology is going to be a great learning piece for everybody in this industry for years to come, it has really just caught up to the restaurant industry. Now, I think there was a greater demand for it than there was the opportunity for, but it doesn’t mean that every great new technological innovation is a good innovation for everybody to use. So much of it is too expensive. It hurts the bottom line. It doesn’t enhance the guest experience. It gives people crazy amounts of data that I personally don’t always believe that they are actually using for the amount of money that they’re paying for it. When you can look at your guests, if you know them, and if you have relationships with them and ask them what they want, that’s an old school way of doing things, but it also has been very successful for a very long time. So yeah, technology will get better. Technology will get cheaper. That’s usually the way that technology works. But it’s important for us not to chase each one down the road that it opens.
I think that’s a very fair assessment, even from someone who spends my day job selling technology. I think that that’s a healthy balance to strike. And one that restaurants have to keep an eye on; how do you embrace it? Because it brings so many opportunities without sacrificing some of those things that really make your brand and your customer experience unique. So Adam, thank you so much for the conversation, enjoyed it greatly and excited to see how Barcelona Wine Bar continues to adapt and thrive coming out the other side of COVID-19.
Thanks for joining us. It was a real pleasure to chat, Zach. Thank you very much.
You’ve been listening to Food Fighters with me, Zach Goldstein. To subscribe to the podcast or to learn more about our featured guests visit Thanx.com/foodfighters. That’s Thanx, spelled T H A N X.com/foodfighters. This podcast is a production of Thanx, the leading CRM and digital engagement solution for restaurants. Until next time, keep fighting Food Fighters.