#25. In this episode, we're joined by Matt Conway, the charismatic owner, operator, and sommelier of the renowned Tippling House nestled in the heart of Charleston, South Carolina. Alongside his delightful partner-in-crime, Carissa Hernandez, Matt has created a haven for those who appreciate the finer aspects of life's libations.
Under the wing of the late Chef Gray Kunz, Matt honed his craft at Café Gray in the Time Warner Center from 2004 to 2007. This eventually led him to to Restaurant Marc Forgione, where he wore multiple hats – GM, beverage director, and eventually a partner. Matt has collaborated with the world-famous cellers at Taillevent in Paris and has been bestowed the honor of being among Zagat's "30 Under 30" and a Star Chefs recognized "Rising Star Sommelier."
Matthew's journey is one marked by consistent acclaim and notable presence at some of the most distinguished wine events. His finely tuned palate and comprehensive knowledge have made him a sought-after sommelier at premier gatherings like La Paulée and La Fête du Champagne. Today, Matthew Conway's legacy shines brightly as a partner at La Tablée. This establishment stands as a testament to his commitment and expertise, with a special focus on the captivating allure of the Northern Rhône Valley.
Where to find Matt Conway:
Where to find host Josh Sharkey:
In this episode, we cover:
(2:26) How Matt became a sommelier
(7:13) Working with Josh at Cafe Grey
(11:10) Building relationships with producers
(14:51) What makes a great sommelier
(21:04) Empathy and inclusion when choosing wine
(25:19) What’s in the future for sommeliers?
(31:31) Essential skills for a successful sommelier
(33:13) Working at Restaurant Marc Forgione
(35:19) Why Matt moved to Charleston
(38:46) Building a company culture with work/life balance
(44:06) Could Matt be successful with Tippling House in NYC?
(49:16) New York life versus Charleston life
Josh Sharkey [00:00:00]:
Welcome to The meez Podcast. I'm your host, Josh Sharkey, the founder and CEO of meez, the culinary operating system for food professionals. On the show, I'll be interviewing world-class entrepreneurs in the food space that are shifting the paradigm of how we innovate and operate in our industry. Thanks for listening, and I hope you enjoy the show.
My guest today knows a whole heck of a lot about wine and mezcal and well, pretty much any boozy beverage that you can think of. Matt Conway is an old friend and he's the owner operator and sommelier of The Tippling House in Charleston, South Carolina, along with his lovely wife, Carissa Hernandez.
Matt and I met almost two decades ago working for Chef Kunz, where Matt became, I believe, the youngest beverage director in the city. He then went on to work at Restaurant Marc Forgione, first as the GM and beverage director, and eventually as a partner at the restaurant working there for over 14 years in between the time he also spent some time with the Cellars at Taillevent in Paris.
Matt has won 30 under 30 from Zagat and other awards like Rising Star sommelier from Star Chefs. And Matt just loves wine and loves the whole community and world of beverages. And anytime you talk to him, you just hear it in his voice, the passion and the travels that he's done to learn and to grow as a beverage professional.
And I just love talking to him about it. During the pandemic, Matt spent some time in Charleston to get away from the city and eventually ended up loving it so much. He has some family down there that he ended up moving there with his wife and opened up his dream spot. Enter the Tippling house. So we talk a lot about the differences between working in New York and smaller cities like Charleston, what it's like to leave New York as an expat. We talked about the food culture in Charleston, and of course we dig a lot into wine and booze. And what makes a great sommelier. I enjoyed the conversation. I always love catching up with Matt, and I hope you do as well.
Welcome to The meez Podcast. I don't think I've seen you in person in a long time, but this is an excuse to just get a call with you. I love it so, we're gonna talk about your background, your past, and I think I wanted to kind of center a lot of this around Charleston, if that's cool because you migrated from New York to Charleston. For the people that aren't listening, been a lot of chefs, you're the first beverage person here. So maybe a little about your background and how you got what you got.
Matt Conway [00:02:26]:
Well, I moved to New York in the early 2000s from California to pursue a career as a sommelier and landed in New York and went to the American Sommelier Association, which I don't think still exists, but did at the time. And took classes in viticulture, vinification, and blind tasting. And then I was working as a server at the time. And then I landed my first gig as a sommelier at Cafe Grey, which was a Grey Kunz restaurant at the Time Warner Center on the third floor just below Perse. And Grey was a legendary chef and I just got hired as a floor sommelier working under the beverage director. I gave notice at my job, went to California for a vacation before I started the new job and when I showed up for my first day. We have 373 covers on the books. Good luck!
Josh Sharkey [00:03:19]:
Was that Alex? Was Alex the boss?
Matt Conway [00:03:24]:
Gil Rubenstein, maybe.
Josh Sharkey [00:03:28]:
Why did you get into beverage? Why did you wanna be a sommelier?
Matt Conway [00:03:32]:
I was working in restaurants my whole life. My mother ran restaurants and I started most of my work in the back of the house. And then I realized it was less…
Josh Sharkey [00:03:48]:
Wait, what? Yeah. You were in the kitchen. I had no idea.
Matt Conway [00:03:55]:
Yeah, I did all types of, you know, short order cooks and then garde manger for nice restaurants. And I mean, they were working me really hard, long hours. You didn't make a lot of money. And, you know, look at this handsome face. You got to put what God gave you to work. So I was like, it's so much easier on your quality of life to work in the front of the house, more money, less hours, but I didn't want to be a server. And then I moved to San Diego and I had an experience with a wine distributor who tasted me on several wines with lemon segments, bar olives, and like guanciale and tasting the salt, the fat, and the acid with different wines. And I was mesmerized by how everything played off each other. And I just decided that I had to get into wine because I thought it was a little bit sexier than being a server, but clearly much easier than grinding away behind a stove. And then I just started little by little reading and doing exercises and it's just a rabbit hole from there. And I realized if I need to, if I want to get where I need to go, I need to move to New York. So I found the American Sommelier Association and moved back.
Josh Sharkey [00:05:02]:
Do you remember what those wines were that you tasted with the lemon segments?
Matt Conway [00:05:22]:
I do remember one of them was a wine I still work with today and cherish. It's called Mas de Masquesac from the Leroux Valley in Languedoc in the south of France. And it's a very eclectic blend of different grapes. It's a white wine, but I always call it chameleon wine. If you're having something acidic, it gets very rich. If you're eating something rich, it gets very acidic. It's a very unique wine. And that was one of the wines that went well with all three components, which is really rare. But I'll tell you when I set out on any of this, the idea of being able to work for a chef as well known as Grey Kunz was never even in my wildest dreams. It just kind of happened. I mean moving to New York and getting the first job and the second job and then my teacher at the ASA at the time had said, Oh, there's an opening at Cafe Grey, I'd never heard of Grey Kunz. And then looking at his resume, I was like, I can't work for this guy. This is crazy.
So when they handed me the keys and said, there's almost 400 people in the books and here's the keys and there's no help. And then I stepped out onto the floor and the captains at Cafe Grey are, you know, lifelong servers that are. had cut their teeth at Le Bernardin and all the most famous restaurants. And you throw a 24-year-old child onto the floor with sharks, is what I would call them. and sharpening their teeth for three decades on the floor of the finest restaurants in Manhattan. And then all of a sudden, I'm helping them with their wine service. It was, I don't know, I've described it as like, just learning how to walk on nails by somebody just throwing you on nails, figuring out how to get off because there was no smooth way to avoid the, I don't know, I wouldn't call it abuse at all. They were great to me in many ways, but they certainly weren't going to let me get off easy or slide by by any stretch. But I'm a good salesperson. And I think whether they liked me or wanted to accept me early on, they realized that I was actually good at making the money, selling high-end wine and building the list from what it was. And so that was the beginning of my sommelier career.
Josh Sharkey [00:07:13]:
I remember that vividly, obviously, because we worked together there. And I'll say one of the other impressive things I found when you started working there is, yeah, you were really young and not nearly as experienced and took a lot of shit. Not just from, I don't know exactly how much, you know, they busted your... you know, your chops in the front of the house. But I know in the kitchen, there was a lot of it. But you took it so well, you know, you would get hammered, hammered, and just straight face, no problem on it, or, yep, okay, thank you, and walk away and absorb it however you absorbed it, and go back to, you know, the craziness of the dining room. I have to imagine stepping into, you know, a situation where you're the youngest. You're not nearly as experienced as others, but you have, you know, all this responsibility. And you have people that are just sort of probably just gunning, gunning at you because, uh, clearly they're thinking, why is this kid doing this? Right? Why, why is this kid who is younger than us, less experienced than us, uh, you know, running that part of this restaurant, I have to imagine that had an impact on the way you sort of traverse the rest of your career. not just in beverage, but in restaurants in general.
Matt Conway [00:08:18]:
Yeah, I mean, to be honest with you, looking back on that time, I didn't really have time to feel emotions. I had so much stuff to do in such little time. I used to come in early in the morning to just start getting stuff done and leave late at night every day. And everybody else in that restaurant was doing the same thing. So I didn't feel like I didn't have it bad. I felt like I needed to catch up. And that's something that was definitely a theme of my career, watching somebody that's working either above me or alongside of me, working as hard or harder than me. And that always has encouraged me to do more, be better, spend more time, invest more. And the kind of mentality of giving it to me harder, I was new, I deserved it. I needed to be pushed at that point in my career. So I never tried to take anything personally.
I'd also worked for Mr. Marshall, Chef Marshall at Aquagrill, and he was as hard as you could ever be on anybody ever. So I had come from a situation where being picked on or called names or whatever was certainly not new to me. And when you're on the floor, you can't show, especially since it was an open dining room for those who don't know Cafe Grey, everybody could see you from every seat in the restaurant. There was no hiding. So you couldn't wear it on your face. You had to just push through, but the one thing about that particular experience wasn't necessarily like the team aspect of what I learned. But everybody in the restaurant and wine community wanted to be, they wanted to be a part of what Gray was doing. He was a living legend and people wanted their wine there, people wanted to eat there, people wanted to be associated with it. And so the thing that it really did for me most was, until I left New York, almost every single one of my wine relationships started at Cafe Grey.
I got to work with the best wine sales reps and the best, brightest minds in the industry. If I were at another restaurant, they wouldn't have had time for me, but they had time for me because I was working for Grey Kunz and I've never forgotten that or taken it for granted because that paid huge. pay off in my career to be able to have relationships with the best at every company. And that was just because I was working for that guy and for no other reason. It had nothing to do with me. And so that's something that opened a lot of doors for me and created a lot of opportunity once I left that company and made my career much easier and certainly probably allowed me to skip a few steps that maybe other some ways at the time had to take in their career to like pay their dues or, you know, so on and so forth to start to get to work with And I've always been grateful for that.
Josh Sharkey [00:11:10]:
How does that work if you don't have that opportunity and that doesn't sort of like, you know, come to you early in your career as a sommelier or in the beverage world? What is that sort of path? You just need to sort of work your way up in a number of the right places that will help get you those relationships? Are there relationships you make outside of the restaurant?
Matt Conway [00:11:27]:
I mean, Hristo Zisovski, one of my best friends, we went to wine school together at the same time. And when I got hired at Cafe Grey, he got hired at Jean-Georges and he took a much more traditional path of starting as a celler rat, you know, maybe one shift lunch shift on the floor. And then when people got promoted or moved on, he would get a promotion slowly and slowly and like, You know, a year in I was running a multimillion dollar beverage program at Cafe Grey and he was just getting his first three nights on the floor. And it probably took us five years for us to like, you know, meet up and have our careers be much more parallel. I kind of took the shortcut method. not by choice, just by the way things, you know, the cards were dealt and he took a little bit more of the traditional, you know, tack, tack, tack, small promotion type situation. Um, so there's obviously many ways to skin a cat and, uh, but yeah, you know, his path was going to tastings and working. the slow route of climbing the ladder and, you know, putting yourself in the best position for every promotion that was available. And he eventually, you know, became the beverage director and won awards and everything you could ever dream of for Jean-Georges.
Josh Sharkey [00:12:37]:
Yeah, and now that things have sort of converged, when you look back, if you're talking to somebody who wants to get into the world of wine and beverage today, do you think you would have any sort of different advice, given that convergence, given you sort of had this one opportunity, Hristo had a different one, do you feel like you guys are in similar wavelengths of how you think about running a beverage program. Meaning, do you think that if you could do it all over that path of sort of like slow, you know, slowly sort of working your way up is more beneficial the same or is it just that if you happen to have the opportunity?
Matt Conway [00:12:59]:
I definitely think I should take the opportunity that's in front of you, which is what I did. However, so much has changed in the idea of what a sommelier is in the United States from 20 years ago to today. It was an almost unknown profession then and now, whether they're true sommeliers or just sommeliers in name, you know, restaurants have wine dedicated staff. A lot of like the... old school heroes are long retired. So it's a little bit of a different game, but I do always recommend anybody looking to get into the industry to find someone that they admire or a group of beverage people that they admire and apply to work for them. And yeah, start with whatever job they'll give you. And, you know, be there to do inventory on the weekends and do the small things that make a beverage director's life easier, you know, always being on call, being available if somebody calls out sick, working weekends and holidays and all of the things, and that's the best way to learn to have a mentor or somebody that can teach you certain things.
And while I didn't work directly under someone at Cafe Grey or really ever in my career, outside of my time in France, you know, I still relied heavily on those that had kind of come before me for advice, you know, all types of interesting. communication with people to try to learn as much as I could outside of Cafe Grey and have that mentorship available when I got to a tough place and I didn't know how to handle something or, you know, I was, I was looking for a promotion and I wasn't sure how to pitch it to my boss. Um, so I still sought that out, you know, even when I didn't have someone I was directly under. So I highly recommend, you know, people always say, should you do the MS or not? And for me, it's all about mentorship, whatever program or path you choose. Having somebody that's well vetted, that's done great work that you're proud of, and you think you would want to emulate, again, it doesn't always work out that you get to work for that person, but to find somebody that checks as many of those boxes as possible and getting an opportunity to work alongside of them is always the best route, in my opinion.
Josh Sharkey [00:14:51]
Yeah. What's the primary skill set like that makes a great sommelier outside of everything sort of operationally, you know, helping the team, supporting, running service, things like that kind of thing. What, you know, you said going to MS, becoming Master Sommelier, what defines like, you know, quantitatively, like this is what it means to be a great sommelier.
Matt Conway [00:15:15]:
That's a really good question that I don't get often asked. And my opinion is there are, like, I don't know if you've ever heard of like a three tool athlete. You know, there's lots of athletes that are really, really good at, you know, a couple things, but it's the third tool that really sets certain people apart and I think some ways are very similar. Lots of people are very good on the floor and lots of people are very good with numbers.
Josh Sharkey [00:15:24]:
When you say numbers, you mean just like the cost of a beverage menu and things like?
Matt Conway [00:15:28]:
Buying, selling, things like that. But the wines, making the restaurant profitable, running a good P&L, like those types of behind the scenes things, buying power, getting better deals, all of those things. And then there's people who are really good on the floor. And oftentimes, those things over, not often, but enough those things cross where there's somebody who's really good at numbers and also really good on the floor. But I think the third tool for a sommelier is... somebody who's good with people. You can perform well on the floor and be very bad with people. It's acting in many ways. You can put on your costume and go out on the floor and razzle dazzle people and sell them wine. But oftentimes that person is the most disliked amongst their own team, or maybe even within the distribution community in their town. I think the best sommeliers are good at floorwork and behind the scenes numbers, but also the third tool would be building relationships with your team at your restaurant, your chef, but also your best clients, getting people to return on your behalf, wanting to spend their money in your seats, not necessarily done at table side, but building relationships where you may communicate via email or text outside of the dining room with regulars that wanna come and host a dinner with you or do things.
And then also on the distribution side, having really strong relationships and being very... easy to communicate with and do business with on the side of how you source the wines and those relationships are as important to setting your beverage program apart from others as anything as somebody does. You know, just yesterday here at the wine bar, I got a shipment of wine from. A friend of mine that I've known, I met at Cafe Grey all those years ago, and she owns her own small import distribution company, and it's a very specialized business. And I would never have access to those wines. They would never be in this market here if it weren't for that relationship that I've worked on for almost 20 years now, which allows us to have special wines that other people don't have, or I can get in larger quantities. So it's a three tier system, floor work, numbers, and then, you know, being relatable to a wide audience.
And I think a lot of sommeliers are disliked amongst their own team inside their own restaurant because it seems like they've got the easy job. You know, they're the same reasons I got picked on a Cafe Grey, you know, you wear a nice suit, you look, you know, whatever, like people, it's an easy, easy target on your back. But I think the people who have the ability to earn the respect of their team. willing to bust the tables, willing to, you know, seat guests or whatever it takes to get through service and earn the respect of their team. I think those are the best sommeliers. And you can feel it when you walk into a dining room where the team around a sommelier wants to support that sommelier or not. And many people might not notice that, but when I walk into a restaurant, I can feel almost immediately whether that sommelier has the support of their team or does not. And when they have it, I think that sets up the opportunity for some of the best dining experiences possible.
Josh Sharkey [00:19:13]:
Yeah, it's so interesting that there's this like analogy to, or it's analogous to what we when we when a cook walks in a kitchen or if you walk into a kitchen as a chef in five minutes, you can tell whether or not that cook is a good cook, irrespective of what they're cooking, just the way that they walk, the way that they, you know, you know, move in their station sounds very similar, exactly how they interact, or they are they, you know, mindful of like what another cook is doing? Are they aware of space? So that all makes a ton of sense as it relates to hospitality.
Maybe getting a little bit more granular with wine because I think obviously a sommelier is dealing with wine. What sets apart or how do you just sort of distinguish yourself as a great sommelier as it relates to building a wine list? Obviously it sounds like some of it is because those relationships give you access to different wines that you might not be able to get otherwise, and then someone can go to a restaurant and have a wine that they wouldn't be able to get somewhere else. But you're also sort of architecting this wine menu, and you're also sort of prescribing what someone should drink with the food that they have, and obviously creating that around the food that's being created as well in the restaurant. There's knowledge, right?
I think there's obviously just sort of a knowledge base that, you know, in a perfect world, let's just say that I'm an AI and I know every single piece of information from every single wine in the world. And I know every single aspect of what that, you know, wine should taste like, or what the terroir that it came from. How do you sort of like, you know, deploy that information into being an incredible sommelier? Because let's just say, I mean, and you will talk about it, but you travel a lot around France and sort of learn and meet all these, you know, wine makers. And let's just say that every, every sommelier did that and every sommelier knew the same amount of information about wine. How do you distinguish yourself as, you know, or do you, or is that something that you have to think about distinguishing yourself from other sommeliers and how you build a wine list or think about, you know, prescribing what someone should drink when they're in a restaurant.
Matt Conway [00:21:04]:
I think, I really think that the first thing about that is just the understanding that nobody cares. Right? Like I spend all this time traveling all over the world and studying soil types, not to speak about that tableside and the some ways that do that learn quickly or over time for the slower ones that. That's not why people are coming to a restaurant. If, if you want to know about the soil type of region in which you're ordering the bottle of wine, you're in a wine class, right? You're gonna sign up for a nerdy, geeky specified class. If you sit down in a dining room, you don't give a shit what soil type is in.
It's just not how that works. I find that connecting the story of the vigneron and what they're about is what... is really important. So for instance, and I tell this story fairly frequently, you know, at Forge, where I was after Cafe Grey, restaurant Marc Forgione, you know, I had a large list of Chave Hermitage, which is a very expensive wine. And I had wines going back to the 70s at one point. And let's just say they're all a thousand bucks a bottle, roughly. If somebody came in and was interested in those wines and wasn't familiar with Chave Hermitage, which is rare, but it did happen, I was more likely to sell a bottle of chave Hermitage because of how cute their little brown lab Marley is. People connect with a small, cute dog, and most people are dog lovers.
So stories like that, I think, are really important to connect people. Is it a female vineyard? What type of food did they serve you while you were there? things that people can actually connect with and feel comfortable with. And traveling helps you, uh, fill your arsenal of stories that you can then deploy. I'm way more likely to talk about somebody's dog than the type of soil the grapes are grown in at a table. So having those stories to kind of connect that big gap between the grower and the final consumer is what I think being a great sommelier is. how you distinguish a difference between yourself, you know, everybody for them more or less has the same access to the same wines, pretty much.
One of the two things that I think really set people aside is wine lists that have something for everybody. I was recently at a New York restaurant with a sommelier who'd worked under me at one point in time and, you know, all of the wines were so expensive and it was a great wine list. But like there was nothing there for people who were on a budget, servers, people who are everyday folk. Like not everybody can spend $100 on a bottle of wine at lunch. And that I've seen more and more of. It's so hard to buy wines that are great at $50 on a wine list in New York, because that means you're buying it for $10 to $15 a bottle. wine out there. So if you can do the work to find those wines and put them on your list, that always distinguishes yourself from everybody else. And the sommelays that have done that well in their career over time have always, always excelled. Because if you can go to a restaurant, sit down and spend 60 bucks and get a bottle of wine that's as good as the wines that are 120 bucks, because that sommelier did the work to go to the tasting and taste through a bunch of bad wine to find the gem, that's special.
And then, you know, the other part of that is, you know, finding a specialty. And what I learned early on is. People. It's too hard to know the whole world of wine and stay on top of it. So I became a Northern Rome person because it's where my passion lies. And you know, Pasqualeen is known for the Loire and Shannon and you know, the Rajat and Rajis of the world are like burgundy people. Like there's, you kind of find your niche and then people start to come to you because you have an expertise in a more specific niche. genre of wine and that really starts to set you apart. I literally get anywhere from three to eight communications a week from people around the world, but usually the country that has questions for me about Rome. What bottle should I choose? Do you think this is a good vintage cellar? I'm looking for Crave Hermitage and I want to buy something else besides Grisot. What do you recommend? I want to go visit. Can you set me up with this producer? And so that's been a really interesting way for me to distinguish myself among my peers is having an expertise in an area that other people don't have the time or bandwidth to be experts in
Josh Sharkey [00:25:19]
It's funny when you when I was thinking about this conversation we were going to have, you know, obviously, we're we're sort of in this, at least me and my world is a lot more. In addition to food, there's a lot of technology. In my world now and everybody talks about how AI is changing and how it's going to replace everything. And I think actually a song is one of the best examples of how humans are still going to be deeply needed for many things because You know, I thought about this question about what makes a, you know, you know, because I've known you for many, many years and her stone and things like that. And I think about like, what, what, what makes them great? And, um, I think empathy is, is one of the most, you know, it seems like empathy is really, really important to your point of like, yeah, you need to have more than just the wines that like Yugi got on.
You have to have the ones that like the person that's coming here, um, that doesn't want to spend a hundred dollars, but still wants a really great wine. And you have to go and find that and you have to be empathetic to like, you know, their needs as well as the wine aficionado. And just storytelling is probably the one thing that you do because you love this so much and no other reason why. It's different, I think, from being a great salesman. A great salesman is someone who can just eloquently explain to somebody why something is good. But I think sommeliers are really interesting, you know, professions where it's not unlike, you know, and a lot of servers do, you know, love what they do, but you love a very specific thing and you talk about it and you learn about it and then you get to go and help people like learn about it. And to your point, no one really cares about sort of the pH in the soil and why the sun comes here and this and that. But if you can, if you can sort of put them in that. you know, in that place and you can sort of take them to a place that they aren't today and have them feel like Like they know a little bit about the person that made this made this wine and they know a little about the family and about the history That's always the wine that I walk away I'm in a restaurant and I take a picture of the bottle.
It's not because it was so delicious It's because like oh my god, that's such a cool fucking story and that's not something that like, you know, you can sort of teach you have to really love it to tell a story like that. You have to have gone there and met with that person and walked the fields and really loved that thing. And that's what I think I love most about sort of the world of being a sommelier is that you guys are sort of on this island of, you're not at a restaurant just because you love the food and you wanna talk about the food and you love the people. Obviously all those things are true, but you also have this sort of, this, deep passion for something outside of all of that, that you get to sort of learn more about and teach everybody about. And I think that for me is what comes through right away with the Salmonier when they walk the table. And you could just tell they love this thing way more than you, and they're making you excited about it because they just want you to enjoy this thing that they enjoy so much.
Matt Conway [00:27:43]:
Absolutely. And I think, you know, another analogy that I would use on a regular basis, is like, could you imagine watching a Bob Ross episode on PBS if he wasn't such a good storyteller? You'd just be watching somebody doing an oil painting and you'd literally be like, this is the boring thing I've ever seen in my entire life, great. But then he gets into telling you the happy little trees here in this corner. And he walks you through and tells you this story about, you know, this imaginative side of like, oh, we're gonna make a little duck over here on the pond. And anybody who's ever watched Bob Ross, like you're 10 minutes in and the guy's got you hooked fully. You're just like, yeah, give me some more happy trees, Bob. Like you buy in fully because he's presenting it in a way that's just, it's magical technically to me. And I think that that's really it, everybody can serve a bottle of wine, pull the cork, gunk, gunk, gunk, and you pour it out. But if you can manage to Bob Ross that bottle while you're pouring it, that's what the art of sommelier is all about, is Bob Rossing a bottle.
Josh Sharkey [00:29:06]:
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And then, you know, outside of the wine, and then we're going to move on from this, I think the other skill set that's probably not, you know, isolated to sommeliers, but just in the front of house in general as a chef, like the ability to, we were talking about before about, you know, you being straight faced when someone's coming at you really hard in the kitchen. I'm sure the same thing happens with customers, you know, where you're talking about a wine and they're just maybe they're drunk, maybe they're rude, maybe that happens sometimes. And the ability to just let all of that pass by you and just continue finishing this, talking about the thing that you're talking about to get them to place an order. That's a skillset, I think too, of just being able to process and not react to all the things that you're talking to so many different people on any given night. and everybody has a different personality, a different attitude. Some are happy, some are not happy, some are unhappy, and there's nothing that you can do about it. I feel like that's probably a skill set you have to sort of build up over time as well.
Matt Conway [00:31:31]:
Yeah, that's, there's no book for that. And to be honest with you, I'm never a table side talking to somebody that's not wanting to listen because I can read the table. Like if you're not there to engage, like I pull the cork and point like knowing when to not talk to a table is as important as knowing what to say to people who want to know. And you know, that's something no book or there's no cheat sheet or shortcut for that. And I work here in Charleston, but you know, in my career in New York all the time about body language, posture, the way that people are like behaving, who to try to sell the big bottle to, you know, when it's best to just forget that even if you think the sale is possible, because you want people to be as happy as possible. So reading guests and. You know, what they want to get out of the experience is as important as anything in the front of the house. But particularly when you're dealing with something that could turn a normal night into a very expensive night, you know, there's no other, you know, with the exception of maybe like truffle sales and fall, there's really no other opportunity to take a four top from, you know, $600 to $2000 outside of the wine department.
You know, sometimes people want to spend that money and sometimes they don't and you can talk them into that and that might be the worst thing you could possibly do because once you set the bar here that they're spending that money, the expectations become so hard to meet that sometimes it's better to just shoot for something that's much more comfortable for them and just have everybody be happy and that takes time to learn.
Josh Sharkey [00:31:57]:
Yeah, yeah, it's definitely as Cole said, and I think there's obviously a lot of empathy in that. Okay, well, so now we know a little bit more about how to be a great sommelier. We talked about your time at Cafe Grey with Kunz. Obviously, you then went on to Forgione for a long time, and then Charleston. So maybe a little bit about like, you know, what, you know, some takeaways from Forgione and why you ended up moving to Charleston.
Matt Conway [00:32:46]:
Yeah, when I left Grey, I was fortunate enough to meet a young Marc Forgione and take the job to open the flagship restaurant in Tribeca with, you know, hoping to kill that scenario and growth. And it was a rocky road just with the financial crisis and all of the hardships that we faced early on in a small restaurant without big backers. you know, lessons that I learned through that process, specifically the first three or four years of, you know, falling deep in debt and crawling your way out and keeping your head up when times are tough and sticking to what you believe in. Like all of those things were extremely valuable lessons. And like, kind of, as I mentioned with, you know, at Cafe Grey, You know, a lot of people have opinions about Marc Forgione.
The dude works as hard as anybody I've ever met. And so early on, you know, his name was on the door. Having somebody that worked harder than you, no matter how many hours you put in, always, always, you know, encourages me to show up early and stay late. Uh, and that always, you know, teaches me now as a business owner, myself, um, lead by example. You know, if you're at the beach all the time, sipping Mai Tai's, then your staff might be pretty lazy. If they're worried you're gonna be there before them, chances are they're gonna beat you there and, you know, be halfway through their day's work by the time you arrive. So, but the idea of sticking to your beliefs and persevering through tough times is definitely probably my biggest takeaway from my time at Forge just cause we went through a lot of hard times early on.
Once we got to where we were on comfortable grounds, just building and perfecting, as great of a wine list as you could possibly do. As I mentioned earlier, I had a vertical chave going back to the seventies, like things I dreamed of as a sommelier and I wasn't doing it for a big restaurateur that already had a big list and a huge budget. I literally built it from nothing. And there was a point in time where we were breaking cases of wine from by the glass because we were so strapped for cash. And then to be able to build a huge vertical of Alamand and Chave and some of the wines that I love the most that are very hard and rare, hard to get in rare was an experience that I had never had before, you know, whether, no matter what I'd done. So that was cool and rewarding and led me to some really good times, you know, towards the end of the 14 years that I was at Forge, like, you know, where we were busy and the food is great and the service was top notch in a very unpretentious way and the team had been there for a long period of time. So it's also nice after working so hard for so long to kind of have built something that, you know, didn't take the really grueling work that it did early on. So like seeing that through and kind of reaping the benefits of that hard work was extremely rewarding.
And then the pandemic hit and my wife and I moved to Charleston temporarily because my family was here. They relocated down here, you know, about six years before the pandemic. And we lived in a studio apartment in Battery park city and the weather was cold and we were looking at the prospect of being locked indoors for a long time. So we just rented a car and drove south for a week. I literally didn't bring a suitcase. I've got. closet full of big suitcases for international travel and I didn't even pull one out. I put on a pair of shorts, a pair of jeans and some underwear, grabbed my two dogs and we threw them in the car. I was like, flip-flops. I don't even know if I brought shoes, to be honest. And for a week, nobody knew what was going to happen. A week turned into a month, a month turned into three months. Our lease was up in New York. New York was still crazy. My wife had got a good job down here, so we decided to temporarily move our stuff out of there to here. And we rented a month-to-month style apartment and never went back.
Josh Sharkey [00:36:35]:
It's crazy man. It's crazy. It's a crazy way to get to Charleston. Well, so I'd love to just learn more about Charleston, especially because of your perspective of spending so much time in New York. But I have one question for you, just because now you're a business owner. You have a team. And I think about this a lot with my team. And even in the past, obviously, I might have some ownership in restaurants, but I don't run restaurants. I run a tech company. But. I'm, you know, obviously I'm the same way, just working, same, working crazy hours, working long, long hours, just constantly sort of grinding to, to get better and improve.
And I think more lately about the negative impact that has on my team, because not everybody actually should work that way. And, you know, there are some people that, you know, we hire them for, you know, for a job, but they're an expert in that field and they know what they need to get done. And it's not a measure of success in the number of hours that you put in. It's how much output and what results you drive. And I'm curious how you think about that now in terms of how you help your staff understand how they should be navigating that, given you probably do work a lot. and work many hours and your staff sees that. I know I've gotten feedback from my team of like, you know, quote unquote, we feel like we should be working more because we see how much you're working. And I don't want that. You know, I don't want them to feel like they need to be doing more just because I am. But I'm curious now, you know, have a business of your own. Has that changed for you at all?
Matt Conway [00:37:51]:
I think they say when you do what you love, you don't work a day in your life. Unfortunately for me, there's a lot of stuff about my weekly duties that I don't love, so I work a lot. But it's a good question, and it's a conversation that you and I may have even had, and I had with many of my friends in New York that I love and respect like yourself during the COVID era. And that was a big reason why I didn't return to New York. There had to be a better way, man. I watched so many of my friends. And, you know, peers just get absolutely the shit end of the stick during COVID. You know, a hundred million dollar restaurants, companies that furloughed their executive management teams with a week and a half of healthcare and just left them out there on the, you know, on the sidelines, unfathomable in any other industry.
And I think what COVID proved is that the restaurant industry views their workforce as, you know, disposable, frankly, and something I didn't like didn't sit well with me. And I didn't see, I didn't see the real opportunity for change in New York city, not necessarily because I don't think owners want that, but because I don't think that it's really possible in. the cutthroat world of rents and the cost of doing business in New York. It's impossible to give all of your staff health care in New York and still run a restaurant unless you're doing $70 appetizers, which isn't appetizing to anybody. So seeing that and having really dark conversations. You like that dad joke?
Josh Sharkey [00:38:44]:
That was good.
Matt Conway [00:38:46]:
You know, seeing those conversations, having those conversations and seeing a lack of a path to what I believed was necessary change after COVID. And I'll say it, you know, it's unpopular and it doesn't get me friends. The restaurant business complains that there's no labor. It's because we built a system that doesn't value the people that we need to do our jobs. And if you think it's greedy ownership, I can tell you by experience in New York City. in my restaurants that it wasn't greedy ownership. It was just the cost of doing business.
There may be greedy owners out there as well, but at the end of the day, regardless of the reason is the restaurant's structure, the way that things are structured doesn't value the day-to-day hourly employee that you need to wash dishes, serve tables, and do everything else necessary. So when the shit hit the fan and they got the shit end of the stick, they said, fuck it, I don't know if I'm allowed to cuss on this, but they said, fuck it, I'm outta here. You know, like, we're gonna go do something else. I can make equal or close to equal money doing something much less strenuous and have weekends off, and there's nobody to blame for that but us. We are a brilliant community and have all of the possibility to change the system. And sadly, after COVID, some of the big players that have a lot of control to make huge, huge progressive changes in our industry failed to do so. Disappointing. I think it's long-term, a really often, the number one complaint I hear about New York now is how expensive it is. Even just to go to a casual Mexican restaurant on the corner that serves chips and salsa and an enchilada. And it's 140 bucks for two people to go to dinner. And that to me is a by-product of us not learning the lesson during COVID.
So what I wanted to do with my own space, put me out of business if it does. value everybody the way that I would want to be valued in their shoes. Health care, two days off every week. Nobody breaks 40 hours a week ever, ever giving people the quality of life that they deserve and hopefully still make a lot of money. So. Rare exceptions. I mean, there's probably, we've been open a year and a half and there's probably been. you know, maybe 10 employees in a week that either went over 40 hours or had to work six day a week. And they were always compensated for that as good or better than the average top shift that they had. So if they were required to work six day, they'd get an extra day in their paycheck that was equal or better than their best day. So making people's work feel valued and making sure that they feel good about their healthcare situation, uh, we're only open until 10 PM. So. A lot of people say, why? Why don't you stay open later? It's a wine bar because I want to, I want my staff to be home in bed by midnight because that's comfortable for people. Um, so, you know, it wasn't easy as a new business to provide and offer those things to the team, but I think long-term it's paying, you know, dividends for the wine bar, but also just the health and happiness of our
You know, there's only five of us. So having one person that's disgruntled or unhappy would be a pretty, pretty big bummer. And I always have believed, uh, going back to before I even moved to New York that you can't give great true hospital hospitality if your staff isn't happy. So you feed them well, good family meals. The number one thing that you need to do for your staff, make sure that they're fed well and feel good at going into service. Um, And so all of those things lead to what I believe is the core value that we offer at Tippling House, which is hospitality. You may not care about wine. You may not, uh, you may be from town out of town. It doesn't matter if you do the core things that make people feel good. I contacted you. you know, a welcoming nature, the things that you would want as a guest in someone's home, which is what we try to do, then I think long-term that will pay off with more butts in the seats, which turns into more money for everybody. And then everybody still has the quality of life. So I figured if I didn't give those benefits to people, right, and I waited until we were making money to offer those things, by the time I got there, there'd always be a reason why I didn't or couldn't. extend that to them. So I just started out at the beginning and said, here you go. This is how it is. It was a risky gamble. And so far it's, I'm knocking on wood so far it's worked out quite nicely. And I think that that's something that I'm very proud of that we offer, that is just quality of life and covering the staff, the way that you would want you and your family to be covered if they worked for someone else.
Josh Sharkey [00:44:06]:
Yeah, that’s really brave man. It is a risk, right? Like deciding not to be open certain hours. I don't know what the rent is, but obviously, you know, there's so much pressure to just be able to even cover rent with these, you know, with these businesses. And that's, it's really commendable, man. The risk that you take. And I love that. I actually love the premise, though, because you started small to your point, you have five people, right? So first of all, yeah, if one person is unhappy, 20% of your staff is unhappy. That's not good. But as you grow and your team grows with you because they can commit to this because they have health insurance, they have a job that they can stick with and probably grow with, you could decide, oh yeah, we'll be open later because someone decided they... They want to come work here and they are night owls. And they actually want to be here at night and they want to sleep during the day. And maybe at that point, you know, you can add that on and, and take care of that person. And now you have six people and, and, uh, but you, you, you're, you know, taking it slow and making sure you're taking care of your team is, I love that man. Do you, do you think you, could accomplish the same thing with Tippling House if it was in the East Village of New York or the comparable neighborhood of New York City?
Matt Conway [00:45:22]:
That's a really great question. I don't know the answer to that mostly because I solely own my business outright, I don't have any partners. Um, so I don't answer to anybody, which is great. I don't have to, you know, make joint decisions anymore. Um, I don't know if that would be possible in New York. So if I had to take on an investor, that person might have different opinions than me about how we were going to go about the business. But if I opened a business that is going to close because I'm going to treat my staff the right way, that's my, that's my choice. You know, I can run my business on the ground if I want. Whereas if I had an investor, they'd be like, no, you need to start doing this. You're out, blah, blah, blah. So I don't know, because I don't have the money to open a business in the Heath Village at all.
Josh Sharkey [00:45:59]:
Well, I mean, just assuming the, let's just say $200 a square foot in rent, and you got a, you know, a thousand square foot space, right? In New York City, let's assume you did, you know, open it on your own, you owned 100% of it, but that was the economics of the business, do you think this would still work?
Matt Conway [00:46:16]:
Yes, I think that there is a path forward for the restaurant business to change the way that we operate. And I think you saw a few people try, but the amount of people who didn't and the amount of big names, I guess, the bottom line is yes. Change and transformation, not only is it possible, but it was absolutely direly necessary coming out of COVID. And you just didn't see it happen. lame a lot of the big leaders that have always made change. Like, you know, if you go back and look at when, uh, Danny Meier first went to, you know, gratuity included or whatever they called it, um, for all of their restaurants. I remember how many other restaurants just fell in line, even though I thought it was a bad idea, how many people fell in line just because such a big industry leader like Danny Meier did this, and so now we can do it too.
Or we should do it too, or whatever. It's like, if, and I'm not. calling Danny out here at all. I'm just saying in general, if a big industry giant had said, no, this is how we're gonna do things moving forward, we're gonna enact this change for the benefit of our industry long-term, I think more people would have been able to buy into that structure, and it would have been a little bit easier of a transformation. But it's easy for me to say, because I don't have all of the overhead that some of those people have, and just coming out of that really terrible time of COVID, people are making decisions to keep... you know, the lights on and reopen doors and do things. So it's easy for me to sit here and you know, pot shot from the side, but just trying to get the business open so that you're employing those people again, was a huge goal of many people. But however we got there, we're back to a place where we can and should make those changes. So, I think that's a great question. I think that's a great question.
Josh Sharkey [00:48:13]:
Yeah, I mean, I think zero to one is probably the only way that it's possible. I mean, maybe it's possible to revert, but like once you have all of these people in place and your team and your hours are set the way they're set and the pay is set the way it's set, changing all of that, you kind of have to be reborn, right? Because you know, you probably can run a restaurant with much less if they're if they're taken care of. Maybe I don't actually know that might not be true. But to start with the framework that you have after you've already been running in different ways is, yeah, it's much more difficult. What's the biggest difference in being in Charleston from New York City? I don't even know how to ask that because there's probably a million differences, socially, politically, from a restaurant standpoint, from hospitality, from community, but maybe you choose what direction to go. Like what's most different?
Because it seems like, it's funny, I've known you since 2000 and whatever, 2005. And I know you're not from New York, but I think of Matt and I think of New Yorkers. You are, you're forward, you're, not that you're like, opinionated is the wrong word, but you are a New Yorker to me, but you love Charleston from everything that I hear when I hear you talk about what you know when I hear you talk about it when I Hear you talk about the people and and you know the life What what's what's different there from New York City and why? Why'd you stay?
Matt Conway [00:49:16]:
Well, I stayed because, you know, I'm like actually spitzing a little bit sitting here in my air conditioned apartment, looking out the window. Yeah, it was 88 degrees and sunny yesterday. It was almost 90 degrees in May. You know, I fish year round in... shorts and t-shirts. I hated the winter up north and that alone is all of the reasons in the world, but now I live in a beautiful home rather than a studio apartment. I bike to work. I'm going to get on a bike in a few minutes and it's five minutes max to work. So my commute isn't on a subway with crazy people and all the wild stuff that I used to deal with. It's just, it's an easier life in many ways. And after almost 20 years in New York, 40, having the easier path on your day-to-day existence is pretty, pretty awesome. I highly recommend it. I never thought I'd be able to do it. And now that I'm here, I can't believe I did that for so long. But the difference here is just, you know, we rely on a different type of clientele, you know, a lot more. out of towners and things like that, specifically in the fine wine world of, there's not that many people who live and exist in Charleston that want to spend. or know a lot about small producers and things like that.
There's a lot of people who love to drink here and we welcome them into the wine bar and have something for everybody and we're happy to take care of whomever wants a glass of wine. But we don't have the same pool of, you know, wine nerds and collectors and most importantly, even industry people in New York that frequent other restaurants and go out and, you know, wanna learn and drink and be happy. Like there's a great restaurant community here, but a lot of them live in a suburb and drive, like it just makes it a little less easy. Whereas most people in New York get on a subway so they can bang back a bottle, no problem. Don't have to worry about driving. You know, it's a little different with the makeup of who we're taking care of. And then it's a small town. So, you know, everybody knows everybody, you know, I can't go out on a night off and not see several people that I know. So you're kind of always, you know, in the. public eye more here than you were in New York, where you're just kind of lost.
I think more people knew and cared about who I was as a soulmate in New York than down here, but you just didn't, I don't know. I ran into people in New York all the time, but it's just different. Like here, it feels like you're kind of always being viewed. You're always under a microscope in some ways. Not that anybody really cares what I'm doing. I just mean like, you just see people more differently. And then, you know, word travels quicker, you know, whether it's getting a new wine on the wine list or something somebody did that other people didn't like. It's like it's a little bit more like high school clicky, but I think that's all small towns are. And I think New York's like that a lot as well. It's just more layered. There's more layers to get down to the surface of that. It's more complex because there's more people, people see each other less, so less opportunity to talk. Uh, it's just a small town and there’s great things about that too.
Josh Sharkey [00:51:03]:
Yeah, I feel like in New York, there's just a lot more orbits of, for instance, of word traveling, right? So word travels just as fast in New York, but you can be in a completely different orbit than another group of folks in the hospitality industry that you never hear from. And I think it's just because of the size of the city. What is the most surprising thing since you've been down there that you didn't realize when you moved to Charleston, that's a part of the fabric of being there.
Matt Conway [00:51:38]:
Probably the way that the wine business is different than in New York. Like I kind of thought naively that it was like, if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere mentally. It’s not the case here as far as just, you know, how distribution channels work, how suppliers supply, how, you know, wines are allocated and divided up, you know. shit just the base foundation of like thinking people would, you know, respect my career based on what I've done in the past coming here. And then you start here and like, everyone's like, who are you? We don't give a fuck about you. And like, start from the ground up. So I respect that. I have no problem, you know, paying my dues and doing what needs to get done to do what I need to do to earn the respect and get the allocations and do whatever. But I was not expecting it to be. so dramatically different from how New York does business. And a lot of that has to do with it, especially with the fine and rare world. It's a little bit of a newer world for them. They haven't been bringing those wines down here for that long. There's several other companies I work with that are fairly new. And again, maybe they don't have the experience of ever working with a supply company in New York. So they're kind of learning as they go. I can't be mad at that at all. I try to just, it definitely was a surprise to me that it was not what I expected it to be as far as how things get done.
Josh Sharkey [00:53:16]:
If you could start over again, you know, if today was your first day in Charleston, and you just start building Tippling House, is there something significant that you would do differently?
Matt Conway [00:53:36]:
I think that the foundation of what we started could have been done. Like there's different ways to handle how you open, and again, we opened very bare bones and like some people expected it to be more finished when we opened and like that wasn't how I wanted to go based on covid and cash flow. And I like growing into a building. Isn't it funny how none of that matters after you open, but before you open every little corner of the restaurant, you're like, oh, that paint isn't right there and that thing's chipped and this light is a quarter inch this way and this is not how it, and then you open and it's like none of that shit matters.
So like again, going back, if I had like all the cash in the bank to like do it a little bit more before we open maybe, but again, all that's so in insignificant that at the end of the day, like I'm really proud of what we do, what we put out, how we handle ourselves. And again, I'm a Bobby Stuckey sommelier, first and foremost is hospitality communication. He's the king of hospitality. And sommeliers are literally waiters in a suit. Right. Or a suit at the end of the day, like you have to be willing to bust a table and. Clean a toilet, whatever it takes. Like it, like that's what I'm most proud of, and that's the core of who we are. And there's the paintings on the wall or lipsticks on the pig, you know, like I wanna focus on the, the, the pork. And the pork is hospitality. And that's what we do. And I'm very proud of it. And so with that, I don't think there's anything that I would change at all. Knowing you. That makes sense. Maybe if I could be like 10 years younger so my knees didn't hurt as much.
Josh Sharkey [00:55:10]:
You don't look at a day over 39. Matt, this was great. Anything else you wanna share about you, tippling house, anything you think that would be helpful for the audience?
Matt Conway [00:55:31]:
The only thing I would say is, you know, we do the five days a week and something that we've done here, we have a reserve list of, you know, special, fancy wines.A lot of them from my cellar, when people want to come celebrate and spend more money. But everything on our daily list is under a hundred dollars and we print it and date it daily so that it's always fresh with a large glass selection. But we offer every bottle by the half. Our markups are extremely low because we don't have the overhead of a chef and we have a chef but we don't have a whole kitchen crew and management salaries that we have to support. So our prices are much closer to retail than they are normal restaurant markups.
So you can come into The Tippling House and drink, it's extremely hard to get rare bottles of wine in any market that are on our list all the time. And you can order a half bottle. So it's 30 bucks for a half bottle, which is less than $15 a glass to drink Envinate and, you know, Lafond, Bourgogne Blanc, and all of these producers that are hard to get elsewhere. And you can make wine very accessible and we do it with a smile on our face. And we're happy to treat you like you're ordering in a really expensive bottle of wine. the glass and I just hope that if somebody's listening to this in another market that they swoop by and check us out when they're in town because what we offer is unique in any market and we're starting to build one of the greatest wine lists in the south and we're very proud of it but we don't do it There's no intimidation you can come in and literally drink anything at any price point and we are super happy to have you in You don't have to chat about wine if you don't want to and we're trying to put a hospitality first Business out there and a year and a half in we're really starting to see that work And I just invite more people to come check us out.
Josh Sharkey [00:56:58]:
It's amazing, man. It's incredible knowing you and you're. Just how much you love this industry and how much I've seen you devote to it over the last 15 years. So grateful to have seen you go through all this and finally open something like this in Charleston, and I can't wait to get there. I will take some medicine so that I can actually drink a little bit, and hopefully we get down there soon. So thanks man. Cool. I appreciate your time.
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