It’s common for restaurant, bar, and hotel owners to cite high workplace turnover as an unavoidable and costly part of doing business. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the turnover rate bounced between 70 and 80 percent through the 2010s. It hit 79 percent in 2019 and, for obvious reasons, soared to 130.7 percent in 2020. The challenges of a global pandemic aside, the industry has the highest turnover rate of any other trade in the United States.
Crystal Hamilton is an industry veteran of more than 20 years. From server to sommelier and wine sales, she says that lack of proper service training is to blame for high turnover rates. “Look at the demographic of people entering the industry; they’re all in their early 20s, and, in some cases, don’t even drink,” Hamilton explains. Young people are entering their jobs without proper training and left to flail on the floor. “They’re the ones that need help getting up to speed,” she continues, “and because they have such high turnover rates, business owners don’t have the time or resources to train.”
Casual dining is where Hamilton plans to focus with Knowbie. The app, which launched this year, offers chains like Applebee’s and Olive Garden a solution to streamline their service and drinks training. Hamilton says that Knowbie can give hundreds of thousands of workers the confidence to properly serve and sell, “I don’t believe servers should have to feel intimidated,” she says. “Restaurants have high margins, high rents, high turnover. Why not create a solution for them to empower their staff?”
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Hamilton believes Knowbie can be a foundational standard. Before wine lovers go on to become sommeliers and those passionate about cocktails go on to be mixologists, they learn the fundamentals of beer, wine, spirits, and service through modules on the Knowbie app. The lessons, which take mere minutes to complete, are available anytime, anywhere, and are fully customizable by the employer.
VinePair spoke with Hamilton about her mission to revolutionize hospitality beverage training by creating Knowbie as a “micro learning experience.” People can do it on the bus or while drinking their morning coffee. Here, we also learn how Covid impacted her tech launch.
1. Can you pinpoint a moment in your career that led you to create Knowbie?
It wasn’t one moment as it was more a culmination of repeated experiences throughout my 20-year career. I was once an inexperienced server who lacked confidence and would have been grateful for proper training. As a sommelier, I was responsible for training inexperienced servers. Later on, I became a premium wine agent, training servers and managers to sell products. I realized many of these trainees had a significant lack of foundational knowledge or varying degrees of expertise around the subject matter. They wanted to learn, just as I did in my time as a server, but they didn’t have a tool that would guide them. This inspired me to create a product that acts as an educational resource and provides a streamlined solution for the industry. The vision behind Knowbie is to revolutionize in-house training for the hospitality industry. Our goal is to build the technological tools restaurants require to standardize, streamline, and enhance how they train their service teams. By making staff training more straightforward, more effective, and affordable for restaurants, we believe this will have an incredibly positive impact on sales, customer service, and staff morale.
2. When was the moment that you realized Knowbie would become a reality?
It has been a long journey — almost six years to get us here. I’ve made countless mistakes, have worked with three different development teams, and then landed smack dab in a global pandemic. I always believed in Knowbie as a business idea, but it wasn’t until I started believing in myself that things started to change. I became obsessed with addressing training challenges within the industry and improving the lives of those who work in it. Because of that, I started showing up differently. Since then, I’ve had great success raising investment capital and was thrilled when I teamed up with my amazing development agency. As well, our restaurant partners have openly embraced our company and vision for the future.
3. With so much transition in the industry over the past 18 months, do you think restaurants are more open-minded to trying Knowbie?
I must say, the timing was actually good. Quite literally, every restaurant, sommelier, manager, and server we speak to sees the need and wants the Knowbie solution. Especially now, with dining coming back so strong and restaurants needing to hire to keep up with demand. The problem with properly training staff in an industry where the turnover rate is so shockingly staggering is that you simply can’t. Restaurants struggle to keep up, and because they need staff on the floor, the training component is usually rushed, if completed at all.
In most cases, legacy “PPP” methods (in-person, paper, or PowerPoints) are still being used. These training tools can be time-consuming and frankly have become outdated. Operators know their primary profit driver is alcohol, so presenting them with an educational tool that saves time and makes money has restaurants very excited.
4. In your opinion, what is the best and worst thing that has come out of the pandemic for your business and for the industry as a whole?
Personally, being forced to reexamine my company sparked new ideas and a new learning direction for our students, which was pivotal to the success of Knowbie.
But it’s been difficult not being able to network or sell Knowbie in person. That said, the pandemic has led to a new acceptance of virtual meetings, which has meant that my sales reach is much farther and more cost-effective, especially for a young company. For the industry, I think Covid reignited a love and appreciation for dining quality in consumers. Consumers started experimenting with drinking more premium wines at home and making custom cocktails. This has shown a considerable increase in premium sales in both retail and on-premise locations.
Worse, of course, is the loss of some great talent in our restaurants. Many sommeliers and industry professionals have had to pivot careers during the restaurant closures to support themselves and their families, leaving many restaurants needing to fill these specialized roles.
5. How do you envision your company growing in the next one to two years? What sort of positions do you foresee a need for?
Our team is committed to a journey of iteration with a focus on building Knowbie into the industry standard for beverage training. We listen to our customers and watch the user data closely to help us continually improve our product. With this in mind, we anticipate rapid growth over the next 24 months as more restaurants adopt the Knowbie standard of alcohol education and we improve the product experience. This will mean an immediate need for content creation positions, an in-house development team, marketing and finance professionals, and, of course — my favorite — salespeople!
6. How are you planning for long-term success while also being mindful of immediate next steps?
As an entrepreneur, you have to be comfortable being uncomfortable. The early stages are full of transition, and it’s important to stay agile. I believe it’s critical to get clear on your company’s mission, vision, and purpose. Having these written out and in view act as a compass constantly guiding you toward your goals. I hold Knowbie’s overarching goals and vision in mind to ensure the daily decisions I make feed that vision while also keeping my eye on the smaller milestones we need to hit to keep us on track.
As the founder of Knowbie, I take ownership of all areas of my business. It’s a double-edged sword as it’s critical to have a good grasp on all aspects of the company, but also daunting as a lot of these areas are not my natural areas of strength. This is the constant state of learning every entrepreneur finds themselves in.
In the future, I look forward to bringing in additional talent that can help grow Knowbie’s vision so I can continue to look to the future of where the company is going. With this in mind, I am confident Knowbie will be the vehicle used to empower employees and innovate training within the hospitality industry. I am genuinely grateful and excited to share this vision with the world.
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