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Bill Summerville of Merchant on service, wine and happiness

The new front of house man and wine expert for Merchant gives us a peek behind the curtain and shares his secrets on the art of hospitality.

As far as beginnings go, their first meeting wasn't thunderbolts and alarm bells. The first time Gavin Kaysen and Bill Summerville shared a meal, Summerville wasn't even clear on who this extra guy at the table was. Summerville had traveled to New York City with the top team from La Belle Vie, chef and owner Tim McKee, chef de cuisine Michael DeCamp and pastry chef Diane Yang for research and development (aka eating and drinking their faces off and bringing that inspiration home to Minneapolis.) Summerville, at the time, was a La Belle Vie partner and the head of the front of house.

They weren't at Kaysen's restaurant, Cafe Boulud, but another place grabbing a snack after an epic meal at Per Se. As they left the restaurant, Kaysen and Summerville shared a cab to an of-the-moment cocktail spot. On the way Kaysen began to ask Summerville a few seemingly innocent questions. Fueled by a perfect mix of wine and food, Summerville was only too happy to share his opinions. It was there, in the back of a car on the crowded Manhattan streets, as car horns echoed down corridors of buildings that a spark of inspiration ignited.

Kaysen had likely already been laying the groundwork for his return home. It was only coincidence that he met Summerville, wine aficionado and hospitality leader.

Summerville grew up in Marblehead, Massachusetts, as well as Florida, Texas and Boston. A self-described army brat, his first job in the restaurant industry was actually in the back of the house, working the line in the kitchen. His move towards the front of the house was hardly auspicious. He was a bar back, host, waited tables and eventually the kitchen said no more part time cooking work. So, he worked with the customers.

It wasn't until he was in Minneapolis and working at a place called Pronto that he discovered wine. He scoffs remembering his first meal at the restaurant, that was paired with a Bellini Pinot Grigio. it was not a great choice for the food.

Later, the owners asked him to run the wine program. One afternoon, when the room was quiet, before service, he turned a bottle over and began to read the back. "I had no idea what most of it meant," he said. "It was there... I got sucked into the wine wormhole." He's been a voracious student ever since, traveling the world to get to know the grapes, the process and the vintners.

The wine selected for Merchant is a collection near and dear to Summerville's heart. "These are all wines and wine makers that I know. It's a collection - not a curated list. Someone said 'curate' to me and I almost lost it." These are wines meant to be enjoyed, drunk with the revelry of a successful weeknight, although there will be a few more serious bottles in the mix as well.

"My wine room is in the middle of the dining room on the south wall. It goes a story and a half up with a ladder and that's where I'll be fetching wine from. And we'll be bringing people in to taste wine in there on occasion. You know, come on, let's go take a look. Let's go shopping," he grins.

The wine will suit the rest of the restaurant, which is built to be a comforting,  neighborhood place. "This isn't going to be a special occasion restaurant," said Summerville. "This is a stop in twice a week kind of spot." Those who have known Summerville through the Lounge at La Belle Vie know his sly asides and dry wit should expect similar treatment at Merchant. "It's going to be very fun, genuine and spontaneous. Spontaneous is big for us. I mean, Gavin will be working the pass and sometimes will take the plates out to the table."

"There's service, and that's a science. Then, there's hospitality and that's an art. The most important thing that a guest leaves with is an emotion. We create that. It's fine if they have no specific memory of what that emotion is, just so long as they go to sleep that night with a smile on their face. Or at the water cooler the next day, that emotion is still there."

"Generally, it's a lot of small things. How happy is the person that takes your reservation on the phone? It's the smile on the valet guy's face. All of those have to be genuine. The most important thing when I hire someone is, 'is this person happy?'" Inside the restaurant, that comes from top down. It's up to the management to make certain their staff is happy and challenged.

What emotions are running through Summerville right now? "I'm excited for a new challenge."

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