Michael Sager - Sager + Wildeby Michael Cleland
Michael Sager - Co-founder and owner of Sager and Wilder on all things wine and what makes good hospitality.
Michael began his London hospitality career at Milk and Honey in Soho, where he quickly rose to be Bar Manager. He continued his career with various management positions at world renown bars such as Quo Vadis, RN74 (San Francisco) and Happiness Forgets.
In 2012, Michael launched the innovative Sager + Wilde pop-up wine bar in Shoreditch's, The Foundry, where they served traditionally inaccessible wines affordably, by the glass. Following the success of the pop-up, the couple made plans to open a permanent location and in 2013 opened Sager + Wilde in the heart of Hackney. A year later they had opened their second venture, Mission, in the archways of Bethnal Green, this time creating a broader offering which includes, full kitchen, extensive cocktails, rare teas and specialty coffee.
Among the various accolades garnered by Michael are:
- GQ UK Sommeliers of the year.
- World of Fine Wine, Europe’s Best Wine Bar (Sager + Wilde)
- World of Fine Wine, Three Star Wine Rating (Sager + Wilde Restaurant)
- Tales of the Cocktail World's Best Restaurant Bar (4th)
“Consumers are sick of being served at."
What was the approach when you opened Sager + Wilde and Mission respectively?
The pop-up was our way of testing the market. We wanted to know whether people outside of the wine world were ready to embrace fine wine by the glass. That is, were they happy to spend the same as they would on a cocktail, for an amazing glass of wine. The pop-up turned out to be a success and we then found the site on Hackney Road to open up a permanent space.
The objective with the list was about sourcing amazing wines, removed from any subjectivity. They don’t necessarily have to be the classics nor align with any trends or fads. We worked out that the operating overheads were going to be about the same as a shop so decided, ‘why charge higher than you need to if it only decreases the chances that people will drink it.’
Mission was about testing whether it was possible to have a restaurant in East London, with a wine list that is as strong as anywhere, but with lower margins so as to encourage everybody to enjoy it.
The wine list is focused but definitely not limited to Californian wine. California has traditionally accounted for 1/3 of the world production of wine. It has the economy, the population and innovation to lead the world in so many ways. This is now being channelled into creating objectively world-class wines. California is no longer ‘quirky.’
Essentially it’s the same approach to source amazing wines, removed from any subjectivity.
...and in terms of sourcing those wines?
It’s about admitting that I don’t know everything. I listen to where the ‘noise is at.’ I believe that amazing wine is amazing wine and that is something independent of regions, which are brands unto themselves.
There’s more outside of the bubble. Scarcity doesn’t necessarily make something’s better.
“how are you going to get someone into wine? You have to ‘catch’ them with something that they are into”
What role does coffee play in the offering at Mission?
I think you have to give the guest credit for being knowledgeable. There is always going to be that one guy in the room who knows the difference between good music speakers and bad ones. There’s definitely always going to be someone in the room who knows the difference between good and bad coffee.
Additionally, how are you going to get someone into wine? You have to ‘catch’ them with something that they are into.
“We should be thinking more about how to make coffee more accessible.”
I see interesting parallels between coffee and wine in the sense that specialisation can be intimidating and isolating to the general public. How do you approach encouraging guests to embrace something they otherwise wouldn’t?
Every aspect of the guest experience has to be accessible. It’s the staff, it’s uniforms without being ‘uniforms,’ it’s literally everything. For me, being accessible all comes down to the person serving you. Consumers are sick of being served at.
Not all guests will be engaged in the world of wine, but if you broaden your offering you increase the chances that there will be a reason for them to be there. They have to be there in the first place if you're going to introduce them to wine right?
“It’s about drawing the line somewhere and understanding the values of the guests you are serving”
Mission is a broader offering than Sager + Wilde. In terms of the guests you attract at Mission, do you find there is a difference?
100%. Some people are here for wine, some are just here because we have seats outside. At Sager and Wilde, we don’t really get as much ‘walk-in trade.’
A broader spectrum of guests must mean a diverse range of backgrounds and values, no? Does this create any potential problems in terms of making sure every guest has a valuable experience?
It definitely brings price into the equation. On one hand, just because wine people might not think there are any good wines under 6 pounds a glass doesn’t mean the general public agree. One the other, you can’t please everyone. The more you are of one thing, the less you are of the other.
It’s about drawing the line somewhere and understanding the values of the guests you are serving. Drawing a line is fucking important. Otherwise you’re neither one thing or the other.
“You need to dance in both rooms and balance the values of all the guests”
How do you make sure that, regardless of their interest in wine, the guests at Mission have a valuable experience?
Regardless of someone’s interest in wine, beer, coffee, cocktails whatever, everyone can appreciate hospitable service. They might not like the product every single time, but you can still make sure they leave happy.
What role does the food offering play in supporting the wine?
You need to dance in both rooms and balance the values of all the guests. You don’t want your food offering to be intimidating, or the wine by association will also be. It’s about finding ‘border line intimidating’ for example, some ingredients that are familiar and some that aren’t so much.
Obviously everything has to be of the same quality so as not to detract from the wine but you can find accessibility within that. You can still buy meat. Naturra meat might cost twice the price but people do notice the difference.
Anything else you'd like to say?
We should be thinking more about how to make coffee more accessible.
Sager + Wilde Bar- 193 Hackney Rd, London E2 8JL - @sagerandwilde
Sager + Wilde Restaurant- 250 Paradise Row, London E2 9LE - @mission_e2