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André Mack: sommelier, winemaker, and entrepreneur
Issue 7: "I was the guy that was like 'fuck your suit.'"
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André Mack is a sommelier, winemaker, and entrepreneur who owns restaurants and a wine shop in Prospect Lefferts Gardens, Brooklyn. He is an award-winning sommelier, was the first Black person to win the title of Best Young Sommelier in America, and has worked for Thomas Keller. We talked running a business during a pandemic, why he left Per Se to strike out on his own, being Black in the wine industry, and how the wine industry can be more inclusive.
Brianna Plaza: How did you get into the wine world?
André Mack: By watching old episodes of Frasier. There were these two pompous brothers who had a sherry ritual, and they talked about wine in the way that it made me feel like I wasn't having much fun in life as they were.
Watching the show helped me invite wine into my life, and I really learned a lot about wine from watching the show and became really interested in it. That show gave me the courage to walk into a wine shop for the first time in my life.
My first job was at McDonald’s and I worked in restaurants in college. I worked in finance but I quit because I missed the interaction I had with people. I liked that each day at a restaurant was different and that I was on my feet instead of behind a desk.
It was really through watching that show that sparked my interest in wine. From there, I caught the wine bug and started to work at places with better wine lists. I ended up working at Tom's Steak House, and then the rest is kind of history.
I’m constantly trying to figure out what I do. I’m self taught so I started to take more tests, get certifications, and enter competitions, and I ended up winning the Best Young Sommelier Competition in American which led to a lot of different opportunities.
On that journey I met all these wonderful people and they offered me jobs and then I ended up in California at The French Laundry. I had never really worked in fine dining before so that was really kind of my first stint. I then decided that I couldn't miss out on Thomas Keller's homecoming of sorts, so I returned home to New York.
Brianna Plaza: You opened a new restaurant in early 2020. How has running a business been during the lockdown? Did you have to pivot a lot?
André Mack: We unfortunately didn’t pivot. I’ve had leases for Ham Bar and The Buttery since 2017. Ham Bar opened in early 2020 and the Buttery was due to open soon after, and suddenly having to stop after two months almost doesn't feel all that bad. I've been paying rent there for three years. It kinda felt like, "Oh man, we were just getting started. We had this really great momentum. Everybody showed up. It was amazing." It was kind of this secret, sleepy kind of neighborhood joint that no one knows is there. It was really awesome for me to see people coming to the neighborhood to the restaurant — people coming and waiting in line to get in.
When COVID hit and the mandate came from the state, we’d just opened, and we did a few nights at 50% capacity and then by Saturday night, I had made the decision with my wife to close the restaurant. So we didn’t really pivot, we just changed our time table. The space next door to Ham Bar was always going to be The Buttery and it was slated to open in the summer. We ended up pushing up the time table and opening it first online because the space hadn’t finished being renovated.
I also own a wine shop on the same street, so when restaurants had to pivot for survival, we had many of those things in place. The silver lining is that the wine business took off. It lived up to the potential of what I thought it would do when I first bought it.
Our community has really supported us — we've lived in the neighborhood for over 10 years. We decided that we wanted to open businesses in our neighborhood because we wanted to contribute to the changing narrative of what was happening in our neighborhoods. And we wanted to contribute the best way that we knew how, through hospitality.
Brianna Plaza: You almost “own the block” which is really fun. What has it been like to build businesses in your neighborhood?
André Mack: Yeah, it's fun. What’s key in New York where real estate is at a premium, is to really be able to make small spaces work for you — no place we own is over 500 sq feet. The restaurant scene in New York is world renowned and being able to work in that is awesome, with the dream of always wanting to be a part of that landscape. It took me 15 years after moving here, but there's something exciting about that.
I always thought ‘Hey, you know what? If I had the money on this block right here in our neighborhood, I would put a wine shop there. You know what I mean?’
We used to live in Manhattan, but we ended up moving to Crown Heights, Brooklyn and there wasn't much to eat. And then you started to see it and it was always the same thing, the same dream. And then we moved to Prospect Lefferts Gardens and it was the same thing. And I was like, ‘This neighborhood is right for opening something, but the timing isn't right.’ Then we started to see younger people move into the neighborhood and we had the courage to start talking about opening businesses in the neighborhood.
Brianna Plaza: You were the Beverage Director at one of the top restaurants in the country. Why did you decide to leave and go out on your own?
André Mack: I've always wanted to be an entrepreneur. I always said that if I was good at something in life that I wouldn't give up on it, so to speak. And wine came on my radar and I moved pretty fast and next thing you know, here I am at one of the best restaurants in the world. And I just decided that I wanted to continue to learn about wine, but the only way to do that was if I made my own path. I can continue to learn about wine and I can explore being an entrepreneur.
I’ve witnessed a lot of change. In the early 2000s, there was a shift in dining and people were willing to spend money on good food, and ingredients from great farms. But people didn’t need all the pomp and circumstance that went with fine dining. Chefs wanted to open restaurants on their own terms. They wanted to wear jeans and play Black Sabbath and show their tattoos. I realized I wanted to make wine for those restaurants.
I wanted to be an entrepreneur, but if I didn’t live in New York, I don’t know if I would have pursued it. The energy of the city — the rat race — everybody’s doing something and I was like ‘I can do this.’
I kept saying it out loud until it was real. And then when I quit, I wrote an email to everybody saying, "It was a pleasure working with all of you guys, blah, blah, blah, hopefully one day our paths will cross again, I'm going to go make wine." And that was it. People started to reach out, saying, "Where are you making wine at?" I didn’t really have an answer, but people started to give me grapes.
It was just one of those things that evolved. It was through the generosity of people in the industry that allowed me to show at least proof of concept. I didn’t write a business plan, and it was literally through the good graces of people that I got started.
It was a chance to get my name out there and get my concept out there. People started to react and it was something totally new. I started creating t-shirts and just having fun with it. We sold those online to drive traffic to the site because we weren't set up legally to be able to sell wine online until we became compliant.
We created a whole culture that was very anti-establishment. I was the guy that was like ‘fuck your suit.’ I am proud that no one thought I knew anything about wine when I walked into a room. That they let their misconceptions about who I am based on what I look like get in the way. I hear ‘I've never seen anybody like you in the wine business’ a lot.
Brianna Plaza: You’ve talked about how people tell you they don’t see Black sommeliers in the wine world of primarily white men. How has that affected you and your business?
André Mack: We live in a society that's driven on color. I often talk about being an outsider — we've all felt like a black sheep before.
I believe you should embrace what makes you different. But a lot of people think that I'm “selling black” and that's not true. If someone who has the exact same accomplishments that I have, gave the same talks I do, everything would be about their work and not about their color. They wouldn't be “selling white”. They're selling “being an outsider”.
For me, being different is a way people remember me. I try to use that to my advantage. And for my company, I think by naming it Mouton Noir (Black Sheep), it gave me the creative license to do shit how I wanted to do it. I had no legacy to fulfill because there wasn't any, and I could do the things that I wanted to do. I want to be different and I want to look at my business differently, but I want to be authentic to myself and who I am.
Brianna Plaza: We're in this moment where we're in the middle of a pandemic, but there's also a reckoning happening in our country. How have you seen these factors change your business? Have you seen an increase in traffic? Increase in interest? Talk to me about that.
André Mack: I think most people who look like me are intrigued that I would be opening restaurants in our neighborhood. I think it’s because they've always seen people who don't look like them coming to their neighborhood and "opening fancy places."
The idea that you can sit down in a place and you're drinking a glass of world renowned wine — it’s something that they really couldn't comprehend. I think there's a sense of pride that this place exists, that I'm a part of their neighborhood. And that feels good, that's really what I wanted. I wanted to be able to create something that our neighborhood can be proud of.
I’m always the label of black-owned, but I am leery of that some days. How that’s perceived by the rest of the world is that when things are labeled black-owned, non people of color assume it’s only for Black people.
That idea of walking by a restaurant and it's filled with Black and brown people, white people automatically assume that place isn't for them — they don’t want to put themselves in an uncomfortable situation.
But in my life I've always been that person. And I've been comfortable with it. When I say Black-owned, it means I made this restaurant for everybody. It just so happens that I'm Black, it doesn't mean that no one's welcome. You have money to spend and you want to have a glass of wine? Great, I made these restaurants for everybody.
It’s been interesting because since June, we've seen record amounts of business online — it was the most unbelievable month. But I am also prideful, so somehow I perceived it in my twisted brain that it’s a handout. I have to tell myself that this is an opportunity to show everyone why I’ve always been successful and to show that I’ve been an innovator in this space. Now it feels like I’ve got a mission — I got people to come and they ordered once, but the idea is to get them to come back.
Brianna Plaza: How do you think the wine industry can be more inclusive?
André Mack: I’m not totally sure, but it’s always the goal. Recently, I did an interview for Oregon Wine Press, and the reporter didn’t do any research on me. She used the old name of my company and she asked me really basic questions like, ‘What are your thoughts on Oregon wine?" I was thinking, I’ve been making wine here for over a decade so I am borderline fanatical about it, but why would you ask me that question? I feel like they wouldn’t have asked Ken Wright, a prominent wine figure, that same question.
To me, making the wine industry more inclusive is to stop asking people like me questions like that. I’ve earned the right based on my work and my career for you to be interviewing me for my work. I want my work to stand on its own and it shouldn’t matter what color the person is.
I never bring my race up, but the reality is, there are still people who are so surprised to see someone like me working in wine. People sometimes still follow me around stores thinking I am going to steal something, or that I am just delivering to the wine shop, because you don’t often see people of color in prominent positions in wine.
Hopefully on the other side of this pandemic people will be more compassionate and understand that we’re all human. To me, going out of your way to diversify your world or your business can only benefit you. It can only enrich your life. Maybe not monetarily, but by making your lives better because you understand other people’s situations and where they are coming from.
It’s important to understand that systemic racism exists in this country, but it’s not my problem. I was born this way and there’s nothing I can do about it. That fact that other people have a problem with the way I look makes things difficult for me, and the only way we’re going to fix that is for them to recognize it and address it.
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