How do you choose your wine? Do you look for the most eye-catching label? Perhaps you like to pick by price? Or maybe you have been drinking the same bottle for the last eight years, because the last time you tried something new, you hated it.
Though enjoyed all over the world, wine can often be an intimidating product. There are so many varieties—and an endless list of brands—all with nuanced flavours that the average consumer may not fully understand or appreciate.
Whether you are a pick-and-pray kind of person or have blind trust in the recommendation of others, somm is here to take the guesswork out of picking the best bottle of wine for you.
Created with a team of employees whose previous ventures include Canadian tech giants, Shopify and Wealthsimple, and with the expertise of some of Canada’s top sommeliers, somm is a mobile app that hopes to redefine how wine can and should be enjoyed.
“The overall goal is really to elevate the enjoyment of wine and that means making it more approachable,” said Jennifer Stasiewich, Founder and CEO of somm. “It means making it more simple, which means removing the smoke and mirrors that often comes with the industry and all of the extra jargon that gets in the way of people really understanding what they’re doing.”
Consumers are empowered to make an educated decision when it comes to picking wine, all from the palm of their hand. With a simple 30-second questionnaire, somm gives specific recommendations that best enhance the flavours of a user’s meal and wine pairing.
In addition to helping consumers, a large part of somm’s mission is to uplift the hospitality industry as a whole. The app also acts as a marketplace to connect consumers with local hospitality partners (currently just in Toronto, Ont.), which often carry wine offerings that aren’t available at the LCBO.
By doing so, consumers know that they’re getting the best selection of wine available and hospitality partners have another form of distribution and sales—something that’s become increasingly essential as restaurants remain closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Still in its early stages—having launched in December 2020—somm has its eyes set on changing a centuries-old industry. For this week’s Startup Spotlight, Bay Street Bull spoke with Jennifer Stasiewich, Founder and CEO of somm, about making the art of wine enjoyable for the masses, uplifting the hospitality industry, and what’s in store for the mobile app—including a wine subscription service.
somm was created and launched during the pandemic. How did the idea form, while the world was in chaos?
Honestly, somm started as a passion project for me. It was June 2020, in the middle of the pandemic, and I was just reflecting on missing going out to restaurants, wine weekend getaways, social gatherings—the things we couldn’t really do last year. One of the things that came to the top of my mind was the notion of when you’re sitting at a dinner party or when you’re hosting a corporate group of clients at a restaurant, and you are given the wine menu. Oftentimes it’s very confusing and it can be really daunting to feel like you know what you’re doing.
People are in this pick-and-pray paradigm where they’re hoping they pick the right wine without really knowing what they’re doing. Then, you couple that with the QR codes that bring you to a website that you’re infinitely scrolling through or you’re downloading a PDF that isn’t really well organized, and there’s not a lot of guidance that goes into that process.
The first thing that I thought of was to create an integrated, more intuitive digital menu that actually helps people when they’re in those contexts, whether it’s at restaurants or shopping at a store like the LCBO. That way, when you’re in that situation, whether you’re dining or shopping, you can pull up the app and have a really intuitive tool that actually helps you make an educated decision based on the way that you’re thinking: Where am I? What am I doing? What am I eating? How much do I want to spend? Then you get some suggestions that are real and carried by that establishment, or that are generic enough that you can still discover something new and find it in the right section at the store.
Considering the state of the world at that point, in June 2020, what was it like bringing somm to life and turning your passion project into a real product?
It was actually great timing, which might sound a bit counter-intuitive. The reason why I say it was great timing is that there has never been a moment in the hospitality industry where they’ve so catalytically embraced technology, and COVID-19 really made that happen. You see that with all of the e-commerce opportunities popping up for restaurants, you see that with bottle shops now, and bottle shops are a reflection of the change in this evolving regulatory environment. So, on one hand, you might think, “It’s kind of crazy to start a business that works with hospitality when the hospitality industry is suffering so much,” but it was actually fantastic because we were operating at the intersection of this changing regulatory environment.
At this moment, people are actually taking more time at home to prepare food, they care more about what they’re consuming, they’re shopping more online. This moment can help hospitality put some intuitive technology in place so that they can emerge stronger and more differentiated. We had really great conversations with all sorts of partners in the hospitality ecosystem and everyone is trying to create a more intuitive way for their guests to enjoy their establishment.
In bringing somm to life and pitching it to all of these establishments, what is the overall goal and mission of somm?
The overall goal is really to elevate the enjoyment of wine and that means making it more approachable. It means making it more simple, which means removing the smoke and mirrors that often comes with the industry and all of the extra jargon that gets in the way of people really understanding what they’re doing. It means increasing discovery and enabling the users to actually discover wine that they can’t get at the big box stores and easily connecting them to those really unique merchants.
So, it’s kind of all of those things together. I think we’re on the right track to really change the way people, particularly younger demographics, are approaching the wine industry.
Aside from its purpose and mission, how does somm run from a business standpoint?
There are the B2C and the B2B sides. So starting with the consumer side, the app is free. There will always be a free version of the app, which will have the recommendation and pairing side, the marketplace, and eventually have a digital cellar, where you can save your favourite bottles and rate them and share them with your friends. Later this year, we’re going to be releasing two slightly higher-level versions of the app called Cru and Grand Cru, and they will be at two different price points.
The Cru version will have a white glove ordering service for the marketplace. It will have secret menus at restaurants that Cru members will have access to and sale notifications for your favorite wines if they’re on sale that particular week. It will also have exclusive product access, as some wineries hold special bottles for wine club members and things like that. So, Cru members will have access to those sorts of benefits and perks, which we think will very quickly prove itself worthwhile for consumers to be subscribing to.
The Grand Cru membership level will be all of that, plus a few bottles of wine delivered to subscribers each month. Those bottles will be a reflection of our partners’ inventories and our partners’ selection. So, by offering this subscription, we’re also helping our hospitality partners, which is something that really matters to us: actually being beneficial to the partners that we’re working with.
On the B2B side, the revenue model is really a subscription and a commission-based model. So, we take a percentage of the transactions that go through the marketplace. We don’t prescribe what that commission actually is, because we believe that only the partners truly understand their business, their economics, and their margins. If we want to create a business that is mutually beneficial and sustainable, then the conversation truly does have to be collaborative. So, we work with our partners to find the right commission number so that they can be happy as well. This way, we’re not creating a kind of punitive environment, like a lot of the other food and beverage tech companies.
When it comes to curating that selection of wine and the partners you host within the app, what does that process look like? How are you prioritizing who to include and why?
When we were looking at the plethora of restaurants and wineries and agencies that we could work with, the first thing that we did was go to folks that we knew. We have three really incredible sommeliers and folks from the industry on the team, so they’re very well connected within the industry. The first place we went was to our friends and those folks are like-minded; they have similar values around the fact that wine should be a lot more accessible and approachable and they wanted to be part of something that’s innovative.
We also have tried to be very conscious of creating a really diverse suite of partners, so that we don’t have redundancy in what the products are. One of our partners specializes only in Spanish wines, a couple of others specialize in biodynamic and organic and natural wines, one of which is a bottle shop and the other, an agency. So again, there’s no crossover.
We’ve been very particular about not only the partners that we’re working with but also the actual products they carry so consumers aren’t seeing a lot of the same type of wines. That way consumers are getting a true selection to pick from, and wine that, for the most part, you can’t get at the LCBO.*
*somm does have the LCBO catalogue included in their recommendations so you can use the app at the store as well.
When it comes to that selection, how does choosing the right wine elevate one’s overall dining experience?
Part of selecting the right wine is not only for the user to actually enjoy the wine to its fullest extent but also the food to its fullest extent. And that’s why, in the app, we don’t just ask Are you having steak? Are you having pasta? We actually dig into how that’s being prepared. What are the spices? What are the sauces and the other components of your dish? So much of that affects the type of wine that’s selected.
You might want to bring out the buttery flavours or the tannins, which is that dryer feel. You want to be able to distinguish all of the different nuances of the wine, but also see how that brings out different flavor profiles of the food that you’re eating and vice versa. It’s really about bringing out the best of the entire dining experience and that only happens when you have the proper pairing. Otherwise, you can have flavors working against each other both the food and the wine end up being diminished.
Given the name somm, I’m under the assumption that you would be sticking to wines. Do you have any plans to expand into other categories like liquor?
We can, absolutely. The technology’s patented, so we have certain plans to go into craft beers, spirits, even cannabis. Really any part of the market where people don’t know what to pick and there’s nuance to making that selection, we intend to get into. Wine is a huge market and so somm obviously reflects sommelier which reflects wine, so that’s where we plan to stay for a little while, but it’s certainly on the product roadmap to license the technology to other products and applications.
And with being out in the market, what has user feedback been?
We’re hearing that they love how simple the interface is and how it’s actually helpful and quick to use. Users want more transactional opportunities, so one of the things that we’re working on right now is connecting the recommendation engine to the marketplace. That way when you see those five pairing recommendations, you can buy it right away, as opposed to switching to the marketplace side of the app.
Our user base is growing nicely. We’re also hearing ideas from our users, which is great because that early stage engagement helps drive the direction of where we’re going. Overall, it’s been great so far.
How do you plan to evolve somm to continue past the pandemic? Right now the marketplace is great for connecting with and buying wines from local suppliers, but once people are able to walk into stores themselves, what’s the plan to continue its draw?
We don’t worry about that too much because the app has the two sides (B2C and B2B). The trend in alcohol e-commerce is going to continue after COVID-19, and people’s lack of knowledge in wine is still gonna be there. So even when restaurants reopen, when you go and sit down at Terroni or Ascari, you’re still going to want a little bit of help with making that wine selection. What we’re working on right now is a kind of an evolution of the QR code, where you scan and access this more intuitive digital wine menu.
When people go back into restaurants—and I can’t wait for that day—you can still have that really intuitive wine experience. I don’t know if this has ever happened to you, but you have a great dinner and you ask your server, “Where can I get that wine?” And they say, “Oh, it’s not available at the LCBO” and they come back with the name of a guy and his phone number on a piece of paper, and you’re supposed to call the wine agent if you want to get that wine… That’s a very intimidating process! With somm, you’ll be able to save the wine to your cellar and then easily rebuy it after the fact.
I believe a lot of restaurants are probably going to maintain their e-commerce platforms as well. So I think post-COVID-19, it actually opens more doors as opposed to closing any.
And on the topic of education, do you plan on introducing more informational content regarding why you recommend the pairings and the wine industry as a whole?
One of the things that we’re moving towards, and this will come out by the end of January, is the app going to look more like an inbox. You’ll be able to see a blog section or an educational section, in addition to more engaging things that you as a user can do, which currently includes the recommendation and the marketplace side. We’re starting to populate that section right now with some of the content from the Wine Wednesdays that we’re doing on Instagram, that one of our sommeliers, Jordan, runs. We plan to share things like wine words, how to pronounce them and what they mean, things like that.
Something that somm highlights is that it’s female-founded and female-led. Why is it important for you as a brand and a company to make that distinction?
It’s extremely important to us. I think if you take a look at almost any industry, and I came from capital markets, it’s very male-dominated. The hospitality industry actually isn’t that much different and technology certainly isn’t different. Whether it’s the senior leadership roles or the investors, it’s always very male-dominated—wine is the same way.
The fact that we are female-founded and we are female-led is something to absolutely lean into and truly does differentiate us. We are trying to really embrace the whole notion of gender equality, and diversity and inclusion, all of these really important topics now that you see across every single industry.
We completed our first round of financing in 2020 and it was majority female invested; not just by the number of investors, but by capital committed as well. So these are really different and unique components that set us apart from many other companies, particularly many other tech companies, not just in Toronto, but around the world. That’s a really distinctive feature of who we are and where we came from, and we’re definitely going to hold onto that.
That’s also why, when I wanted to bring on industry professionals, I wanted to meet with Élyse Lambert. There are five master sommeliers in Canada, but only two are female. I knew I wanted to have one of the females, and Élyse is wonderful. So, having a strong female presence and leadership at the top is very important to us.
If we were to look five, 10 years into the future, where would you like somm to be?
When I close my eyes, the evolution of somm is that we’re global. I would love for everyone with a smartphone that has an interest in wine to be engaging with somm. I want to be much more than an app. I want to cross over into people’s lives and lifestyles, be immersive and engaging, and host events, and educate people along the way to really just help drive discovery.
Wine is a really wonderful thing! It’s fun. It’s shareable. It brings people together. It’s enjoyed all around the world by people of every single culture. It would be great to have somm at the intersection of that and be something that people default to taking a look at when they’re hosting dinners or having their friends over or spending time with family. We want to be in people’s hearts and minds in that kind of way.
Is there anything that we haven’t talked about that you’d like to touch on?
The team is phenomenal. I feel so lucky to be surrounded by incredible people. I’ve touched on the folks from hospitality and our sommeliers, but the technology side of the companies is also world-class: ex-Shopify, ex-Wealthsimple, etc. We have some of those early-stage employees from these Canadian tech companies that have become darlings for the Canadian technology ecosystem working with us.
I am very grateful for who has come forward and started working with us, and we’re growing! We’re going to be hiring more folks in 2021 across the full breadth of the organization. We’re doing another round of capital right away as well. So, there is tons of opportunity and we’re extremely excited.