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Yvonne Heistermann was recently elected president of the Sommelier Union Germany. She is the first woman to hold this office since its founding in 1976, following the resignation of her predecessor Peer Holm due to a "MeToo" incident. Uwe Kauss met her.

Uwe Kauss

What is the ratio between men and women in the Sommelier-Union Germany?

Yvonne Heistermann: About 60 percent are men, about 40 percent are women.

The election of the board was a difficult one. Your predecessor Peer Holm had to resign because of a "MeToo" incident. What expectations did you start with?

Yvonne Heistermann: I started because I want to lead the Sommelier Union successfully into the future together with our board team. Of course, the events of the past also have an impact on my work today. For example, we will organise more regional events for our members to further sensitise ourselves and our colleagues. In Cologne, for example, we invited to an awareness training on respect and all forms of discrimination. There will be more seminars. Apart from that, we will look ahead and continue to focus on our work.

When Peer Holm resigned, the Sommelier-Union made a statement that they wanted to work through the incident intensively. What did this process look like?

Yvonne Heistermann: We founded a trust team, adopted a code of ethics, appointed our wonderful colleague Stefanie Hehn MS to head the Sommelier College and organised a first awareness training. We have also entered into intensive dialogue with our members - during regional meetings, at our general meeting and in many personal conversations.

In the past months, the impression remained that the process had never taken place.

Yvonne Heistermann: A lot has happened in the background. The very fact that the first president has now been elected since the founding of the Sommelier Union speaks volumes.

Billy Wagner from Nobelhart & Schmutzig recently brought the topic of harassment in upscale gastronomy back into the discussion. Is the incident in the Sommelier Union an isolated case? Or is it just not talked about enough?

Yvonne Heistermann: Every case of harassment is one case too many, is one victim too many. Completely independent of the industry in which it happens. In the past, probably far too little attention was paid to this issue. Victims have often not dared to speak out because they are in a relationship of dependency. My aim is to sensitise our members to keep their eyes open in their own environment and to stand up for each other. It is also important to me that we build a bridge between the generations. In stressful situations, a harsh tone can prevail in the kitchen, in the service or even in the office. We have to try to work on how to deal with this in our daily interactions. It's about respect and consideration.

The new board of the German Sommelier Union (from left): Christian Frens, Michael Wangler, Yvonne Heistermann, Shahzad Talukder and Philipp Künemund.

Sommelier Union Germany

Is it possible that members are excluded from the Sommelier Union because of such incidents?

Yvonne Heistermann: If it is a proven offence by a member, such as sexual harassment, we will not hesitate to expel a member in the future. Our statutes state the following: A member may be removed from the membership list by a resolution of the Executive Board with a two-thirds majority of the Executive Board members present and voting, if he or she has seriously violated the aims and interests of the association.

The job list in the newsletter is longer than ever before

The accusations and cases of abuse are, after all, only part of the problem. Restaurants are in crisis, wine shops are going out of business, wineries cannot absorb the cost increases. How do you experience these problems?

Yvonne Heistermann: We have to move away from demonising gastronomy. First of all, I would like to take up the cudgels for our industry. Many people find fulfilment in gastronomy. There is hardly any other industry that offers so much variety, opportunities and career advancement. But of course we also have challenges to face. The lack of staff cannot be explained away. Many ask themselves: to which sectors have people migrated after the pandemic? Retail? Logistics? The job board in our newsletter is longer than ever. At the schools, too, enquiries are coming in all the time.

There is no prospect of improvement at the moment.

Yvonne Heistermann: I am a positive person and try to see the situation as an opportunity. Salaries in the catering industry are getting better. Working hours are becoming more flexible. The work in restaurants is more and more appreciated by third parties. In short: the general conditions are changing, the industry will become even more attractive for many.

The crisis as an opportunity?

Yvonne Heistermann: I think that now is the chance to strengthen the job descriptions in gastronomy and to introduce more appreciation towards the employees. In many hotels, we are currently seeing that holiday periods are being observed and overtime is being reduced. Many employers are concerned.

We need to move away from demonising the hospitality industry.

Does this also mean that the sommellerie needs new concepts of how and under which conditions work is done?

Yvonne Heistermann: As just described, the entire industry is in upheaval, and sommeliers in gastronomy are also benefiting from this. The core working hours were classically from 11 am to 2 pm and from 5 pm to 9 pm. In fact, many of those who used to work in the sommelier business stayed much longer - I remember this from my active time in the restaurant business. Practically no one does that any more. That's why many restaurateurs have already worked on their working hours and remuneration models to be more attractive for interested people. A good example is Ronny Schreiber with the Troyka restaurant in Erkelenz. The concept was thought out from A to Z from the employees' point of view.

Do you think that restaurant guests accept higher prices for more fairness?

Yvonne Heistermann: From three-star restaurants to snack bars: the core task for restaurateurs at all levels is to bring price and enjoyment into a good relationship. The guest should have a good culinary experience and must not feel ripped off, the staff must be adequately compensated and the restaurateur must be able to make a good living from his business.

In the past, sommeliers were recognised by their bow ties and snooty looks. What distinguishes them in 2023?

Yvonne Heistermann: Modern sommeliers have a sound background knowledge and the tact to engage with guests and respect their wishes. They will never behave arrogantly towards the guests. If someone wants to mix their red wine with cola, you may not like it. But you will serve it anyway. This is an extreme example, but the guest will in the future be even more in the foreground. After all, sommeliers don't just put the wines they like best on the menu, but the ones they can sell.

What are the most important tasks for the Presidium in the next twelve months?

Yvonne Heistermann: Our intention is to continue to develop the Sommelier Union positively and to strengthen the feeling of togetherness. We are always open to comments and criticism from our members. After all, we started out to build on the good foundation of the past and to lead the Sommelier Union into the future with fresh ideas. One of our core goals is to build a bridge between the generations so that we can benefit much more from each other.

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