If you love wine, you may have toyed with the idea of opening your own shop. What better way to make a living than to taste and discover new wines, chat up customers and recommend favorite bottles?
Not so fast. A passion for wine doesn’t necessarily translate into a successful career selling it.
“I think people just think it’s kind of fun and easy and chill, but you have to remember, you have to bust your butt to make money in a retail store,” says Sarah Pierre, owner of 3 Parks Wine Shop in Atlanta. “It’s not like you’re selling wine and all of a sudden you’re making a lot of money. That’s not the case at all. There are a ton of sleepless nights trying to figure it all out.”
Pierre debuted 3 Parks in 2013, after the opportunity arose to buy an existing, but stagnating wine shop. The store’s previous owner had opened up about six or seven months prior, but didn’t enjoy much success.
With a background in hospitality, Pierre’s expertise and dedication formed a recipe for success. Now, more than seven years in, 3 Parks has a loyal customer base, and Pierre has become integral to her community.
“Study your butt off, talk to as many people as you can, really understand the market. Understand who your customers are going to be and what they might want.” —Sarah Pierre, 3 Parks Wine Shop
The pandemic has forced many to enjoy wine at home, which has brought an uptick in support for her shop.
“There’s going to be a lot of retailers popping up because of what this pandemic has done,” says Pierre. “Everyone was reaching out [at the beginning of the pandemic] and they were finding their local retailers, you know? Some people have to travel like 30, 45 minutes to get to a local retailer, which isn’t local. We’ve now realized that there’s a need to have some more shops popping up and providing this service for people.”
Richard Garcia and his partners, Jamie and Liz Zoeller, thought for a year about opening a natural wine shop in Kansas City, Missouri. As Garcia faced unemployment at his restaurant job, the trio decided to go for it. Big Mood Natural Wines opened in August.
“My advice would be to just trust yourself,” says Garcia. “Don’t listen to all the people who tell you that you can’t do this. You can. It’s scary and it’s really hard, but if you’re willing to work for it, then just pull the Band-Aid off and do it.”
If you’ve dreamed about your own wine shop, here’s some advice from successful owners across the country on how to do it well.
Location, location, location
While interiors can be altered to achieve a certain look and feel, the address of a shop could make or break it.
“Location is very important when it comes to a wine shop,” says Femi Oyediran, co-owner of Graft Wine Shop in Charleston, South Carolina. “A lot of people find wine shops to be kind of inconvenient anyways because, ultimately, everyone would rather buy their wine at a grocery store.”
Before Oyediran and business partner Miles White opened Graft in March 2018, they considered a different location. But when it came time to sign papers, the pair decided the space wasn’t quite right. That same week, their real estate agent called with a tip on their current King Street storefront.
“You can have a great idea for a wine shop, but ultimately if you don’t have a fantastic location, you’re really setting yourself up either for an uphill climb, or you’re setting yourself up for possible failure,” says Oyediran. “As soon as we saw the location and I knew that it was next door to a couple of important restaurants, that was all I needed.”
Similarly, Garcia and his partners had to step away from their first pick in Kansas City’s West Side because of permit complications. But it was worth it in the end.
“We really lucked out by getting told no on that original location,” says Garcia. “As much as I love the West Side, it is more of a neighborhood vibe. This space that we’re in now in the Crossroads is surrounded by businesses, and there’s a bevy of art galleries on our block. We’re in pretty close proximity to well-known places, so people are already coming down. There’s foot traffic. That helped us a lot, for sure.”
Draw on all your experiences
Though Pierre took over an existing shop, she says it was like “starting it from the beginning.” The store didn’t have a solid customer base.
“I treated the store 100% in the beginning like it was a restaurant,” says Pierre. “I had fun music on. I had wine open. Every person that came in wasn’t a customer, they were a guest. It’s still just like that.
“I know for a fact that that’s what led to the success of the store—there was zero pretense. I met people’s children right away. I asked questions. I just got to know people. It was not a transactional operation.”
Oyediran and White leveraged their background as sommeliers, but Oyediran also found that visits to other establishments provided inspiration and perspective.
“Travel, go to other stores, go to other bars that people say are the best and research them and try to figure out in your head why they work,” he says. “Keep a notebook handy and constantly be writing ideas in it. [Then] go through them and find the best ideas and the best things you’ve learned and put them into practice. [Graft] really is a reflection of all of our experiences and our history in Charleston.”
Some of the most important experiences are tasting and learning about wine. Pierre advises to stay educated on producers and trends.
“You have to remember that someone walks into your store, and their first experience in your store could also be their last experience,” she says. “If they walk in and they ask you for something and you have no idea what they’re talking about, that might be the last time they visit your store. And then they’re going to tell five of their friends, ‘Well, it’s a cute shop, but they don’t really know much about wine.’ You never want to be that person.”
Look for local support to help with finances
Opening a wine shop is a crash course in local law and business, from liquor regulations to profits and expense reports. Unless you plan to hire a consultant, it’s good to research what small business resources are available in your area.
Garcia recommends exploring services and classes at local universities and community colleges to help create a business plan, write grant applications or secure a loan.
Pierre stresses the importance of staying on top of your finances. This includes lease payments, staff wages and, in Pierre’s case, an inventory of up to $50,000 of wine at any given time.
“It’s all fun and games until you have to start paying the bills and looking at your financials,” she says. “That’s the most important part to me, and I wish I had more time to spend on it. Start by looking into some of those programs to really learn how to do the financials because some of the margins can be pretty tight.”
Professional advice proved a boon for Graft, especially after the pandemic hit.
“Our accountant was like liquidate, liquidate, liquidate. We need cash,” says White. The guidance helped them build a new online sales platform and curate budget-friendly bundles that have been successful.
“Don’t skimp out on an accountant,” he says. “Get the best you can find and pay them whatever they want. It makes life a million times easier.”
If you decide to dive into wine retail right now, you’ll have to make adjustments due to Covid-19 as well as many customers’ financial constraints.
Big Mood’s original vision included a wine bar, but the focus is now on the shop and a wine club. They’re also workshopping wine classes.
“It’s the same as working the floor in a restaurant,” says Garcia. “We’re working in the hospitality industry, and you just shrug things off and you have to have thick skin. Adaptability is your best weapon.”
“You have to be really creative,” says Pierre. “Nothing is consistent, there are a ton of moving parts and you’re just winging it all the time.”
Oyediran says that adaptability also applies to working in partnerships.
“You need to have flexibility, especially if you’re in business with someone, because that which does not bend will break,” says Oyediran. “Accept the fact that you are more than likely going to be wrong at some point. If you’re convinced that you’re right all the time, then you’re going to fall into a lot of problems.”
Ask yourself tough questions
When Graft opened, the owners found the lack of a progressive wine shop in a food-centric city frustrating. “The idea of Graft came about because…it didn’t seem like there were any really strong outlets that were really trying to push the culture in Charleston for wine,” says Oyediran.
But first, they consulted with three area distributors.
“It’s really cool to have these big dreams and want to do things, but you need to make sure it’s backed up with some sort of science,” he says. “Make sure there’s a demand before you do anything, and then also make sure that you have a strong intent of what you want to do and accomplish.”
Distributor input and market trends helped Pierre in the transition from restaurant to retail, but also in how to create the best experience for her clientele.
“Study your butt off, talk to as many people as you can, really understand the market,” she says. “Understand who your customers are going to be and what they might want.”
At natural wine-focused Big Mood, the question was whether the city would support it long term. Since its opening, Garcia and his partners have found success in their wine club and specialty goods. When the pandemic ends, they hope to expand with a wine bar.
“It turns out there’s quite a few people that are already kind of fanatics about natural wine [in Kansas City],” he says. “The response has been very good.”
Ultimately, it’s important to enjoy yourself amid the various challenges and pitfalls of business ownership.
“Make sure you’re having fun,” says Pierre. “It’s got to be fun because your fun oozes out into the group. People see it. So, you want it to be a great, fun environment for everyone.”