My business, Shoe Crazy Wine, was launched in 2013 as an e-commerce brand, and we quickly learned distribution would be a primary problem. Our digital shopping carts were filling up but being left by the virtual door. Everyone wanted free shipping, something we were financially not able to offer.
The obvious solution was to get into retail shops and restaurants. I was expecting a rough time finding a distributor willing to take a chance on our relatively young company. What I wasn’t expecting was the outright hostility many wine distributors leveled at a Black woman launching her own brand.
The misogyny and racism were sometimes coded: Shoe Crazy Wine’s brand is too “customer specific.” Other distributers didn’t bother hiding their contempt, saying no one buys “Black wine” from a Black woman, “even if you are attractive.”
Certainly not every wine distributor in the United States of America does business this way. But undervaluing Black- and women-owned companies is not limited to our industry. It’s endemic. So, while my family and staff were appalled, I was not completely surprised. Heeding my mother’s advice—to never undervalue myself—Shoe Crazy Wine pivoted again.
We would self-distribute.
Easy right? Not so much. Armed with my elevator pitch and a foam beach cooler on wheels, I toted the early incarnations of Shoe Crazy Wine to every wine shop, liquor store and restaurant I could find.
They said no thank you. Every one. But there was no other way, so I developed a thick skin. I knocked on even more doors, made more calls. And finally, we got a yes. Kathleen Richardson at the Urban Farmhouse Market & Cafe in Richmond, Virginia, said someone had once taken a chance on her, so she was passing on the favor.
We listened to our customer, and these bottles started flying off the shelves.
Elated to have our first retail outlet, we quickly learned our customer was interested in slightly sweeter, softer wines. In yet another redirect, Shoe Crazy abandoned very dry wine for New World-style pours with jammy, fruity finishes.
We listened to our customer, and these bottles started flying off the shelves. While there were others in this market, I like to think our company’s pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps roots gave us an edge.
Still, we didn’t receive an overly warm welcome from most shops and restaurants. So the next step was learning to pitch to grocery store chains regionally.
Vastly more complex, with two- to five-year sales cycles, it was another learning opportunity. With determination and a willingness to listen and adapt, we found the right fit. Again, it was a woman willing to take a chance on us, this time helping get us into Kroger—our first big-box store.
Success does not mean rest, however. I kept the grind going. As a distributor, you have to. So, I went out and got my next one, then my next one. Andrews Airforce Base, Total Wine & More, Coast Guard and Navy Exchanges, Walmart, Food Lion and then Sam’s Club, and on and on.
Growth meant meeting regulatory requirements, which are different in each state. Some require a license at the county and state level; some demand a warehouse, while others will accept a residential garage. Some states require a permit to perform winetasting to consumers, while others do not, and in some, sales staff need permits. It’s incumbent on me to keep track of all of this.
I also needed to create supply chain infrastructure, getting a large warehouse, a cargo truck and workers to keep the operation going. We purposefully put our headquarters in an economically challenged area in order to make a difference in the local economy. Before Covid-19 hit, we employed 25 people. As we ramp back up post-pandemic, we’ve started hiring again.
In a way, our company’s early troubles may have been a blessing. We might have settled for some easy, mediocre versions of success. Instead, we’re ever building, ever adapting, eager for more. Our current pipeline includes more big-box outlets, poising Shoe Crazy Wines for national growth through self-distribution and partner distribution.
For more essays by drinks professionals, visit Outpourings: Industry Voices.