Eleven years ago Lily Peachin opened Dandelion Wine in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. The wine shop features an eclectic selection and a hometown approach to customer service that have made it a neighborhood institution. Peachin’s concept was to create a wine shop that was more like a dive bar—a low-key place where people could hang out and try wine, learn about it, and fall in love with it. From the beginning, she was excited to share her wine discoveries with her customers, and she made sure bottles were always open for sampling.
In September 2018, Peachin opened a new store, about a mile and a half south of Dandelion, in the redevelopment site of the former Domino Sugar factory in South Williamsburg. Because of a New York State provision prohibiting individuals from holding multiple licenses to sell wine or spirits at retail venues for off-premise consumption, Peachin gave up ownership of Dandelion before opening Dandy Wine & Spirits. Making Dandy a reality proved more challenging than Peachin had anticipated. In the end, she was able to secure the funding she needed and set the new shop up for success by drawing on the experience she gained from running Dandelion and creating a strong business plan that focused on opening costs in a bigger, more modern space and potential revenues.
Last fall, as Dandelion celebrated its tenth anniversary and Dandy was about to open, Rebecca Foster, a filmmaker and the owner of Keajra Productions in Brooklyn, created a short film about Peachin and her businesses. Here, Foster interviews Peachin for SevenFifty Daily, asking what she’s learned from more than a decade in wine retail and how she’s navigated challenges along the way.
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SevenFifty Daily: What was the biggest challenge in opening the new store?
Lily Peachin: The biggest challenge with opening Dandy was my personal fear and anxiety about doing it all over again—putting in all that effort I’d previously put in to make Dandelion successful. I was also really concerned about the time and capital it would take for the new construction. I had no experience with that. If you let your mind think too far ahead, the roadblocks seem impossible. I took it one day at a time, keeping my focus. Then it became a lot more doable—and less scary.
How did you end up managing the funding?
I needed to raise additional capital for Dandy—it was five times more expensive than Dandelion, and the budget we proposed eventually covered only about half of the expenses. Because of the success of Dandelion, I was able to ask for help from my original investors. In addition to my silent partners, I also brought on a working partner, David Johnson. He had both money and sweat equity to invest. The partners and I were left with a little bit of debt that we weren’t planning on, but I’ve heard from other entrepreneurs that this is normal. The space is gorgeous, and it’ll be a good investment.
Did you learn anything from opening Dandelion that helped ease the launch of Dandy?
Everything. When I opened Dandelion, I had a strong passion for wine and for the community, but I didn’t have any contacts. I didn’t know where to order bags from or which POS system to use or where to get refrigerators. I made a lot of mistakes and spent a lot of money on the wrong things, but all those mistakes that I made at Dandelion helped me with the logistics of opening Dandy.
Some things were different, though, such as negotiating a lease with Two Trees Development Company, a large Brooklyn-based real estate development firm. To anyone planning to open a shop in a large commercial space, I recommend hiring a good commercial real estate lawyer who knows the market and neighborhood you are in. I personally have a hard time getting through the language without a professional.
What advice would you give to a first-time retail shop owner?
Stay small and focused. Find a location that speaks to you. It’s not just about having passion for what you’re putting on the shelves but also being passionate about the community you’re in. Knowing your customers and market is as important as knowing your products. I lived in Greenpoint for 10 years before I opened Dandelion, and I lived in Williamsburg for 10 years before I opened Dandy. I had personal relationships in each community. I was invested in the seeing the future of those communities. Finally, find a location that you can afford so you can keep your overhead low and spend more money on your products.
Do you have any practical advice to offer concerning the State Liquor Authority (SLA)?
During my first application process for Dandelion, I was so nervous. I double-checked everything and added appendixes; I added tons of photo evidence of the growth of the neighborhood, and I got the signatures I needed. In fact, my first attorney used that packet to show other people as an example.
We initially failed to get the license for Dandy. My second attorney wasn’t prepared well enough. The visual aid that was presented to the SLA was months old, and when you’re talking about new construction, “months” can mean the difference between a piece of land and a 16-story building. My heart sank when I saw a Google Maps image of an empty lot being presented to the chairman of the SLA when construction on the building was already complete. You need to walk into your review with the SLA with everything up to date. Get a good attorney, but don’t rely on that person completely—do your own homework and be prepared.
How do you manage all the day-to-day operations of your shops?
I’m no longer the owner of the original Dandelion shop, but I do still manage certain aspects of Dandelion while running Dandy. I set a schedule for myself for the week around what needs to be done on what days. There are a lot of great payroll companies and accounting services that can take a lot of the work off your hands. I take advantage of tools that keep it easy, but I still know what’s happening in my company. The amount of paperwork can be overwhelming if you’re doing a lot of business with a lot of different vendors, which there are in New York City. Who has a filing cabinet these days? I do!
As for staffing, the right mix of employees is something that’ll continue to evolve as your business grows and the needs of the business change. It’s also important to keep in mind that a staff that’s happy to be at work and that feels valued is one of the greatest assets for any business. I pay a very competitive wage and offer as many perks and benefits as possible.
What’s your buying strategy and how has it changed over time?
With Dandelion, I had to taste a lot of wine before opening. Organically, my favorite wines filled all the holes and price points I needed. I started with 80 SKUs, and then as I sold more wine, I ordered more. We now have 600 SKUs. At Dandy, I had a reputation of being a wine shop lady. I needed to have a fair amount of wine but also spirits. We started with about 500 SKUs, plus spirits. To be honest, I don’t have the same passion for spirits as I do for wine, but luckily my partner David does, so he took control of the spirits section. We also get a lot of feedback from customers. Accordingly, we fill holes and weed out products that are “too esoteric.” We want to keep things interesting—but moving.
Rebecca Foster has worked in the wine business for 20 years as a sommelier, wine director, consultant, sales rep, and retailer. She received an MFA in film from New York University and has won numerous filmmaking awards. Combining her two passions, she is making video portraits of people in the wine and art world through her company, Keajra Productions.