Sommelier Ryan Burkett was living his dream. He had a cool apartment in Hell’s Kitchen with a short, sweet stroll to his coveted job at Momofuku Kāwi, the celebrated Korean restaurant in Hudson Yards. But in March 2020, less than a year after it opened, Kāwi shuttered indefinitely due to the tidal wave of COVID-19—and Burkett, like so many others in the hospitality industry, was out of a job. “There was a sense of panic,” he recalls. “I had coworkers who had to move back home, and they’d reach out saying, ‘Hey, when do you think the restaurant will open back up?’ I remember thinking, you guys don’t understand; things might never open back up.”
That’s when Burkett began to consider getting off the restaurant floor and getting into retail, using his hospitality experience and vast wine knowledge to create a more sustainable career in the beverage world. Unsurprisingly, he’s not alone. From New York to Oregon, there’s been a wave of sommeliers who have shifted their careers not just into retail work, but into retail ownership. But there’s a lot more involved to hang your shingle than passion and knowledge—forms to fill out, fees to pay, requisite experts to hire—and that’s even before you manage the expectations of your new customers.
Procuring a License
In order to sell alcohol to the public, retailers must comply with the unique rules and regulations of each state. Knowing how to do that, and what a particular state allows, will dictate many decisions down the line and will require multiple steps, forms, inspections, fees, background checks, community board and zoning sign-offs, and other tricky facets in order to be in compliance with a state’s particular set of laws.
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Sommelier Paul Brady had a very specific plan in mind for his all-New York State wine shop, born of his days working as an ambassador for the New York Wine & Grape Foundation, but it required a different type of license entirely—and for that, he called on a pro from the start.
“You need a liquor license, and that process, no matter what way you do it, is painstaking,” he says. “I can’t imagine getting it done without an attorney specializing in state liquor authority regulations.” Brady, who opened his eponymous store in December 2021 in Beacon, New York, was already making wine under his own label with a winemaker friend, Todd Cavallo of Wild Arc Farm in Pine Bush, New York. That afforded him access to a unique type of license allowing in-state beverage producers to open a combination retail shop and tasting room, selling only state-produced and grown products (a unique perk, as the Empire State doesn’t allow off-premise license holders to sell pours by the glass).
“It took 15 months from start to finish to open,” says Brady, “and I was lucky.” Another bonus: This type of license isn’t subject to protest by other local shop owners, which is par for the course for anyone trying to obtain a new off-premise liquor license in the state.
Burkett, who moved back to his hometown in Long Island when it became clear the pandemic was a long way from ending, went the route of taking over an existing liquor store in a neighboring town, transferring the license from the former owner to him when he opened his shop, Williston Park Wines in Williston Park, New York, in November 2020. It’s an option many states offer (although not all—in Connecticut, Georgia, Louisiana, and Washington, for example, licenses are not transferable), but one Burkett regrets doing without an attorney from the get-go. “I didn’t get a lawyer until much later. That was a mistake,” he says. He didn’t realize an attorney could have helped him not only identify the available businesses for sale in his targeted area, but also be a key advocate in negotiating fees and terms. “I should have asked for advice instead of flying by the seat of my pants and winging it.”
Even if you’re a somm or bartender with experience in opening restaurants and working with your state’s liquor authority, like Jonas Andersen, formerly of Agern and now an owner of Folkways wine shop in Croton Falls, New York, getting a pro on board to help navigate the process can save time and money in the end. “First thing to know: don’t do it without an attorney,” he says. Andersen and his partner and wife, Natalie Marie Gehrels, hired an attorney to help them keep the process of taking over an existing wine shop and its stock on a smooth track. They opened their doors in October 2021 after a little over a year of planning.
But while transferring a license is an attractive option for its expediency, it means you also must purchase and take on the existing stock, which may not fit into the vision you have for your business and can take a while to sell through.
“I wound up paying close to $60,000 for the existing stock. If I had $60,000 to purchase wine I actually wanted to sell from the get-go? I could’ve had the coolest store in the world!” says Burkett, whose plan was to differentiate from other local wine shops by being the first natural wine-focused shop in his area. “Instead, I’m selling through different colors of Coppola and buying one natural wine at a time with the money I’m making.” It took about a year to get through most of it, but now the shop is beginning to align with his initial vision and he’s seeing more interest and growth in his customer base. “There’s half a shelf labeled ‘cooking wine’ now; they’re $5 bottles,” he adds.
Finding, Building, and Negotiating the Space
Before you can even apply for your liquor license, you’ve got to have your space. And that’s not a suggestion; it’s a legal requirement, which often means hiring other structural, plumbing, and electrical experts to sign off on plans and help you get up to code.
“That’s the unfair part,” says Ryan Malkin, a Miami-based attorney focusing on alcohol and cannabis importing and licensing on the East Coast. “You’re spending time and money with leases and rent and the start-up costs without being able to make any money for up to a year or more.”
When the original space she was eyeing for her shop Rocks and Acid in Durham, North Carolina, fell through during the pandemic, former Fearrington House sommelier Paula de Pano took a chance and cold-called the owner of an available retail space in a high-traffic spot near UNC in Chapel Hill. To her surprise, the rent was almost half the price of the space she nearly signed on for. But because it used to be a dry cleaner, de Pano had to take great pains to get it up to code for her purposes.
She started by hiring an architect to draw up plans to be submitted for approval. “I had to plan for new wiring, HVAC, plumbing,” she says. “It took 11 weeks just to get a building permit because the town had to coordinate with my structural engineer and my MEP [mechanical, electrical, and plumbing] engineer. And you have to hire all these people, and all of them will charge you.”
Even though de Pano saved on rent and by DIY-ing tasks when possible (like foregoing hiring a pricey food service consultant to advise on refrigeration to instead figure out on her own which models would be supported by her plumbing and electrical load), opening Rocks and Acid has cost over $300,000 due to the myriad professional fees, equipment, inventory, and building supplies. Another bit of luck for de Pano, though, was having a landlord who was happy enough to take a security deposit and eschew rent collection until she had her certificate of occupancy from the city.
Even if a landlord won’t forego rent collection, creative negotiation for rent reductions can be helpful. Because his space was completely new, Brady was able to negotiate with his builder-landlord for multiple months of no rent; in exchange, Brady put that savings towards sheetrock, plumbing, and other build-out items while the landlord was still in the construction phase.
But too often, a landlord simply won’t budge. Ivy Mix, a New York restaurant owner and bartender, and her partners Conor McKee and Piper Kristensen were forced to find savings by rolling up their sleeves when opening Fiasco! Wine + Spirits in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. “We signed the lease on February 15, 2020, and then the world went to shit,” says Mix. “It took 13 months to the day to get approved for our liquor license, and we actually paid rent that whole year. We received no leniency from our landlord, and we couldn’t apply for COVID relief funds.”
In fact, the challenges inspired the name of the shop. But because their plans for the space didn’t require upgrades in plumbing or electrical, the three owners were able to save money by putting in sweat equity. “It’s not like opening a bar, where you have a public bathroom and a kitchen. All that stuff is easier in retail,” says Mix. “We were able to do all the demo ourselves.”
Next to calling in professional help, reaching out to professional (and personal) connections is essential when starting a retail shop. If deep beverage knowledge and a knack for hospitality are a sommelier’s main super powers, accessing a years-built trove of connections and contacts is the equivalent of gathering the whole Avengers team. From long-standing relationships with importers, distributors, and producers, to friendships with colleagues and even former regulars, these assets provide access to products and a start-up customer base, as well as a source of solutions to problems that crop up along the way.
“I think working in hospitality not only offers a wealth of relationships, but it gives you a suitcase of experience that’s not just related to which POS system is good to work with,” says Andersen, who has used his knowledge and clout to build a strong staff. “I think we’re really good at putting together training programs and staffing.” For Andersen and other somms who go retail, that means being able to spot a knack for hospitality, even if it means eschewing past wine experience in a new hire. “You train your employees up from the ground, whether they have wine experience or not,” he says. “Interesting people with the right energy can develop a passion for wine.”
Burkett reached out to former colleague Jake Lewis, the corporate beverage director for Momofuku, to help him learn the ropes of purchasing, checking in monthly to go over numbers and be an all-around sounding board. De Pano, too, tapped into a strong support system from her years at Fearrington, from a former customer who worked for the town and helped her with her planning permit, to a Fearrington regular who was a personal coach and would send motivating, inspiring words to keep her spirits up during the darkest day of the pandemic.
“Our distributors were really wonderful because we were buying a lot of things that we couldn’t take but really wanted, and they were gracious to hold these wines for a couple of months until we opened,” says Sergio Licea, who opened Flor Wines in Portland, Oregon, with Le Pigeon wine director Andrew Fortgang. “They were also wonderful in working with us on allocation, even if we didn’t have the capital right away. They knew we were going to take care of them—they didn’t have to, but they really looked out for us.”
Building a Customer Base
One of the biggest learning curves is understanding that building a customer base at a boutique beverage shop happens at a much slower pace than it does at a hot new restaurant. “We come from busy restaurants and are used to being active all day and seeing the results of our labor right away,” says Licea. “Building clientele in a shop takes time.”
Because Flor started as an online-only venture that turned into a brick and mortar shop, virtual outreach has been a vital part of their business, both in online sales and bringing in foot traffic. Building their email list and being consistent with social media channels, like their weekly Wine Region Wednesday and case discount posts on Instagram, helps. “There’s so much good technology that allows you to group [customers] by what you know they’ll respond to and give them what they want,” says Licea. But the personal touch of both owners is a big part of the draw to bring people inside, too. “The most important thing is to fill the space with your character,” he adds.
While Andersen loves pouring interesting finds for his customers, he and Gehrels have set up Folkways up so that any customer can navigate the stock on their own, by making sure each wine has a detailed, clear description of what it is and where it’s from; it even tells the customer how to pronounce less familiar grapes or regions. “You should be able to walk into Folkways and navigate on your own,” says Andersen, “but if you want to chat with someone, that’s always available, too.” Creating that comfortable, informative atmosphere has built up the trust of their customers and slowly increased traffic.
They’ve also created more buzz by offering hospitality-related events, like flower-arranging classes and other options to complement the notion of hosting at home that’s piquing the interest of their base. “People who work in hospitality have that strong desire of hosting,” says Andersen. “That’s what I was afraid of in retail—I was nervous that it would be too transactional, but it doesn’t have to be.”
Amy Zavatto is the author of Prosecco Made Me Do It: 60 Seriously Sparkling Cocktails, Forager’s Cocktails, and The Architecture of the Cocktail. Her stories appear in Liquor.com, Imbibe, Beverage Media, and many others. She judges at the American Craft Spirits Association annual competition and the New York Wine & Food Classic, and she earned her Level III Certificate from the Wine & Spirits Education Trust, but her favorite way to learn is through taste and travel. She’s a big fan of underdogs and talking with her hands.