Operations

Wine Bar Operators Share Their Secrets to Survival

Flexible business models and creative community engagement allow wine bars to stay profitable even in tumultuous times

The Lavaux Wine Bar opened in New York City in October 2020. Photo courtesy of The Lavaux Wine Bar.

In between the grim news of restaurant and bar closures over the past year were heartening reports of new openings. Many of these were wine bars—establishments slated to open in 2020 whose owners decided to push forward despite the challenging landscape. 

Their collective success—measured today by the ability to stay in business—is the result of tremendous creativity and hard work, yet also demonstrates the uniqueness of the wine bar as a flexible, especially durable business model. With a beverage-centric focus and lower operating costs, the wine bar is designed to weather storms better than most other on-premise concepts.

Becoming Local Wine Destinations

Forced to offer more than the traditional dining experience, wine bars can trade on their wine credentials to provide connoisseurship to their communities in many other ways. Greg Hajcak, a New York transplant who moved to Tallahassee, Florida around five years ago, launched Hummingbird Wine Bar last spring. Though not necessarily optimistic—“We had the lease signed and the choice was between defaulting on it or going for it. We decided to give it a try,” Hajcak says—he quickly made the decision to fast-track his wine club which launched in May 2020.

Featuring monthly selections showcasing offbeat wines curated by Hummingbird’s staff each month, complete with tasting notes, Hajcak’s wine club enabled him to build a community following and create buzz all summer long, prior to offering in-person dining which began in September. 

Though Hummingbird continues to grow its outdoor and indoor dining business at limited capacity, about a third of Hummingbird’s sales continue to come from the wine club, and membership has swelled from 60 to 165 in less than a year. “It enabled us to stay in business and created a core group of people over the first few months, and we earned their trust by picking great wines,” explains Hajcak.

While many on-premise operators took advantage of changed legislation which enabled them to sell wine to-go, wine bars are uniquely poised to do so, given their unique cellars and reputations as wine specialists.

Husband-and-wife team Cressida Greening and Emir Dupeyron had planned to open their all-day café and wine bar Winona’s in Brooklyn, New York in March 2020—a brick-and-mortar play on the supper club the couple ran in their apartment, with a focus on natural wines. Though they were able to open the front café to diners in November, indoor dining was banned soon after, so the couple quickly reconfigured the café into a small wine store while they constructed an outdoor seating area. “It’s great for us because there isn’t another one around since we are in a bit of a no man’s land,” says Greening. Converting to a wine shop also served to establish the wine bar’s reputation in the local community as a go-to wine destination.

Cressida Greening. Photo by Shay Harrington.

Seattle’s Eli Dahlin and Ezra Wicks—together with partners Will Mason and Salomon Navarro—embraced retail as an add-on to takeout and delivery for Light Sleeper, which was originally slated to open in May 2020. Instead of opening a dine-in wine bar with a long list of natural wines, Light Sleeper opened in December with a menu of soups, salads, and pizzas to go.

“The dream was a beautiful wine bar with amazing food,” says Wicks. “Now we are operating as a takeout and delivery place, encouraging customers to please buy wine to have with our food.” The wine bar highlights inventory from their neighboring retail shop, Wide Eyed Wines, which they opened in the fall. Though the current format and menu is far from what the team imagined for the wine bar, the retail-and-takeout model allows locals to purchase from an eclectic collection of wines—something that will hopefully generate community interest until Light Sleeper opens for indoor dining.

“We do believe that the wine bar, with a restricted menu and a few very well-made products, is more suited to thrive in uncertain times because costs and labor are so much lower, and you can react to change more quickly.” – Titouan Briaux

Swiss winemaker Titouan Briaux helped open The Lavaux Wine Bar in New York City’s West Village in October, a destination designed to educate Americans about Swiss wine. When indoor dining was banned, Briaux and team turned the restaurant into “a little high-end Swiss boutique” selling wines and cheeses. “The new to-go law helped us tremendously, as we have sold a lot of wine and developed very close links with our regulars,” he explains. Those regulars now come to dine at the wine bar, where The Lavaux’s menu is fondue-focused and simple. “We do believe that the wine bar, with a restricted menu and a few very well-made products, is more suited to thrive in uncertain times because costs and labor are so much lower than a restaurant, and you can react to change more quickly.”

In fact, the wine bar-wine shop synergy is a business strategy that Dustin Wilson, cofounder of bicoastal shop Verve Wine, has long believed in. When Wilson and his partners set up to open their Chicago location pre-pandemic, a wine bar was in the works, with a menu led by chef Ryan Epp, an alum of Alinea and the Aviary.

“A wine bar is a natural next stop for a retail shop,” says Wilson. “We work hard to make Verve Wine a place where you can buy, learn, taste, and interact with wine in different ways. The wine bar takes that idea a step further to incorporate food into the experience, a piece that we were previously missing.” 

Photo courtesy of Verve Wine.

Verve’s Chicago retail shop opened in December, offering curbside pick-up and local delivery options, as well as free virtual chats with its team of on-site sommeliers. The team has also started selling at-home meal kits designed by Epp, which offer customers a glimpse into the soon-to-open wine bar. “We feel that as regulations continue to relax, the weather warms up, and people are more open to sitting outside, that will be the right time for us to kick things off,” says Wilson.

Cultivating Community Support

Garnering community support has been essential for success, and without a steady stream of regulars wandering into the bar, engaging with new customers can be tricky. As Winona’s prepares to reopen for indoor dining soon in Brooklyn, Greening and Dupeyron have found ways to connect with their customers, such as promoting Winona’s playlists on Spotify and offering informal wine consultations through WhatsApp messages.

Hajcak (who is also plotting a virtual wine shop as a new revenue stream) has gained a following through biweekly, virtual blind tastings; customers pick up numbered, pre-packaged wine flights at Hummingbird before tuning in. 

Briaux began selling Swiss fondue kits to-go to accompany his Chasselas wines, which his entertainment-starved community readily embraced. “The reason for our success is that we were so embraced by the West Village neighborhood, and their enthusiasm for our wines and cheeses,” he says. “It seemed like they were incredibly pleased to see a new business open, in a time where many were closing.”

Michelle and Ka-ton Grant. Photo courtesy of Michelle Grant.

These nimble, creative wine bar operators have served as inspiration for Michelle and Ka-ton Grant, residents of Mount Rainier, Maryland, who will open Era Wine Bar this spring. The city’s first wine bar, it will feature a global list running the spectrum from Mexico to the Mediterranean, alongside culturally diverse small plates inspired by Michelle’s parents, blending her mother’s Indian roots with her father’s African ones. 

“We had an opportunity to look at what other people are doing and how resilient they’ve been, transforming menus to offer food that is easy and friendly to-go and adding outdoor dining,” says Michelle. With a large patio and a willingness to adapt, the Grants feel prepared to become a community hub. 

“It already has regulars,” jokes Michelle. “It has massive windows and lots of natural light, and so many are curious. People want to hang out in their neighborhoods and support local businesses more than ever.”

Alia Akkam is a writer who covers food, drink, travel, and design. She is the author of Behind the Bar: 50 Cocktails from the World’s Most Iconic Hotels (Hardie Grant) and her work has appeared in Architecturaldigest.com, Dwell.com, Penta, Vogue.com, BBC, Playboy, and Taste, among others, and she is a former editor at Edible Queens, Hospitality Design, and Beverage Media. A native New Yorker, Alia now calls Budapest home. Follow Alia @behdria.

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