Manhattan Merchants Re-Imagine Brick & Mortar Stores
For any wine and spirits merchant or restaurateur, be she or he new to the business or a multi-decade, multi-generational veteran, to contemplate a re-do of an existing space, a move to a brand new address, or to venture a store the first time is a very big deal. Hundreds of details must be attended to and checked off, from dealing with real estate agents, landlords, architects and contractors to selecting lighting and shelving to investing in the latest integrated sales and inventory control software, the list appears endless, and that is all before placing the first orders with distributors!
Here are six vignettes (pun intended) about five enterprising Manhattan wine and spirits merchants and one restaurant wine director, each of whom has taken the plunge and opened (or re-opened) a new store in one of the most competitive markets in the country, where rents per square foot are sky high and space is always at a premium.
Violetta Wines – A Little Niche on Madison Avenue
Gift givers and recipients know nice things come in small packages, and Violetta Wines at 161 Madison Avenue certainly delivers, given a mere 1,000 square feet of selling space and another 700 square feet of storage in back. Hailing originally from London, owner Markus Ljunghammer, who had several years of upscale wine-selling experience in his hometown, knew location would be critical to his store’s ultimate success in Manhattan. Ljunghammer says, “The demographic of this mid-town location on Madison is changing rapidly, with many new website and online commerce companies and upscale residents moving in, so it was an attractive neighborhood.”
And the store’s name, how did that come about? “Easy, think of top luxury brands such as Prada, or Bottega Veneta, or a top restaurant like Esca, the name Violetta Wines captures some of that same Italian cachet,” replies Ljunghammer with a knowing, if mildly ironic wink. With just one medium-sized window to display the store’s offerings, he makes frequent changes, with rosé wines featured around the time of the store’s opening on Valentine’s Day this past February. Currently, Violetta’s window presents a colorful mix of artisan, local whiskies from New York State distillers and hard-to-find wines from France, Chile, Argentina and Italy.
Assisted by Chris Ferrante, Ljunghammer makes the best of the store’s diminutive size, noting delivering excellent customer service is almost inescapable within its tiny footprint, which in turn, has built repeat business in a very short time. And since Markus puts a premium in searching out scarce bottlings that he says customers don’t often find in other shops in the neighborhood, he adds that he has quickly built a growing following.
Even so, if a customer asks for a popular name brand, either he will grab it from the shelves, the stockroom or, alternatively, special order it no questions asked. Making the most of his less-is-more store ethic, Ljunghammer sums up, “Given the size of the store, it allows us much more personalized attention.”
Grape Collective – An Upper West Side Vinous Story Teller
A born storyteller, Chris Barnes caught the wine bug and transformed his avocation into the Grape Collective, an imaginative mix of bricks-and-mortar retailing combined with an ambitious online media presence whose content is free to anyone interested in the stories behind the wines he features in the store. This 21st century vision of seamlessly integrating traditional retail with a non-traditional, multi-faceted online presence should come as no surprise given Barnes’s background in publishing. Previous to opening the store, Barnes was publisher of the New York Observer and before that as a successful media entrepreneur both on the East and West coasts.
Located at 102nd and Broadway, the physical store is only the tip of an ambitious iceberg of wine-related content at a grapecollective.com. There, where all content is free, and in the free magazine he publishes, Barnes has assembled a talented team of wine writers who not only write stories about most of the wines he carries, but some also serve as his sales staff. The core of the Grape Collective’s content consists of revealing video interviews Barnes often conducts himself with winemakers around the world including Jorge Muga of Spain, somms such as Adam Binder of the Catbird Seat in Nashville, or smaller importers like Kermit Lynch. As Barnes puts it, his vinous venture is all about ‘points of view, not points.” He is all about access, refusing the route of establishing a pay wall that other wine publications have as their business model as well as those sites created by famous wine critics.
When hiring staff for his store’s opening, he advertised on Craig’s List, but not for those with retail experience as one might assume. No, Barnes was looking for wine writers. There are no shelf talkers in his store, rather in several tables displaying wine the customer will see an iPad set up at eye level; with a few clicks a customer may see and hear a video about the wines, winemakers and domains and estates in front of them for sale. Like other cutting-edge merchants from Net-A-Porter to Warby Parker, the Grape Collective has set its sights on transforming the retail experience, either in its store, via its blogging and social media, and through its growing online presence. Expressing the essential message of his approach, Barnes says, “We want to avoid a fixation on a few adjectives and a reliance on scores, we’re trying to tell great stories about wine.”
Park Avenue Liquor Shop – 80 Years Young
Founded in 1934 by Herman Goldstein, Park Avenue Liquor Shop’s move two blocks south on Madison Avenue to the corner of 39th Street clearly sets this merchant up for the next 80 years. With its lease coming up for renewal in 2016, Mike Goldstein, son of the founder and president, and his two sons, co-owners Jonathan and Eric, had difficult decision to make – re-up, pay more rent to the building’s new owners at 292 Madison or consider a move. After considering the downsides of staying the admittedly cramped location and having to pay a much higher rent, the family elected to make a move.
Eric Goldstein recalls the real estate agent listened carefully to the family’s criteria, which included securing a long lease, finding a great mid-town Manhattan location and reaching a relatively affordable rent even though they wanted a much larger retail selling space. It took time to find the right spot, as their then-current location at 292 Madison was beloved by their customers and only steps away from the iconic Grand Central Station. But much to their surprise, a former restaurant on a corner location not more than two blocks south, at 242 Madison, became available and they closed on a deal, still leaving enough time to carefully plan the move.
While their former location boasted 2,200 square feet of selling space—with product reaching literally to the ceiling— and under 5,000 square feet of storage in the basement, the new store almost doubles the ground floor selling space, notes Goldstein. With large windows that afford great daytime light and high 20-foot ceilings, loyal customers don’t have to walk far to marvel at the new location’s spaciousness and an even greater selection of fine wines and spirits than before. Summing up the reaction from their clients, Eric said the family is extremely pleased with the praise they have received since opening on Valentine’s Day 2015.
And with the new address, the basement space grew as well, affording Eric, Jonathan and Mike the chance to build up valuable reserves of hard-to-find rarities that their customers have come to expect, from rare single malt Scotch to artisanal Bourbons, to older vintages of Burgundy, Bordeaux and Champagne, not for a moment forgetting less costly, faster moving wines and spirits. Last but not least as part of the move, Park Avenue launched a completely re-designed website that makes shopping as easy as a few clicks away from its expanded inventory.
Back Label Wine Merchants – From Brooklyn to Chelsea
Patrick Watson, founder and owner of Back Label Wine Merchants, earned his stripes as a talented sommelier at restaurants including Lupa and Blue Hill in New York, One Market in San Francisco, and he brings that experience to Back Label Wine Merchants. But also has a successful background as a Brooklyn wine and spirits retailer, where he founded with his wife, Michelle, Smith & Vine in 2004 at 268 Smith Street. And located at 215 Smith Street, he and his wife next opened Stinky Cheese in 2006, which features not only cheese, but also sandwiches, teas and beer from the borough to brews from near and far.
In late 2014, eager to enter Manhattan, and with Smith & Vine running smoothly by Michelle, Patrick saw an opportunity in Chelsea, and opened Back Label Wine Merchants at 111 West 20th in May 2014. While curated is an over-used term these days, much like the wine lists he used to create, Watson carefully selects a wide range of wines and spirits for the 4,000 square foot store.
He says: “Food is the prism through which I select wines based on my sommelier background. We don’t need eight Sancerre labels, but we taste 80 to choose just one.” The store also boasts an additional 1,000 square feet in the back of the store, where a series of frequent free- and private-paid classes are hosted, all promoted by signage and flyers in the store, via social media and on its dedicated website. Watson also brings in star wine directors and somms to lead classes, including Michael Madrigale, Lisa Granik, and Noah Sugarman, among others.
Assisted by Allison Klug, Manager and Spirits Director, the store also features a huge collection of Bourbons, Rye, Straight whiskies, Scotch, Irish and Canadian brands. And in an echo of Watson’s Brooklyn experience, located right next door, is Stinky Cheese Chelsea, with a collection of cheeses, teas, beers and made-to-order sandwiches. In this way, he can cross sell the products of one store to the other; for example some wines come with a promotion of 10% off a cheese purchase next door on the same day. This is curating taken to the next level, Chelsea style.
Le District’s Challenge to Eataly
Here is a New York City retail-cum-real estate riddle to puzzle over: Will Le District’s 30,000 square feet of French gastronomic and vinous delights do for Lower Manhattan what the 50,000 square-foot success of Eataly at Fifth Avenue and 23rd Street did for the Madison Square Park neighborhood?
If Ryan Mills-Knapp Le District’s Beverage Manager and owner Peter Poulakakos, CEO of HPH restaurant group, have anything to say, it would be: Mais oui, pas de problème! HPH founder Harry Poulakakos, Peter’s father, opened Harry’s Bar, a legendary Wall Street watering hole that is packed every night after the market’s close; today the group has 25 locations, many in Lower Manhattan, including Le District.
Nestled in the newly opened $300-million Mall at Brookfield Place in Lower Manhattan—located a short walk from the towering World Trade Center—Le District features 20 mini-departments of fish, meat, fresh-baked breads, cheese, a chic café with pastries, waffles and a full-service Creperie and an ‘after-hours’ chocolate mousse bar, along with de rigueur imported French boxed-chocolates, fancy fruit tarts, multiple salads-to-go, crusty baguette ham-and-cheese sandwiches, seasonal soups and basketfuls of other culinary delights a la française, including Le Candy Bar, an emporium of delicious Gallic sweets. In addition, Le District boasts an espresso bar, a wine bar called Le Comptoir (The Counter), a cocktail lounge called Le Bar, and two French upscale eateries: Beaubourg, a classic bistro offering French classics from steak-frites to tender fish quenelles and L’Appart, an intimate, 28-seat restaurant whose Chef Jordi Vallès, an El Bulli veteran from Spain, also doubles as Culinary Director of the entire operation.
Says Mills-Knapp: “What excites me about taking on this challenge at Le District is that French wine is such an inherent part of French culture and cuisine. From a casual glass to fancy bottles, our guests are able to explore multiple wine-and-food experiences in the range of all our venues.” If you total up all the wines-by-the-glass selections at the different spots within Le District, Mills-Knapp says there are between 50-55 different wines on offer, including 25-30 in Le Comptoir alone, plus another 15-25 additional pours between Le Bar and Beaubourg. (This number does not include each restaurant’s wine list.)
When Mills-Knapp thinks about juggling all these liquid skus, he says: “Managing inventory is exceptionally important here. Our POS system integrates purchasing, inventory and sales in real time; I can place orders through our custom software. It’s a powerful tool when it comes to cost management and it’s easily the most important part of my job.” While open only a month at press time, with the crowds pouring in from early breakfast until midnight, Mills-Knapp forecasts between $5-to-$10 million in beverage sales in 2015, with the lion’s share coming from wine.
A Maine native, Mills-Knapp first worked at Plaza Wine Merchants in Jackson Hole, Wyoming—with plenty of downhill ski time on the slopes—before heading back east to New York, where he started at the bottom as a waiter at Aureole. He soon graduated to being a sommelier at restaurants including Beacon, Spice Market, Tribeca Grill, Corton and Colicchio & Sons. During these posts, he honed his craft and became a Certified Sommelier; he credits Daniel Johnnes and David Gordon as mentors. A college major in American diplomatic history, Mills-Knapp likens the role of a sommelier to the tasks of a State Department Foreign Service officer: A sommelier has to take an instant read of his or her customer or table, put the guest or party at ease, and keep a low, but vigilant profile in terms of service.
Currently at Le Bar, the three best-selling wines by the glass are: 2009 Château Teyssier, St. Emilion, courtesy of HP Selections, a Manhattan-based wine importer/distributor owned by Peter Poulakakos, at $15; a 2013 Sancerre at $14, from rotating group of producers; and a 2014 Château Roquefort rosé, from VOS Selections, at $14. At Beaubourg, the sweet spot in terms sales velocity are wines priced between $50-to-$80 a bottle. And thanks to his experience at other top restaurants, Mills-Knapp says it was not too difficult to snag some vintage gems for Le District’s reserve list, where such wines are poured after a successful IPO or for the nearby Conde Nast marketing team, who take the short walk from their perch at the World Financial Center over to Le District for a sales meeting.
Looking forward to the May/June opening of L’Appart, Mills-Knapp is already planning curated, multi-course Champagne tasting match-ups with Chef Vallès. And since he has become friends with top wine makers from around world, Mills-Knapp is also looking forward to hosting many one-off wine-maker dinners in the same space, where guests can really relax and savor some real rarities in an intimate setting.
As to whether Le District will ever rival Eataly in terms of metrics such as foot traffic, sales per-square-foot, or total beverage sales is a topic that Mills-Knapp does not unduly concern himself; much as a dedicated diplomat on a demanding mission, he is focused on delivering great service, offering tremendous wine, spirits and beer selections and pure French, how shall we say, joie de vivre!
On The Trail of Bacchus – Wine Disciples Forges An Novel Restaurant/Store Paradigm in Chelsea
If there is one thing Michael Coll heard over and again in his 25 years as a sommelier and restaurant wine buyer, it was a customer asking him: “Where can I buy this wine?” Unable to proffer directions to a local merchant after stints in Los Angeles, San Francisco and, most recently, at Estiatorio Milos in Manhattan, this Scot from Edinburgh can now finally “close the circle” as Coll eloquently describes his ambitious new retail/restaurant venture in Chelsea called Wine Disciples, which opened in late June 2015.
There is an ‘s’ in the venture’s name for a reason. It represents Coll’s double-doored answer to that ever-asked inquiry noted above: one door opens to an Italian-inflected restaurant, with its dedicated entrance; and right next store, another door swings open to a full-fledged wine store. Located at 129 West 29th, Coll literally bifurcated a vast, empty ground floor space into his architectural/commercial riposte to all those vinous questers in Manhattan and beyond.
Wine Disciples Enoteca wine bar and restaurant is modern space that boasts a 25-foot high ceiling, 30-some tables, a long, custom-designed pewter bar and, at the back, a private dining room, with a pair of luminous skylights, that can comfortably seat 40 guests. On a recent night, Coll was readying this gustatory annex to welcome a Google-hosted party. Helmed by Chef Brian Leth, his menu offers a rich array of Italian small plates of cheese, artisanal salamis, cured meats and prosciutto, classic antipasti, griglia (grilled fowl, meats, seafood), fresh oysters, and pastas, according to the seasons.
With a thick wall separating it from the restaurant, Coll’s Wine Disciples Wine Shop is likewise a cavernous, yet warm space that will soon offer wines from six continents. For the moment, Coll opened with a rich selection of hard-to-find Napa and Sonoma gems; an array Italian producers from the boot-heel to the Alps; a strong selection of French bottlings from Irouléguy in the Pyrenees to small producers in Chablis and Champagne in the north; and lastly, a carefully curated complement of classic Rieslings and Grüners from Germany and Austria, respectively. Coll is vigilant about differentiating offerings on the Enoteca’s wine list from those wines at the store; but he can readily propose a similar wine from either to his dedicated ‘disciples.’
Whether walk-in customers to the shop, diners at the restaurant, or serving customers online, Coll says, “My hope is that guests will visit us on both sides of the wall, and virtually, to discover new wines and pairings.”
The author wishes to thank Beverage Media to publish this article, which appears in the September 2015 issue of the magazine.