It is hard for me to believe, but today we celebrate 26 years selling wine from the Orange Avenue location. During this time two of my three children were born, and my nephew, Lee, went from being a tiny boy running around the store in shorts, flip-flops and a Batman cape, to my indispensable right hand man. My, how times have changed!
When we opened TWM, with the help of my business partners Brock and Kathy Magruder, it was simply my goal to provide enough income that my wife could stop teaching and stay home with our then 1 year old son. We opened the store with a bank loan, backed by my partners, and small loans to me by my step-father and mother, as well as one from my mother and father-in-laws. It was matched by my partners, so we had just enough for build out, racking, inventory, signage and a point-of-sale computer system. Today we advise franchisees that opening a new store costs between five and ten times what I opened the original store with, depending on the cost of build out.
In 1995 the wine world was a fraction of what it is today. It is hard to believe now but wines from Italy were rare, only the big names like Chianti Classico, Barolo, Barbaresco and few inexpensive Montepulciano d’Abruzzo were easily had. Spain was virtually a non-existent category and even Oregon and Washington were unique offerings, as we frequently had to explain to customers the vineyards were not in D.C. but the state. Lucky for us change was coming, quickly, and soon were were buying racks, changing the store constantly to add space for new categories like white wines from Spain, examples from Lebanon, and areas within France that were never exported before the mid-1990’s.
In the days before our opening the CBS news show, 60 Minutes, aired a piece on how Walmart was destroying small business in America with predatory tactics; offering low prices and selections that mom and pops stores could never compete with. They showed example after example of desolate main streets in small towns where families had been in business for generations, only to be wiped out in months by the big box monolith. Could that happen to us? It was on my mind but would Walmart ever enter the wine business?
Then, in 2008 Total Wine & More opened a few blocks away, the wine and spirits equivalent to Walmart. Using the same predatory tactics they ruthlessly underpriced the market, offering expansive selection and an army of people on the floor to provide “service.” Their impact on the market was devastating, with many small, local wine shops closing. We held on, only by our finger nails for a few months, and now count ourselves as one of the lucky ones. Many good stores closed, and their loss had a detrimental effect on the local wine market as customers eventually lost out on good advice and a broader range of selections.
I did not know it at the time but my business plan, that I wrote before opening in early 1995, was what saved us. By focusing on making us unique to the market with our selection and service, and always looking to evolve, we were able to survive. There were more than a dozen retail wine shops in Central Florida in 1995, most attached to a different, primary business such as a restaurant, wine bar, even a frame shop. Many were strong businesses, well established, and I am grateful to say I learned a lot by studying their strengths and weaknesses. Their closing is an unfortunate reality of business evolution, whether from internal or external forces. However, today Central Florida is blessed with many new places to buy wine, and a lot of great professionals running them. While many fear competition, I welcome it. There is plenty of business in the dynamic Central Florida economy for more than one wine shop, and I welcome anyone who looks to raise the bar of consumer awareness.
I’ll finish by telling you that last night we were not busy, so I grabbed a collection of wine samples left for me over the past few weeks by distributors, and began tasting with the Orlando staff. Among the dozen or so bottles could anything potentially be added to our inventory? The wines were from Sicily, Switzerland, obscure areas of Spain, Argentina and the country of Georgia. Most won’t make our shelves, not because we do not have customers for these obscure places of origin, but because they fail to reach levels of quality and value commensurate with examples we already carry in each category. In 1995 I did not know how the wine business would grow and change, but I am happy to still be here. I am grateful to be surrounded by my wonderful family, amazing staff, dedicated franchisees and most important, passionate customers who respect our efforts and reward us with their patronage. We do not take this for granted, working hard every day to provide the highest level of service, and most interesting selection possible. My, how times have changed!