Shuttered for Covid-19, Wine Bars Find New Ways to do Business | Wine Enthusiast
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Shuttered for Covid-19, Wine Bars Find New Ways to do Business

Terra Dunham worked for 14 months on the debut of Book & Bottle, a dream-turned-reality wine bar in the heart of St. Petersburg, Florida. But when shelter-in-place orders went into effect just three days after opening, Dunham and team had to close.

“It may have been the first time in history that a construction job finished on time,” says Dunham.

Book & Bottle was completed on March 13, received a Certificate of Occupancy on March 16, and officially opened on March 17. It was the best-case scenario for the owner, until Governor DeSantis’ orders forced the establishment to close on March 20. “The timing couldn’t have been worse, but what could we do but try to improvise and figure something out?”

It’s exactly what she and her team did, pivoting from in-house wine bar operations to a delivery service that offers two shelter-at-home staples: books and wine.

“I never thought I’d have an online store, but now I’m taking orders every which way—Facebook, Instagram, text—and delivering all across the city,” she says. “We’re trying to accommodate people in any way we can, because right now, every single order counts.”

Andrew Li pouring Champagne into a flute
Andrew Li of Flora’s Wine Bar, which opened three weeks before Massachusetts shut down non-essential businesses./Photo by Christopher McIntosh/Photo by Christopher McIntosh

It’s that kind of adaptability that food and drink establishments across the country are calling upon like never before in light of the novel coronavirus pandemic, which has severely impacted the hospitality industry. And while many restaurants have been able to rethink their offerings via delivery and curbside pickup, when it comes to bars, a new question is raised: If your primary offering is wine or spirits, can you take the same measures to save your business?

The answer is complex. Situations vary from state to state, and are constantly changing. In Massachusetts, for example, alcohol delivery gets a green light if it accompanies a food purchase. Such is the case in Newton, where just weeks after being forced to close doors to their brand-new wine bar Flora’s, partner Andrew Li and team had to get creative in their delivery services. They’ve leveraged wholesale accounts to offer patrons groceries alongside wine orders.

“Right now there are many people who don’t feel comfortable taking the risk to go to a grocery store and wait in line, so it’s been a great way for us to stay engaged in the community, provide a service for our neighborhood, and remind people that we’re here,” says Li.

Interior of Splash in San Diego
Splash in San Diego reopened on Feb. 15 and closed on March 19./Photo courtesy of Splash Wine Lounge

Community engagement also drives Yali Bair Ruiz. With her daughter Kelsey Bair, she opened Splash Wine Lounge in San Diego on February 15 after a six-week remodel, only to close doors one month later.

“Upon opening we hoped to be an experience- and community-based venue, and we wanted to try our best to continue that,” says Ruiz. She notes local collaborations they’re running now, like locally designed “color-your-own-labels,” along with themed wine boxes (think “Puzzle Night” and “Netflix and Chill”). The decision, Ruiz explains, has been as pragmatic from an operational standpoint as it has a marketing one.

“We knew we wouldn’t be able to sell enough bottles to match the income we were making with people in the bar, so for us, the approach has been to keep people engaged and to offer them something fun and interesting to continue that conversation, so that when we can once again safely gather, we can pick up where we left off.”

Li agrees. “We’re looking forward to what’s to come—it’s an opportunity for us to provide a service for others in the neighborhood, and to really get them excited about going out again, at a comfortable pace.”

And for Dunham, it’s the community’s reaction that continues to keep her team’s spirits high. “Everyone’s desire to support local businesses right now has surpassed our expectations,” she says. “It’s proving to us that this is what humanity is about, and that we’re going to come out of this together stronger than we were before.”

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