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Thriving, not just surviving: Wine Merchants morphs into retail shop to get through the pandemic

Thriving, not just surviving: Wine Merchants morphs into retail shop to get through the pandemic

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While many restaurateurs struggled to retool their concepts to reflect a changing market thrown into turmoil by the coronavirus pandemic, the owners of Wine Merchants & Vin205 just closed the restaurant at 205 S. Stratford Road.

But they didn’t close their doors. Instead, they morphed into a retail food shop.

It helped that they were already partly there and had envisioned a new concept like this.

Last February, owners Caleb Flint and Alan Miller announced plans to move into more spacious quarters at 215 N. Broad St., rechristening the business Cork & Cleave and adding a butcher shop and gourmet groceries to the existing wine shop and restaurant.

Cork & Cleave hasn’t happened because of the pandemic. But Flint and Miller have made good use of the waiting period with some big changes to their existing business, and some adjustments to their long-term plans.

Unlike some restaurants that are struggling to stay open, Wine Merchants — now known as Wine Merchants & Vin205 Bodega — had a pretty good year.

“My fourth quarter was down about 25%, but mainly because we had a really good fourth quarter the year before,” Miller said.

“And it wasn’t so much that sales are up, but our costs are down.”

It’s actually impossible to compare past years, because it is now a very different business. The restaurant has been replaced by a gourmet grocery that sells a lot of take-and-bake prepared meals.

The wine shop is still there and doing well — with a bigger inventory than ever. But the rest of Wine Merchants’ business model has changed dramatically.

“We tried doing takeout for three days in March,” Flint said. “Our menu was not designed to travel, so we abandoned that. Once we did, we responded pretty quickly and aggressively to market changes.”

With staff pared down to four plus Flint and Miller — from a pre-COVID number of 14 — the business’ former dining room is filled with more wine and all kinds of groceries.

“We turned the bar into a place for case stacks and discontinued wine sales,” Miller said. “And one of the first things we did was buy a freezer.”

That freezer case displays a variety of meats, including poultry from Joyce Farms in Winston-Salem and Cheshire pork from Goldsboro.

A refrigerator case holds eggs from Harmony Ridge Farms in Tobaccoville as well as cheeses and other items. You can get dry-aged steaks here, too.

Shelves full of gourmet foods now occupy the bulk of the dining room where tables and chairs once sat.

“We try to get a lot of regional items,” Miller said.

The store has such N.C. products as A la Brava hot sauce and Brasstown Chocolate from Winston-Salem, Bruce Julian pickles from Charlotte, Spicewalla spices from Asheville, Carolina Tidewater Grain Co. rice from Oriental, and Antonio Carlo pasta sauces from Wilmington.

That’s mixed with such imported items as Dragees chocolate from Italy and La Brujula hand-packed tinned seafood from Spain.

“This is really just a representation of all the things we like to eat,” Flint said. “I’m a hot-sauce junkie, so we have an awesome selection of hot sauces.”

Chef Justin Pinch and sous chef Jordan Byrd keep another refrigerated case stocked with about a dozen take-and-bake entrees, plus appetizers, sides and desserts.

The menu is pretty stable, though there are often specials. For the most part, customers don’t have to order in advance. They can stop by on the spur of the moment and pick up lobster mac ’n’ cheese, cheddar-panko pork chops, braised bone-in beef short ribs, garlic-herb chicken roulade or smoked pork tenderloin. Many of the entrees come with a starch and vegetable. Mostly designed to feed two, and entree prices run from $10 to $30.

“We try to have everything in the case all the time,” Flint said. “The only things we really make to order are the charcuterie plates and the oysters Rockefeller.”

The store offers curbside pickup and will deliver on request.

The items are fresh, generally partially cooked, and they come with directions so the customer can finish cooking them in the oven at home.

Pinch said that a few items from the Vin205 restaurant made the transition to take-and-bake, including the “veggie love” entrée of farro and mixed vegetables, the mac ’n’ cheese and the chicken pie — with a little bit of tweaking.

But it took some work to figure out what worked and what didn’t. Pork belly and duck breast are a couple of dishes that didn’t make the cut. “Sometimes it was just too hard to get the texture right, like to get the duck crispy,” Pinch said.

Pinch said that the switch from a restaurant to take-and-bake business has had pros and cons for him personally. “You don’t have the line grind — the adrenaline you get from a restaurant. I definitely miss that,” he said. “But I get to go home at 7 o’clock. I get two days off in a row. I still work 50 hours a week, but I can manage my hours more.”

Flint, too, said, that though the business still can be stressful — especially as long as the pandemic lasts — that he and Miller feel good about where they’ve come.

In fact, they are finally ready to start the renovation work on Broad Street for Cleave & Cork. “Our long-range plans are still the same, except we had planned to do a fine-dining restaurant and we’re not going to do that now,” Flint said.

In fact, Cleave & Cork won’t have a restaurant at all. It will have a wine shop. It will have a butcher shop. It will have gourmet groceries. And it most definitely will have take-and-bake meals.

But the remainder of the 7,000 square feet that would have been devoted to a restaurant will now be an event space for catering weddings and such. “We’ll still do wine dinners. We’ll probably still do a Julia Child dinner. But everything will be event-driven,” Miller said.

The past year, surprisingly, has been a very good year for Miller and Flint. “We’re pretty happy with this kind of multilayered business,” Flint said. “It all fits together really well, from the execution, the management and the way people shop now."

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@mhastingswsj

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