Playing the Hand They’re Dealt

Playing the Hand They’re Dealt

Independent Retailers In California’s Bay Area Prove That
Resilience Isn’t Optional

By Nell Jerome in Somm Journal
Golden Gate Wine Cellars,

Major cities were arguably hit hardest by the shutdowns due to their dense populations and the sheer number of businesses affected. Golden Gate Wine Cellars, which is in San Francisco’s Balboa Terrace neighborhood near San Francisco State University, felt the effects immediately and needed to react. “Between March and June, sales were way down as I was figuring out how to transform my business,” noted Frank Melis, who founded the shop in 2005.

“Foot traffic went to zero. My wine club sales dropped 60%—I experienced a similar drop during the 2008 recession. Most people that subscribe to my wine clubs don’t have extra disposable income and canceled their memberships.”

But Melis persevered and continued to create new ways to survive and to help his customers. “By midsummer, I did [manage] to restrategize operations— curbside pickups, local deliveries, virtual tastings, etcetera,” he explained. “I [also] created a ‘stash’ system for my clients. They might not want to order a full case at one time, so we keep the wine they purchase and ship it once they have a full case, offering free shipping.”

Meanwhile, Melis went above and beyond to help his employees too. “My hours changed dramatically; since we were not allowed to have foot traffic [or] conduct weekly wine tastings, we closed daily at 3 p.m. and closed completely on Saturdays,” he said. “I laid off some staff members but paid everyone out of my own pocket.”

Many expected things to improve before the all-important holiday season, but the Bay Area’s shelter-in-place mandate continued. “As corporate parties were canceled, so was gift giving,” Melis said. “I have clients that usually purchase 50 to 150 single bottles of wine as gifts, and they did not buy any.”

But Melis’ ability to adapt paid off, as did his loyalty to California wineries. “The holidays were very good, all things considered,” he said. “We did see a larger amount of gift cards that were ordered via our website. Since we only stock California wines, I did not want to panic and revise my inventory . . . [and] by staying the course, I saw and felt the support of my out-of-state and out-of-country clients. [I] saw a robust rebound in the third quarter and an even better fourth quarter, equaling total sales of 2019.”

As for 2021, said Melis, “My hope is that we get this virus under control and get everyone vaccinated so we can try to reach pre-COVID normalcy. I hope not too many businesses disappear, as they are the heart of the U.S. economy. It hurts me to see many boarded-up shops. I try to live ‘glass half full,’ but the 2020 fires will not help, as many wineries will have way less or no wine at all to offer, so I am [only] cautiously optimistic. [Still,] I am lucky to have made a living out of my hobby, and I hope to continue for many more years to come. I am
very humbled and appreciative of everyone’s kindness and support.”