June 20, 2023

Main Street Mgmt. EVP creates robust plan for fine wine program

T.J. Oakley's winning recipe adds an entire retail sales arm to restaurant business.
T.J. Oakley

Oakley is focusing on retail wine sales and growing his business’ wine club, allowing patrons to order bottles of wine to enjoy at home.

What do you do during a pandemic when your upscale, wine-centric restaurant doesn’t serve takeout and indoor dining isn’t an option?

For T.J. Oakley, the answer was to focus on retail wine sales and grow his business’ wine club, allowing patrons to order bottles of wine to enjoy at home.

Turning wine sales into a booming retail operation

Oakley, EVP for Main Street Management, owner of upscale Cuvée Wine Table and casual Bristol Bar & Grille in Louisville, Ky., knew survival would depend on how quickly they could turn their wine sales into a booming retail operation. 

“Initially, a push for people to support Kentucky’s local restaurants benefitted Bristol,” he says. “Customers could get carryout and also order wines and pick them up with their food,” he says. “My partner, Scott Harper, and I would be there when they came, and we’d put their boxes of wine in the trunks of their cars, but we knew we needed to add more components. 

“We started doing tastings at Cuvée when on-premises restrictions lifted, but our wine club, which started in 2019, really took off during the lockdown, growing to more than 200 members.”

Cuvée’s tastings appeal to serious wine collectors as well as customers interested in learning more about wine, who want to come in to enjoy it and then take some home, Oakley says.

He gets between 150 and 250 guests for each 2-hour tasting or wine club events, and says retail now makes up about 50% of Cuvée’s total sales.  

What his restaurant can offer that retail can’t is atmosphere. The restaurant provides a totally different experience because guests at wine dinners not only learn from the winemakers, but they also taste the wines paired with food, he says.

“It’s kind of turned the business around,” he notes. “I don’t think one would work without the other, but these days we almost treat the restaurant-side of things as an amenity to the retail side because we sell so much wine. We’ve turned a whole wall inside Cuvée into an area where we sell wine, books, and teas.”

Read our report, “On the Menu: Trends in On- and Off-Premises Beverage Alcohol,” today!

At Bristol, Oakley sells wine by the bottle and the glass. He says that when customers order takeout, the staff lets them know they can also make cocktails to-go but adds that more guests are now dining on-premises. Nevertheless, he thinks alcohol to-go will continue driving sales.

He says he envisions adding more of Cuvée’s retail wine components into the mix at Bristol and thinks about possibly growing it into larger spaces.

“We’re always trying to come up with creative ways to do business, small things that make a big impact,” he says. “I think we’re going to see more restaurateurs doing [retail sales] in the future. We know our guests are really excited about it. Hopefully, we’ll all continue to grow what we’re doing with this.”

Download the report