Having Words with Doug Tomlinson Founder and Chief Executive, Vino Volo

Having Words with Doug Tomlinson Founder and Chief Executive, Vino Volo

Doug Tomlinson, a former management consultant with Deloitte in San Francisco, hated being stuck in airports unable to find a good glass of wine. As chief executive of Vino Volo [3], an upscale wine bar designed for airports, he has turned that frustration into a business opportunity. The fifth Vino Volo opened recently at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, and there are ambitious plans to open 45 more by 2011. Vino Volo—Italian for “wine flight”—sells wine in tasting flights, by the glass for $6 to $44 and by the bottle. It also offers gourmet snacks. Advisers include Paul Clayton, chief executive of Jamba Juice; W. Reed Foster, co-founder of Ravenswood Winery; and John Scharffenberger, the vintner and chocolatier. The first location opened in 2005 at Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C.

You left your job to start Vino Volo. Why?

I have a real love for wine, and this opportunity was too good not to pursue. My focus at Deloitte was looking at industries and identifying opportunities to serve underserved client segments. In air travel there was a gap for high-end, service-oriented concepts to appeal to successful, affluent travelers willing to pay for service and quality.

What are the operational challenges?

It’s extremely complicated to navigate both getting a store built and getting employees in and even food. It adds a layer of complexity and makes it much more expensive to operate. You can’t just come in with a saw to fix a broken component of a retail fixture.

Your servers are wine enthusiasts. How do you attract them?

We created a business that is not an airport concession first, but a wine business that happens to be in an airport. As a wine company with a wine culture, we spend time, money and energy developing and furthering the expertise of our wine staff. They are willing to deal with the security issues because of our unique focus on wine. We were delighted to see there really are a lot of people in the restaurant and food and beverage industry who have a passion for wine.

How do you talk about wine with guests?

It’s much more interactive and conversational than in restaurants. We always want to make sure there are enough people on hand to have wine conversations with every single guest. Our people have a lot of knowledge about wines and our guests really enjoy learning about them.

FAST FACTS

EDUCATION: MBA, Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania

AGE: 38

BIRTHPLACE: Ashland, Ky.; moved to Malibu, Calif., when he was four

HOBBIES: skiing, surfing, sailing, sharing great wines, discovering foreign cultures

How often to you change the wine list?

Every six weeks. For the flights, we rotate the bottles. We want our guests to always come back looking for new discoveries. We may have a Christmas Cabernet flight around the holiday season. In the summer you are going to see more whites; in the fall, bigger reds.

How do you select wines?

There are extraordinary values in wine if you cherry-pick the best ones. The staff partakes in the selection. We include our guests in the process. We know very quickly if they like the wine based on how many bottles we sell them. We want every wine on our list to be the best possible value in that category.