The Grape

The Grape

When Jack Mazur, a lifelong wine aficionado, decided to “do something fun” with his life, he didn’t just sit and sip a fine vintage. He created a wine bar, bistro and retail concept aimed at demystifying wine, educating consumers and providing an urbane dining experience with the motto “Your taste is all that counts.”

The concept, The Grape [3], which is based in Atlanta, is now a 19-unit chain with three more expected to open by year-end and two in the first quarter of 2008.

Educated as a lawyer and co-founder of a physician practice management firm, Mazur’s quest at age 57 for a new enterprise began with taking advice from his young-adult offspring who urged him to check out Barnes & Noble and Starbucks Coffee [4].

“It was very fascinating to me,” says Mazur, who “watched the experience” at both chains before moving on to observe the scene at the specialty grocers Eatzi’s and Whole Foods.

“I’ve always liked wine and was sort of a collector, with a 4,500 bottle cellar,” he says. “In the wine business there are 15,000 SKUs, but usually in a wine store the customer can’t taste the wine before buying it.”

Thus was born The Grape. “I wanted to go after Generation Xers and baby boomers,” Mazur says, “so I designed a warm, comfortable, nonintimidating wine bar with great-tasting wines. Ninety percent of wine consumption is from 10 [percent] to 15 percent of all wine labels. When good wines get discovered, they get more expensive. I looked for great value.”

Between the wine bar and the retail component, average unit sales are estimated to range from $900,000 to $2.5 million, depending on store size.

Today, Mazur credits his staff with the chain’s success.

“The real key is the great young people working for us,” he says. “They really enjoy serving the customer.”

The Grape draws an upscale, sophisticated clientele with many women ages 30 to 50.

“A customer once told me that The Grape is all about ‘Sex in the City’—four women sitting around sipping wine and talking about their lives,” Mazur says.

In its Southern and Southeastern markets, it also has become a gathering place for an affluent, hip black clientele, lending it a diverse multiracial appeal.

With an average check of $28, The Grape offers a menu of “gourmet small plates.” New Zealand rack of lamb, five individual chops with a dipping sauce for $17, is the priciest item.

“Pita Pisas,” quesadillas, salads, entrée sandwiches and crab cakes with aïoli and baby spinach in vinaigrette round out the menu, along with a variety of desserts, all offered with suggested wine pairings.

The customer’s individual taste, Mazur says, “is all that counts. We created a food menu to go with the wines—small plate gourmet dishes, not tapas.”

He created “Grapes by the Bunch” flights of wine and a copyrighted Classification Guide, which classifies wines by taste instead of by region, country or grape variety.

Many of the 120 wines offered, he points out, come from small-production boutique wineries and are virtually exclusive to The Grape.

Because guests can taste by the “splash,” glass or flight, the retail shop benefits from crossover business. Any patron can sample any wine before purchase in either the shop or the wine bar.

Weekly events, live music on weekends and monthly wine dinners extend what Mazur calls “The Grape Edutainment Experience.”

Currently under development are new units in Orlando, Fla., and Charlotte, N.C. Others will open this fall in Las Vegas; Baton Rouge, La.; and Naples, Fla.

Next year, the chain is targeting New York, Boston, Los Angeles, Phoenix and Chicago, Mazur discloses. With pop singer-franchisee Usher Raymond IV and his business manager, Simon Smallwood, also a franchisee, The Grape is also looking at international markets such as Tokyo and London.

Additionally, Mazur says, “we’re bidding through two franchisees with airport operations for two airport locations.”

For the concept’s first four or five years, Mazur was content to operate just the initial unit, getting systems in place before starting to branch out with both company and franchised stores.

The Grape is “a good-looking concept,” says Penelope Cheroff of the Cheroff Group, a real estate brokerage in Atlanta, where the chain now has six units. “The initial stores did well, but they have had some closings.”

One store in Birmingham, Ala., was closed, Mazur explains, and the company will buy a second unit there from the franchisee who owned both units. A Nashville, Tenn., branch of The Grape also will close, Mazur says, because of state alcohol licensing laws that impede successful operation.

In Atlanta, Cheroff says, the cost of restaurant construction and land continue to go up.

THE GRAPE

Owners: privately heldHeadquarters: AtlantaNo. of units: 19Average unit volume: $900,00 to $2,500,000States where located: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, TennesseeType of concept: bistro and wine barAverage check: $28Year founded: 2000

“The focus is on mixed use,” she says. “Rents go up dramatically in mature areas, and the cost of build-outs does too. We’re still less expensive than cities like Los Angeles, New York and Chicago.”

For franchisees, the cost of opening a location runs between $943,000 and $1,410,500, including the franchise fee.

While franchising in the past few years helped build the chain to its present size, Mazur says, “in the future, we will be focusing more on company-owned stores.”

Upscale urban malls and lifestyle centers are favored sites for The Grape, whose branches range in size from the original 1,800-square-foot unit—“like a local Cheers,” Mazur says—to 2,400 to 3,000 square feet. The retail wine component occupies about 300 square feet of space.

A unit scheduled to open next year in McLean, Va., at Tysons Galleria II would be the first to have a separate 1,800-square-foot kiosk, plus an in-line store with a gazebo.

The Grape, says Technomic Information Services executive vice president Darren Tristano, is “a really interesting concept with broad appeal and a vibrant energy. Wines are definitely a differentiator.”

Because of the limited menu, the concept requires a relatively small amount of equipment, he points out.

“The retail component is always helpful,” Tristano says. “The customer is built into your clientele. It’s like merchandising, and you’re already paying for the space.”

With its colorful decor—purple is a primary color—and diverse customer base, he adds, the chain is “trendy, like my idea of a New York bar and not what you’d expect in a shopping center in Orlando.”

Some beverage industry peers view The Grape’s strategy of using flavor profiles of wines to inform and entertain as “non-stuffy” and “fun,” a major shift from the days when wine choices could be intimidating and customers hesitated to put themselves in the position of feeling ignorant or unsophisticated when facing sommeliers.

Foodservice analyst and consultant Dennis Lombardi of WD Partners in Columbus, Ohio, sees The Grape as a concept with “a nice level of uniqueness,” focused on a narrow niche of urbanites with higher education and high income, ranging in age from 20-to 30-year-old singles and double-income/no-kids couples to empty nesters.

“It doesn’t try to overwhelm you, and it demystifies wine in a chic, pampering environment,” Lombardi says. “This is going to keep people coming back and telling their friends. They have a clear focus on what they’re doing that dictates where they go, which is more likely to be near a Neiman-Marcus than a Target.”

Lombardi calls The Grape a place to relax and learn.

“It’s a safe place for women to go with a date, a good place for a snack or a romantic meal,” he says. “It will play well as there aren’t many good alternatives. The major entertainment is really conversation.”

He estimates the cost of a build-out at around $1.4 million.

Wine bars, says National Restaurant Association [5] director of research Hudson Riehle, “continue to become much more popular across America, and more than half of our members selling wine expect it to become a larger portion of sales.”

While the NRA’s research does not break out wine sales, Riehle says that alcoholic beverages now account for $50 billion in annual sales, up from $23 billion just 10 years ago.

SPECIAL REPORT: HOT CONCEPTS!TM [6]