July 15, 2021: Five Learnings from Our First Year
Throughout the last year, Nikhila and I have seen a lot of changes in the tasting room. We’ve dealt with waves of the pandemic and changing restrictions, seasonal fluctuations, a winter storm that put the state on hold for a week, etc. From these experiences, we’ve had five key learnings during our first year of having our Fredericksburg, Texas wine tasting room open.
#1 Customer Experience
First, Customer Experience is paramount to what we do. The term can be a bit open ended when you think about a wine tasting room. We consider the experience to largely be independent from the wine, though in practice they’re inseparable. The reason we think about experience as independent of the wine is that we want to make sure all customers enjoy their time visiting our tasting room even if they don’t drink (designated drivers, non-drinkers, kids) or if they aren’t fans of dry wine, like we make. We knew from the start that we wanted to offer customers unique experiences. Conceptually that started off by wanting a unique tasting room, lesser known / rare wine varietals, Indian-inspired foods, etc. Some of our great ideas flopped, while other things that weren’t central to our experience ended up being important.
Originally we wanted to have our tasting room completely finished before putting our wines in front of customers. We wanted to ensure customers had the optimal tasting experience in a curated environment. This was great in theory, but what we didn’t fully understand was how much customers want to be a part of our journey. Customers would have been fine drinking wine under our trees without our tasting room finished. They would have had very personalized tasting experiences with the owners and heard about our grand visions, which to many is far more meaningful than a finalized tasting room.
On the flip side, we have sheep to help our vineyard be more sustainable. Alongside the sheep we have a llama to guard the sheep and keep them safe from any predators. These were intentional decisions from a farming perspective, and not made with much thought from a customer’s perspective (though I will admit when we had to choose between a llama and a donkey to guard the sheep, the llama was the obvious choice from a customer’s perspective). What we found is that people love checking out our animals. People come in from cities where they aren’t exposed to sheep and a llama, so they are excited to have the experience at our winery. Additionally, many wineries aren’t kid friendly. We are, and the animals are a great way for kids to have a fun experience visiting our winery, too.
To make sure we can deliver great experiences, we have to learn quickly and adapt to what customers want. We’ve had countless customers come in and tell us that there aren’t many kid friendly wineries, some wineries only allow wine club members to buy glasses of wine to enjoy on premise, etc. Obviously the animals mentioned above are great for families, but we’ve also switched to giving kids an Indian mango juice box when they come by so that they can enjoy themselves and their parents know their kids are welcome to visit, too. As for allowing non-members to grab a glass of wine on property – we had always wanted to be able to welcome all customers in. However, we keep our tasting room bar largely reserved for tastings. So we’ve added more and more Adirondack chairs and other outdoor seating so that there’s plenty of space for any walk-ins that just want to enjoy a glass of wine while relaxing outside.
#2 Have Fun
Having fun goes hand-in-hand with delivering great customer experiences. Our staff must enjoy working at our winery in order for them to go the extra mile for customers all day, every day. How do we create an environment where staff can enjoy themselves? First we have made it clear to staff that we want customers to have a great experience. We don’t tell our staff sales targets, wine club signup targets, etc. We don’t even tell our staff our actual performance. (note: I’m sure many of my old coworkers vehemently disagree with me on our approach there, but it’s just not the environment we want to create) All of that is a distraction from their core job – making sure customers are enjoying themselves. They don’t need to feel the pressure that we feel as owners. It is our responsibility to pull the right strings to make the business profitable. If our staff make sure customers have great experiences, then we are sure the sales will follow.
Next, we hire staff that are very personable and have great attitudes. Working in a tasting room can be very draining, but if you are a great conversationalist, then it’s a very enjoyable job. Our staff welcome customers from all walks of life, from all over the world. Similarly, we want our staff to have different backgrounds so that it’s more likely they can make connections with customers. Having staff with diverse backgrounds also makes work more enjoyable for staff as their coworkers have more unique experiences to share. Lastly, our staff are great at striking up conversations with customers. While many tasting rooms focus solely on the wine, we like to let the conversations flow more naturally. Sometimes our staff barely talk about the wine, and other times our staff are able to deep dive into details on grape growing, winemaking, etc. This keeps our staff from having to repeat the same stories all day, every day. Instead they have freedom to figure out what the customers want to talk about and take it from there.
Lastly, we make decisions that bring us joy. If you’ve been to our Fredericksburg tasting room recently, you’ve seen we have a Bajaj autorickshaw on our front patio. This autorickshaw is the same model found in Nikhila’s part of India. We would be lying if we said we got it solely for decor. We had wanted an autorickshaw for years. Growing up I always used to love anything with a motor. I used to build RC cars, sell Go-Peds, etc. and so any quirky vehicle is right up my alley. So when we found a Bajaj autorickshaw, we knew we wanted it…and because we thought it was so cool, we decided to let our customers enjoy it, too. We’ve shared what we find fun (or what we’re passionate about) with our customers, and in turn it gives them more memorable experiences.
#3 Quickly Iterate
Our tasting room’s first year of business coincided with the coronavirus pandemic. There were constant changes we had to adapt to so that our staff and customers could remain safe. Did we have to sell food? Did we have to physically separate groups? Did we have to sanitize between customers? What group size could we handle? Were customers required to have a reservation? Were we doing private reservations? There were many restrictions and guidelines we had to navigate, usually with very short notice for changes. This required us to quickly define changes and implement them. It was the only way businesses could operate for most of the last year. Fortunately it gave us some good practice on what’s required to be successful. We cannot rely on what we’ve done in the past to lead to future success. We have to constantly look at changes in the market and indicators to identify where we could improve. We then use that to rapidly make changes. One way we did this early on was we theorized that many excellent potential customers wanted to avoid all crowds due to the pandemic. Many of these customers were high risk, so it was natural they wanted to minimize their risk. However, they were very interested in having private tastings on weekdays where they would be the only guests in our tasting room. Because of what we were seeing and hearing from guests, we decided to open up a reservation only schedule for two weekdays. This allowed us to provide these customers excellent experiences, minimize their exposure to others, and gave us a more predictable schedule. It was a win-win that we fully utilized while it was relevant. As soon as we felt customers were no longer looking for this type of service, we wrapped up these private tastings.
Other changes we’ve iterated quickly were our food menu, tasting menu, and wine club offerings. All three were areas we’ve identified gaps between what we were offering, and what customers wanted. None of these are earth shattering areas to tweak, it’s really just that you have to constantly scrutinize what you’re doing and see if there are ways to better serve your customers.
#4 Risk Mitigation
There are countless things that can go wrong in business, so it’s absolutely critical that you mitigate the ways that your business is impacted. This means you plan everything well in advance, and so far this has been essential for us. What does that mean for a winery? Well, what if we have a bad or low yielding harvest? That means we need to make more wine in good years to ensure we have great wines for our customers to enjoy. Since our food menu features many Indian items on it which are hard to source, we’ve had a continuous battle to improve our sourcing to more reliable means so that our customers don’t see any interruptions in our offerings. For staffing this means we have to be sure we always have enough people to work. We try to run our tasting room completely with hired staff, that way if anyone is sick, quits, etc. we, as owners, can backfill them in a pinch so that there’s no interruption to our service. We try to put in risk mitigating structure throughout our business so that we can always present a polished product to our fantastic customers.
Going forward we will have all our wine production in house, which will allow us to better mitigate some other risks. Right now there’s a massive shortage of wine bottles. Suppliers are quoting 6 month lead times. So with the production building nearing completion, we are planning on having a reserve of empty bottles on hand at all times so that we can always bottle wines and not be delayed due to bottle shortages. Going forward we hope to order wine labels months in advance of needing them so that we minimize the things that can slow us down.
#5 Focus on your Unique Skills
As a business owner there are innumerable tasks we need to complete to keep the company operational. From a landscaping perspective alone, 16 acres is no joke. Landscaping alone could take up days of our time each week. What we constantly have to ask is “can someone else do this better?” Any time we see that our time is being sucked up by a task that others can do better and more efficiently, then we have to release control and delegate the work out. In turn, there are many things that we are uniquely capable of excelling with that we must continue to do ourselves. We know what our vision for Kalasi Cellars is better than anyone else, so it’s on us to continually find ways to make that vision come to life. But that means that some things we enjoy, like fixing wells and landscaping, need to be delegated to others. Similarly, we have staff that are amazing with customers. Frankly, I think they are likely better at describing wines and engaging with customers better than I can even hope to be. That’s not a knock on me, but really recognition of how amazing our staff are. I would be doing our business a disservice if I wasn’t putting our staff in front of customers. If you want to come talk about opening or operating a winery, I’m your guy, but others knock it out of the park when doing tastings. It’s beneficial to everyone if I put staff in positions to shine, and then Nikhila and I focus on more things behind the scenes that help Kalasi Cellars progress towards our goals.
A lot of that approach was instilled in me during my time in management consulting. As a consultant, that’s the only way you keep your head (slightly) above water. When you get promoted in consulting, more and more tasks / workstreams land on your plate. You will absolutely fail if you don’t pick out everything that can be delegated down out and build your team up to excel. As the winery grows, I hope that I can instill this concept in our staff. I know many organizations have trouble with staff not wanting to delegate tasks because it may make them replaceable. But really it’s on me as an owner to help my staff continually develop and progress into new roles rather than allow them to stagnate. We’re a small business, so the sky is the limit with opportunities. If we had a rockstar team member that knocked every task out of the park, delegated all work to other team members, etc. and found that they didn’t have a role anymore…then I promise that I can easily open up new opportunities. We could start having someone self distribute our wine, we could host dinners / events in different cities, etc. It’s my responsibility to make sure nobody feels like they have to hold onto their current tasks because they might lose a job – they won’t.
So that’s it. It’s a small portion of our learnings from our first year having our wine tasting room open in Fredericksburg, Texas. If you ever see me in the winery or tasting room and want to chat, just let me know and I’d be happy to!