How COVID Impacted Our Grand Opening
Preface: This blog is solely about the impact that COVID-19 had on us opening our tasting room. It is not meant to ignore or downplay the impact that COVID-19 had on the health and well being of countless people around the world. It is purely concerning business impacts. Throughout COVID-19 we have aimed to be as safe as possible, both personally, and in the tasting room to protect our staff and guests.
When customers come into our tasting room, they love hearing our story. Why did we start a winery? Have we always been in wine? Are we 100% Texas? When did we open? I’m sure we’ll have blogs in the future that address many of these questions, but for today we’ll settle with just talking about when we opened. We opened in August of 2020. Once we tell customers that, first off they’re shocked to hear we’re so new, and they immediately follow up with the question “What was it like opening during COVID?” There are many layers to our answer that we will go over. It probably makes most sense to go in chronological order for many of these layers.
Starting in March of 2020, we were heading up to Dallas to have our first official winery event with friends and family. It was a relatively small gathering for our grand reveal before our tasting room opened. We had our truck loaded up with wine, a caterer on the books for the event, relatives coming in from out of town, etc. We were excited to finally get the ball rolling on sales after countless months of work to get wine made, bottled, etc. On our drive to Dallas, I (Greg) started getting text messages from friends mentioning something about the NBA season being cancelled. I’m a huge basketball fan (go Mavs!) so I was anxious to make it to a restaurant where I could read up on what was going down. Rudy Gobert, a player for the Utah Jazz, caught coronavirus and the league put the season on hold. Nikhila and I were both shocked. We had heard of the coronavirus, but hadn’t paid much attention to the news as we were laser focused on the tasting room construction. The NBA season going on hold seemed like the first shoe to drop, and raised concern that COVID-19 was a bigger deal than we thought.
The next few days leading up to our event, we were so confused over what the rapidly changing guidelines meant for our gathering. When we heard there was a max of 100 guests, we thought “no problem – we’ll be around 50.” Next came the max of 50 guests and we had to actually start counting person by person to realize we were going to be coming in a bit under the 50 guest limit. But what if the limit dropped again? Fortunately (for the event) the limit didn’t drop again before the event. We hosted it, washed our hands relentlessly during it, and breathed a sigh of relief after it was over. Now that the event was over, we had no more events or plans on the calendar. We could actually pause and think about what was going on in the world and how it was going to affect what we were doing.
We returned back to San Antonio, stocked up on food, and hunkered down in our apartment. We did what most everyone else was doing at the time – binge watching TV (Big Brother felt so fitting as the guests were all quarantined, too), making meals out of whatever ingredients you could find, and having a drink or two to put our minds at ease. It was just going to be a few weeks, right? We didn’t think it was going to significantly affect the winery.
As time drew on, we watched the news more, and read up on what was happening around the world, it became apparent that COVID-19 wasn’t going to go away quickly. Tasting rooms in the Texas Hill Country temporarily closed. Our initial reaction to their closures was “well, now our tasting room construction doesn’t feel so behind – we’d be closed regardless.” To stay productive and take in some sunlight, we started driving from San Antonio to the tasting room property in Fredericksburg to do clean up, yard work, oversee tasting room construction, and knock out odd jobs. It turns out 16 acres is a LOT to mow and keep tidy. Also, it turns out that a property that had been a farm for 40+ years has a lot of hidden boobie traps to clean up (spools of wire covered in overgrown grass, irrigation pipes all over, etc.). We took on odd jobs during construction like installing the tasting room stereo system, installing the security camera system, building railing for our storage area staircase, and so forth. We felt like we were playing the cards we were dealt about as well as we could – we were productive and saving on some construction costs.
As time wore on and restrictions were first lifted in June 2020, we decided to start doing a few wine tastings outside while our tasting room was under construction. We have some large pecan trees that provide amazing shade and create a beautiful setting to drink some wine. We snuck in a total of 2 tastings outside before restrictions caused us to have to stop serving outside. It was fun while it lasted. But now it was becoming clear that we’d feel the impacts of COVID even once the tasting room was completed.
The tasting room construction was finally nearing completion by the end of July 2020. Some parts of the tasting room that we most anticipated being completed were finally coming together. The giant acoustic wall was one of the final components to go up. We were ecstatic to see it finished and loved how it turned out. But once everything was done, would we even be able to show anyone?
Construction finally wrapped up in early August 2020. We were so relieved to finally be done with a year of construction. Around the same time, TABC (Texas’ regulatory organization for wineries) created a way for wineries to open as restaurants. We had a kitchen and had always planned to serve some food, so we knew we were well positioned to adhere to the guidelines. We submitted our application, had some back and forth to make sure we met the requirements (e.g., number of entrees served, pictures proving we had cooking equipment). After some nail biting we finally received word (at 5:30 pm on a Friday) that we were approved to open our tasting room as a restaurant! We scrambled to buy all the ingredients we needed to start our food service and open as quickly as possible. Since we didn’t know when the approval was going to come in for us to open, we still had scaffolding up that we were using to clean our windows (note: we now hire out the window cleaning – it’s just not something we’re very good at doing ourselves). We had to tear down the scaffolding and clean up as much as possible so that we could open the tasting room.
The first day we were open, it was just me and Nikhila working. It wasn’t the grand opening that everyone wants to have. There was no big ceremony. No family present as it was a shotgun opening. But we were open. We hadn’t even had a chance to make all the menu items (we sincerely apologize to our first few customers – we promise our food is better now!). While we had planned to serve food, we hadn’t finalized our menu and so our initial menu was a bit rushed! That day we sanitized everything constantly. We wore the thickest masks we could find. We spaced customers as far out as possible. We opened windows when the weather permitted us to get fresh air inside. We did whatever we had to do to be open because at the end of the day, we had spent too much time and money to get the winery open and we had bills to pay! We were finally able to share what we had been working on for so long. There were more than 3 years of weekly trips to the Texas Hill Country to look for land, late night planning, working with architects, navigating bank loans, winemaking, selling our beloved townhouse in the heart of Uptown Dallas, moving away from friends, leaving an amazing job at PwC, etc.
As the days passed in the tasting room, we saw old friends, met countless Texas wine geeks (we love you!), and met so many more amazing people. We had gone for so long without social interaction that being around customers was refreshing. We were finally getting some validation on what we had put so much effort into over the years. We checked sales constantly and tried projecting out revised estimates for break even. My anxiety shot through the roof at times as I thought I may have to go back to work to keep us afloat. The delayed tasting room opening, altered tourism (many people were staying home, others were supporting their longtime favorite wineries rather than venturing to new ones, etc.), and so forth affected our projected sales.
Fortunately we kept our heads down and by the beginning of October, it felt like we were finally getting noticed. The Dallas Morning News put out an article on us. Tour companies were putting us on their routes. And we were desperately needing staff to help the two of us keep our heads above water. My parents came down to bridge the gap a few weekends – washing glasses, keeping the place clean, and greeting customers while Nikhila and I frantically ran around. My anxiety about sales was calming down. It was clear the business would be able to support itself and we had enough savings that the business would hopefully support us before our savings ran out.
Since then we’ve dealt with ups and downs. When COVID cases were surging over the winter, customers were much less likely to come in. As cases calmed back down, people came out again. Now with increased vaccination rates (especially with highly effective vaccines) and loosened restrictions, we’re seeing a return to “normal.” We still regularly sanitize. We still space customers out as much as possible. But the impact COVID is having on our business is fading.
While COVID has clearly been terrible for the lives and well being of people around the world, there are some silver linings for our business. The requirement to serve food made us iterate our menu items more quickly than we likely would have otherwise. We now have an awesome tikka masala pizza that customers love. There’s a soft spot in my heart for our samosas with mint chutney, and many customers agree. We have some fun non-alcoholic Indian sodas that kids and those abstaining from wine can enjoy. Customers have a place now to enjoy wine and fill up on food without venturing to main street in Fredericksburg and battling the crowds. We hope to further expand our food menu going forward to integrate some of our favorite, more traditional Indian dishes.