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COPING WITH COVID: Vino Garage

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If there’s a silver lining to present worries for Doug Aylard, it’s that some folks find wine to be an effective stress reliever.

“Being sequestered for going on 14 days now … it’s a true test of a relationship,” Aylard, owner of Vino Garage in Cottontown, said Friday. “So having wine available is always a therapeutic necessity.”

Vino Garage owner Doug Aylard, who relocated his wine shop last fall, says business is continuing at about the same pace as before, though he's had to shift his business model to a 100% retail focus. (Photo/File)Last fall, Aylard moved his shop from 2327 Main St. to 2501 Main St., at the corner of Main and Confederate streets, largely to be able to provide on-premise tastings because of proper parking availability at the new location. But with an executive order from Gov. Henry McMaster closing all sit-down restaurant dining and limiting bars to to-go orders in an effort to curb the spread of the new coronavirus, the spigot to Aylard’s wine bar has dried up.

“We had to sort of retool our business model,” Aylard said. “Right now we’ve gone from a wine store that has a wine bar where a good bit of our gross profit was generated (to) we’ve essentially had to switch over to 100% retail.

“Our dollar volume has gone up, but our gross profits have taken a small hit. We’re about where we were, making money at the same level, it’s just we have to sell twice as much to get there.”

Vino Garage pioneered the move of local businesses across Elmwood Avenue to North Main Street when Aylard opened the shop in 2012. Loyal customers who supported Vino Garage from its early days followed the business down Main Street and are now emailing or placing online orders, he said.

“Right now I have six orders waiting for people to pick up,” said Aylard. “Before all the craziness, things had gotten better than they were at the previous location. Most of the customers had re-found me, and they appreciated the change, the ability to serve

“With the craziness, we’re still seeing the same amount of people. They’re just now buying a case of wine to take home as opposed to sitting here.”

While his products, which include a craft beer selection, may help take the edge off his customers’ anxiety, the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 has added to Aylard’s worries as a business owner.

“Switching to a more retail-centric model, I’ve actually had to increase my inventory levels more than I would have with the model we started off with,” he said. “This is a COD business, (so) we’ve had to lay out more cash for inventory than we normally would, so that’s a stressor.”

COVID-19 has also changed the way Aylard works with the beer and wine distributors who supply his shop.

“A number of them have gone down to one delivery a week, and salesmen are emailing and texting as opposed to just coming in. They’re trying to limit the amount of contact or exposure,” he said. “I have to tell my customers to wait a few extra days for their special order or something. We have to put more thought into the ordering that we do so we have enough to last the weekend, plus some days after that.”

Beverage retail shops were designated essential businesses in a city of Columbia stay-in-place order issued last week, allowing customers to continue to purchase to-go orders. While relieved by that decision, Aylard is aware things can change quickly in the new normal.

“There’s no guarantee that this shelter-in-place isn’t going to change into more of militant ‘You’re on the road, so we’re going to pull you over,’ ” he said. “So that is a little stressful. I just hope our civic leaders keep everything in an equation and make the right decisions.”

Reach Melinda Waldrop at 803-726-7542.

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