We All Need the Perfect Cocktail Right NowCOVID-19 #SmallBizSpotlight | How a Clinton Hill wine shop is keeping customers safe and sated. Published: April 14, 2020
Programming note: This article is part of a weekly column on small businesses in New York during COVID-19. To get #SmallBizSpotlight articles straight to your inbox, sign up here. You'll receive one email every Tuesday afternoon. Thanks for reading!
Happy Tuesday! (If days even matter anymore...)
I’ll never fully get used to the current situation, but I am starting to feel, well, not entirely unhinged. Maybe it’s the rainbows in the street. Or Cuomo’s recent suggestion that the curve is flattening. Or the box of Milk Bar cookies I’m making my way through. Yeah, it’s the cookies.
I hope you’re finding small moments of bliss when and where you can. Maybe all this time at home means you’re baking more, or actually getting to hang out with your partner, or making fancy cocktails to toast our healthcare workers. On the latter note, new Nielsen data shows that many of us are drinking more than usual right now... Which brings me to my latest #SmallBizSpotlight. Scroll down to learn how Chris Leon, the owner of Leon and Son (full disclosure: my favorite wine shop), is cracking on with business during this crisis.
The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Before we get to the pandemic, let’s start with some background on your shop. There’s got to be a story behind the name “Leon and Son”...
I named the shop after my father, who is the whole reason I fell in love with wine. When I was 21, I thought I was going to be a lawyer and I was doing a legal internship out in LA. My dad came to visit me, but he didn't want to spend a minute in LA, so we went straight up the PCH [Pacific Coast Highway] to little towns like Los Olivos and San Luis Obispo. It was the first time I saw vineyards and met winemakers, and it was truly one of those light bulb moments.
I didn't know how I was going to be in this industry, but I knew I was going to be in it. I went back to the University of Illinois for my last year of undergrad and went to the “best” restaurant in Champaign and asked for a job. They asked me what my experience level was and I said none and so they put me in the kitchen. I was super happy to take that job because I just wanted to be surrounded by wine. Since then, I have been checking boxes and getting experience until I felt comfortable enough to open my own business.
How did you open Leon and Son?
I opened the shop in 2015, but I've worked in wine for most of my adult life. I worked for producers in Sonoma County and went through the WSET [Wine and Spirit Education Trust] program and got an advanced degree [in wine studies]. When I moved to Clinton Hill in 2013, I started looking around the neighborhood for a place to open my first business. Before I found the space, I was oscillating between whether it was going to be a restaurant or bar. But when I saw the space, immediately I was like, "This is a wine store. And I really want it.”
I’d never worked retail. I've worked in every other part of the wine industry — production, on premise, somming, et cetera. We treat the store like a restaurant, we want people to feel engaged and taken care of. We call it “open-arm service.”
Who are your regulars?
They’re really diverse. We serve people who are completely new to wine, who are young and excited to learn, and then we also have a lot of people in the industry, like the director of wine studies at the French Culinary Institute who’s a Master Sommelier — he’s in all the time. I think that's both the nature of the store itself and the neighborhood. Brooklyn's a really special place, and Clinton Hill especially, it's one of those places that's a dream for a business owner.
Okay, let’s get to the elephant in the room. When did you officially move to pickup and delivery only?
It feels like months ago, but it was March 16th.
Why did you make that call?
I remember it clear as day. It was called a pandemic the Thursday before, and people just went crazy trying to stock up. Our shop is narrow and long, and so we immediately put up signs trying to set boundaries between people. We had sanitizer out, we started leaving the door open so no one had to touch the handle, we asked people not to use cash. But people were coming in droves and no matter how many restrictions we put out, I didn't feel it was safe for my staff or our community to continue operating. On Sunday the 15th, I had a conversation with my manager and my wife about what needed to change and we decided to announce it on Monday.
Since then, how have you reorganized the shop?
We're still figuring out what the right recipe is. Changing the way the business operates while trying to meet the demand from customers has been the hardest part, because the demand has never been higher. To answer your question, we posted a video on our Instagram Stories that shows the whole process of fulfilling an order. There’s a lot more labor involved than someone just grabbing the bottle and checking out.
Is your entire staff working?
All my staff that wants to be working is working. Some people wanted to stay home, which I completely honored and respected. I'm really proud of all the staff, including the people who have said they're not comfortable [working]. Anxiety is a real thing, mental health is a real thing — especially when it comes to these unbelievable scenarios — and respecting that has been a big part of how we're able to operate.
Beyond the move to contactless sales, what else has changed?
Since Cuomo first put out the “shelter-in-place” [order], my wife Cristina and I have spent every night over wine thinking about how to help the restaurant industry, because that’s my background. A lot of our friends and peers are out of jobs. We looked at a couple different ways we could help, and one of them is Leon Circle [the monthly wine club that curates three wines with tasting notes]. I reached out to a bunch of restaurants and purchased wine off them to help their cash flow, and we're going to use the wines as vehicles to tell their story. Each wine will come with a note saying who they are, how they're currently operating if they're operating at all, and how you can help. It's been nice to drive up to my favorite restaurants and see my favorite people and know that they're going to be a part of our club.
Tell me about the Pinch x Brand Riesling initiative in which all proceeds go to the Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation.
That riesling is from a really good producer in Germany and an importer at Vom Boden, who I have a tremendous amount of respect for. It was his idea, he reached out to a handful of his favorite retailers who were trying to be vocal during this moment. We immediately said, "Yes, send us five cases." Vom Boden was ahead of the curve, but there are other products coming to the market as vehicles for the same thing, and we're going to highlight more at the end of this week.
The other thing I want to highlight is that everyone has been tipping a lot. And we've been pulling those tips and dividing them amongst all the employees. I'm also matching all of those tips and donating them to the Restaurant Workers' Community Foundation. We've given over $3,000 in the last two weeks.
Have you noticed any changes in what people are buying?
This is going to sound more poetic than I mean it to, but so much of what we consume speaks to who we are. Right now, we're seeking comfort, so I'm seeing more continuity within individual orders than I ever have before. If someone is a deep lover of Northern Italian wine, I'm seeing them put together 15 bottles of just Northern Italian wine. Or if you love natural wine, then you’ll be going really hard on some of the godfathers of natural wine. People are saying who they are in their orders.
And the other thing I really love is, so many orders are just Negroni ingredients.
I'm like all right, I see what you're doing here.
Why do you think that is?
A Negroni is the perfect cocktail, and we all need the perfect cocktail right now.
Since you moved to delivery and pickup, you’ve been more active on Instagram Live. Was that a conscious decision?
Two weeks ago, I randomly jumped on Live with my manager, without any announcement, just so people could see us drinking Chardonnay. And we were like, That was so much fun, we should do that again. Now we've done a Zoom tasting and two more Instagram Live videos. These are new normals that I think are going to stick around after this all settles down. It's cool. It's another way to connect.
Do you think other changes will stick?
People's expectation for what digital shopping should be is going to change for their neighborhood store. We already had a functioning site that I thought looked good, but it wasn't built for someone who didn't know anything about wine. It was broken up into where the wines come from and the price point, but most people can't find what they need like that. One thing that has kept me up is adding attributes to every single wine in our system. Now, if you're making a red sauce and you want to spend $30 or under, you can search for those attributes.
Lastly, what are you drinking these days?
It really depends on what my wife and I are cooking because we love exploring the world of wine with what we're eating. What did we drink last night? An Etna Bianco. It’s one of my favorite categories. The wines come out of Mount Etna and they’re dynamic and powerful but still food-friendly. Absolutely delicious.
In general, we've been leaning on the classics. My wife loves Nebbiolo and Sangiovese and I love Burgundy. The classics are famous for a reason: when they're done well, there are few things that are better.
How to get involved:
- Sign up for Leon Circle to help support local restaurants
- Donate to the Restaurant Workers' Community Foundation by ordering a bottle of Pinch x Brand Riesling
- Join the Leon and Son community on Instagram
Until next time,