When he opened the Vine Box at 178 Nassau Ave. in Greenpoint in early 2012 people were saying he would not make it. There were many liquor stores in the neighborhood and the economic recovery was tepid. But Robert Dec had a unique formula for his business and it has proved to work.
Dec started preparing to open the Vine Box in 2010, barely two years after the onset of the big economic downturn that slowed down business development in the city. On top of that, Greenpoint, for long home to a community of Polish immigrants, had started gentrifying. It was not yet as trendy as it is today, but rents were starting to go up. Dec saw potential for his business in the changing neighborhood.
“In the ’90s, after immigrating here from Poland, I used to live in Williamsburg. I witnessed the dynamic change that was taking place there and later regretted not having made a decision to open my own business there,” says Dec. “Indeed there are many liquor stores in Greenpoint, but my idea for a wine store was different from anyone else’s,” says Dec.
The Vine Box offers a handpicked selection of quality wines, many of which are natural wines produced from organically, biodynamically and sustainably grown grapes. In his stylish, 500-square-foot store, Dec retails 400 wines from all over the world, priced from $9.50 to $99 a bottle, with 50 percent of wines in the $15-20 price range and 25 percent under $15.
“I have popular kinds, and also those less popular, as it is my mission to provide the customer with something unique: a selection of the finest wines of my choice,” says Dec, who compares himself to a chef in a restaurant serving a particular style of cuisine.
The core of his business approach, apart from offering a prime product, is personalized customer care. Each customer who enters his store is warmly greeted. Dec is there to advise, educate and talk about the wine, helping the customer pair wine with the food with which it is going to be served.
“I like to provide the customer not only with a great product but also knowledge about it,” says Dec. Each bottle also comes with a description of its taste and origin, and a suggestion as to food pairing. That’s one of the elements distinguishing the Vine Box from other liquor stores. He doesn’t believe much in advertising, although he recognizes the power of social media and a professional website. In his opinion, however, the best promotion of the product and business is done on a person-to-person basis.
Before coming to the U.S. in 1990 Robert Dec gained experience in the hospitality sector in his home country – Poland. Then he spent 17 years working in the restaurant and catering business in New York, including 10 years as executive chef of a $20,000-30,000 a day food operation and managing a team of 25 workers. There he not only deepened his knowledge about wines but also learned many caveats about running a business. When the catering sector suffered stagnation due to the recession he decided it was time to leave, and use his skills and experience as a business owner.
He set his eyes on a changing Greenpoint, where he found a good location at 178 Nassau Ave. He also did a demographic and economic study of the area, with a focus on the age and income of the residents. Greenpoint was drawing young professionals and hipsters from Williamsburg and other parts of the city, with an average income of $50,000, but it was also very family oriented. “Pretty large was the overall 30-50 age group, which is the demographic reaching for wine,” says Dec.
In preparing to set up the business Dec also learned about workshops offered by the Small Business Administration (SBA), a federal agency that offers many programs to help boost small business in the U.S, and attended one at Pace University. “The course convinced me that I did have the know-how as far as the organizational side of the business goes. I knew that I needed to work more on the financial side,” says Dec. He met with the Small Business Development Center’s advisor Rawle Brown who guided him in writing a business plan, which helped him qualify for an SBA-guaranteed business loan in the amount of $50,000.
SBA has at least one office in each state and sponsors counseling partners such as Small Business Development Centers, Women’s Business Centers as well as SCORE, a “volunteer mentor corps of retired and experienced business leaders.” SBA’s New York City office runs free workshops for entrepreneurs and prospective business owners offering guidance on marketing, finance and accounting, management and other topics.
“These workshops are a great resource for business owners and unlike private sector consulting services, they are free of charge,” says Teresa Detelj, program support assistant, who two years ago initiated SBA’s outreach to the Polish and Slavic community in Greenpoint. Since then, the agency has done a couple of workshops for the local community.
SBA grants microloans of up to $50,000, as well as larger business loans of up to $5.5 million. They are made through local banks and credit unions which partner with the SBA, and the agency provides a government-backed guarantee on a portion of the loan. To qualify, entrepreneurs need to write a business plan. While doing so they can seek assistance and guidance from the SBA-sponsored Small Business Development Center – a service of which Dec took advantage.
“The advisor listened to my idea for a business and helped me create a business plan according to my vision. It was very helpful,” says Dec, adding that as a first-time business owner, who hadn’t taken a business loan, he would probably have had a hard time taking out a loan at a bank. “The backing of the SBA certainly helped, and the rate I was offered was better than if I were to get a loan directly from a bank,” he says. The loan covered one-third of the funds he needed to open his wine store.
Dec is one of more than 70 entrepreneurs from Greenpoint who received a loan with SBA backing in the last five years. These loans totaled more than $24 million. In the entire New York metro area, more than 10,000 businesses received loans totaling almost $4 billion from the SBA since 2011.
Four years after opening the Vine Box, Dec says the store is profitable and he loves every aspect of running his own business, especially the flexibility to test his own ideas and build a relationship with customers who share his passion for wine. He is fluent in English and Polish, which helps him make a connection with the newcomers and the traditional Polish immigrant population of Greenpoint.
His lease runs out in 2021, so he has plenty of time to think of his next step. He doesn’t rule out the possibility of opening a second location or, if the new lease contract for the 178 Nassau Ave. store exceeds his budget, to continue his business in another up-and-coming neighborhood, like Bushwick.
“These kind of nabes are the best for businesses of my type, because the residents are open to new ideas. I like to give customers an opportunity to taste wines they have never had before,” says Dec.
Aleksandra Slabisz is a reporter at Nowy Dziennik. This article was written as part of the Business Reporting Fellowship of the Center for Community and Ethnic Media and funded by a grant from News Corp.