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Business Observer Friday, Jan. 18, 2019 4 months ago

Entrepreneur’s interest in wine grows into business venture

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Making Cellar Fifty-Five successful will mean seeking out a specialized client base.
by: Grier Ferguson Sarasota-Manatee Editor

One glass was all it took.

At dinner with a client, Brett Laurvick, an agent who represented professional baseball players, first tasted a bottle of wine he says blew him away. 

After the dinner, he called the restaurant. He had to know what the wine was. It turned out it was a bottle of 2003 Joseph Phelps Insignia — a cabernet from Napa Valley. Laurvick was hooked. 

That was around 2005. Over the next decade plus, Laurvick learned more about wine, expanding his tastes beyond what he describes as more “grocery store” selections and joining wine clubs. 

This past fall, Laurvick and his wife, Paula, took the interest to a new level. On Sept. 1, they opened a new venture called Cellar Fifty-Five. It’s a wine storage company in Sarasota that offers clients the chance to store their wine at the ideal temperature (fifty-five degrees) and humidity level. 

Cellar Fifty-Five’s origin lies, like many business ideas, in necessity. Before moving to Sarasota, Laurvick lived in Chicago. As his wine cellar grew, he kept bottles at a downtown Chicago wine storage facility. When he moved to Sarasota, he didn’t have a basement to store wine. There was another problem, too: places that offered wine storage in the area were full — and had waiting lists.

It was Paula Laurvick’s idea to do something about it. The couple thought the area’s demographic was good for wine storage, plus they’d seen the need firsthand. They always wanted to own a business, Brett Laurvick adds, and this was the perfect opportunity.

"I kind of built this with me as a wine lover in mind.” — Brett Laurvick, owner, Cellar Fifty-Five

Before opening Cellar Fifty-Five, the Laurvicks consulted with at least 10 people in the industry, visiting facilities nationwide. “People realize you’re not a threat,” Brett Laurvick says. “You’re trying to do your best in your own market.”

Their facility started as a shell with dirt floors. Now Cellar Fifty-Five has a wine locker area and lounge where clients can work on their cellars or drink wine. Laurvick declines to disclose startup costs, but calls the facility’s generator a “significant purchase.” He also says the refrigeration system could have run off two units, but they chose to use three, wanting to make sure they were doing things the right way. “I kind of built this with me as a wine lover in mind,” he says.

Another key feature, Laurvick says, is it’s category 5 hurricane proof. That's a selling point for area wine lovers who, before Cellar Fifty-Five opened, had to figure out how to protect their collections from Hurricane Irma.

Cellar Fifty-Five is on Fruitville Road, east Interstate 75 — not far from the Laurvicks' prime demographic, Lakewood Ranch and downtown Sarasota. Laurvick calls the location, tucked in from the street, “discreet,” which can appeal to people storing valuable bottles of wine. But the location is also the venture’s biggest challenge, he says, limiting the number of people coming in off the street, curious about what it is. That means Cellar Fifty-Five’s efforts to reach out to wine drinkers in different ways are crucial.

The Laurvicks are both at work securing new customers, networking with wine specialty shops and country clubs. Specialty shops provide a good customer base for Cellar Fifty-Five since employees talk to customers about where to store their wine. “We’re trying to get wine shop owners to tell our story,” Brett Laurvick says. They’ve also secured clients through word of mouth and the company’s internet presence.

Cellar Fifty-Five has over 200 lockers and 10 locker sizes. That was important to Laurvick, he says, because people are at different stages of interest in wine. The smallest lockers hold six to seven cases of wine, with a typical case holding 12 bottles. Those cost $35 a month. Medium lockers, at $55 a month, hold about 15 to 18 cases. The largest units are $400 a month, and both of them are already rented.  

Bigger lockers are going faster than smaller lockers now. “True wine collectors recognize the need quicker,” Laurvick says. When consulting with other wine storage facilities, the Laurvicks learned not to underestimate the demand for larger lockers.

Laurvick aims to differentiate Cellar Fifty-Five from other, general and climate-controlled storage facilities with inventory management. The option is for clients who want their wine logged into a computer system, barcodes added to bottles and insights about when is the best time to drink certain wines.

If Cellar Fifty-Five reaches a certain capacity, the Laurvicks might explore other areas in Florida that are underserved, like Tampa and Orlando. “We figure it will take about two years to get full,” he says, adding he'd love to have a waiting list themselves someday. “That’s our goal.”

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