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Business Observer Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2020 1 year ago

Secret sauce for wine shop owner is robust mix of right prices, high-touch service

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After years of working for others in the wine industry, Thomas Morgan opened Seagrape Wine Co.
by: Grier Ferguson Sarasota-Manatee Editor

Thomas Morgan fell into the wine business in 1999. Ever since then, he’s worked to increase his knowledge of the industry.

In college, Morgan was interested in food production, organics and the greening of cities, when he worked on an organic blueberry farm in Gainesville. The man who owned the farm, Tom Dorn, also happened to own Wine Warehouse stores statewide. Morgan started helping at Wine Warehouse and asking questions about products. “I very quickly saw this is an avenue that keeps me in my desire to work in food and farming, but it is also a booming business,” says Morgan.

Courtesy, Clyde Morgan. Seagrape Wine Co. Owner Thomas Morgan opened his independent wine shop in Sarasota in December 2018.

Today, Morgan owns Sarasota-based Seagrape Wine Co., with a storefront in Sarasota and a clientele ranging from young doctors to college professors to retirees. He opened Seagrape in December 2018, and he’s grown his customer base by offering a high-touch experience, keeping prices reasonable and offering customers advice and education about wine.

Sales are up during coronavirus, but Morgan says it’s hard to determine if that’s from the pandemic or general business growth. While Morgan declines to disclose specific revenue figures, he says sales are currently up 100% this year over last year. He also says Seagrape ended 2019 $100,000 above its net sales goal, and he sees more growth in the company’s future.

Morgan spent 1999 to 2008 with Wine Warehouse, moving from the warehouse to the main store in Gainesville and then to the Sarasota store in 2001. Part of his job was making the 12 stores more alike, taking them from being loosely in the union of Wine Warehouse to clearly part of the chain. He also helped improve operations at the Sarasota store. “I learned retail by doing retail,” he says. “I really learned wine by selling wine.”

Prior to Seagrape, Morgan worked for Berkeley, Calif.-based Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant. Working for the famed importer gave him an opportunity to travel extensively and expand his industry knowledge.

‘Growth will happen because the prices are really great and the customer service is really great.’ — Thomas Morgan, Seagrape Wine Co.

Lyle Railsback, national portfolio manager for Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant, worked with Morgan at the company. “Thomas, having worked for Kermit for almost 10 years, gave him a huge window into how the whole thing works,” says Railsback. “Traveling to the source is huge.” He traveled several times with Morgan to off-the-beaten-path places in countries such as France and Italy, buying wine from farmers with their hands in the dirt.

Railsback says those experiences gave Morgan an incredible leg up for Seagrape. “To do what Thomas is doing is not easy…you have to tell stories and get people to fall in love with something they’ve never heard of,” he says. The fact that Morgan is able to convey what he knows about the industry to customers is a valuable business tool. “I think that’s why the shop works, and it’s amazing to see the success it’s had in a place like Sarasota,” says Railsback.

For Morgan, knowledge and sales are linked. Transactions increase, he says, as you become more knowledgeable. That’s because it allows him to lead an informed conversation about wine.

Morgan says he’s known for being talkative, but he still lets customers drive interactions. When someone comes in for the first time, he determines where they are in their wine journey and starts from there. When people leave the shop, he wants a clear feeling to come across: “This is your wine shop. This is your adventure. It’s a you-led wine experience, not a Seagrape-led wine experience. We don’t have an agenda.”

Courtesy, Clyde Morgan. One of the ways Seagrape Wine Co. is differentiating itself is through pricing. The strategy is simple — sell a greater volume at lower prices.

Seagrape’s high-touch approach to customer service sometimes even includes text messages between Morgan and customers. For instance, it’s not unusual for a group of five young doctors to reach out for advice about their carefully planned wine dinners. Morgan is always up for, as he calls it, “geeky, nerdy, really in-depth” wine conversations.

Seagrape is also differentiating itself through pricing. The strategy is simple — sell a greater volume at lower prices. “We look at every single price in the nation,” says Morgan. “We will always be somewhere between the average and the best, if not the best. It doesn’t have to be a charitable act to shop at an independent wine shop.”  

To keep growing, Morgan will continue to build his customer base and stay focused on the brick-and-mortar store. Online sales could become more important later, as a “plateaubuster” after saturating the market in the area.

His near-term goals also include buying a building and dividing it into three parts. The first part would be for Seagrape, the second for a restaurateur and the third for private wine storage. Morgan says, “Growth will happen because the prices are really great and the customer service is really great.”

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