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Cru Cellars ready to launch next phase of growth

After a decade-plus of hard work, Tampa wine aficionados Torrey and Jen Bingham are transforming their burgeoning bottle-shop business into a full-fledged hospitality company.


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Organic and natural wine, according to Jen Bingham, co-owner of Cru Cellars in Tampa, has been “having a moment” over the past few years as consumers increasingly look for pesticide-free food and beverages made with little to no additives. At the same time, small-batch wines from around the world have become more accessible to everyday consumers, not just upper-crust connoisseurs and collectors.

In that context, Cru Cellars, founded in 2010 by Jen, 40, and her husband Torrey, 42, who are both certified sommeliers, opened at the perfect time. The pair have reaped the rewards of a carefully curated approach to wine, expanding the business from a single retail shop in South Tampa to locations in premier Tampa destinations: Armature Works in 2018 and Westshore Marina District in 2021.

Later this year or in early 2023, Cru Cellars will become just one brand in a larger company, dubbed Cru Hospitality Group, when not one but three new businesses open in Tampa. Small Giant and Wine on Water are coming to Water Street Tampa, while Bouzy, which will focus on sparkling wines, is set to open in Hyde Park Village.

That’s quite an upward trajectory over little more than a decade, particularly in a fickle industry such as hospitality.

“We started very small,” Jen Bingham says, “and we did it very inexpensively, which I feel you can’t really do much these days.”

The Binghams caught a lucky break in that the original Cru Cellars location, on MacDill Avenue, was already a wine shop when they bought it. As part of the deal, they acquired the shop’s inventory, giving them a head start.

“It was just us and the savings that I had made at a wine bar I worked at in Chicago,” Bingham says. “We’ve gotten some small business loans, but other than that, we’re self-funded.”

Bingham says she’s seen competitors come and go over the years, while Cru Cellars continues to flourish. She attributes the company’s relative longevity to its emphasis on small-batch wines that are reasonably priced, as well as its buildout of a wine bar and adoption of a full food menu, rather than just cheese and bread.

“We saw that people needed more food, and we were missing out on revenue,” Bingham says. “So, we added a kitchen about a year and a half after we opened.”

She adds: “Our philosophy is to carry everyday wines, the ones you can afford to open every night,” she says. “Most of what we have is under $50, and the bulk of what we sell is between $10 and $35 to $40. Over time, that’s translated into more trendy wines like organic and natural wine, although we also love classic and conventional wine.”

Delegation has also been key. With three Cru Cellars locations and a trio of new concepts on the way, the Binghams have hired management staff to focus on sourcing and buying wines. That gives Jen Bingham time to look farther afield for undiscovered wines — she recently traveled to France and Spain in search of new varieties.

“That doesn’t happen all the time, but I do enjoy it,” she says. “It makes you appreciate and understand a region a lot more. You can study and read as much as you want, but there’s nothing like going there.”

Leaving inventory decisions to others has also given Bingham time to focus on hiring and developing employees and managers, and she says that’s one of the reasons Cru Cellars doesn’t have as much turnover as a typical hospitality business.

“I’ve always tried to attract people who are into wine and want to make wine a career, which has expanded into other aspects of hospitality, like chefs and culinary staff,” Bingham says. “And we treat our team really well, with a good amount of benefits.”

The pandemic was a challenging time for Cru Cellars but the Binghams made the most of it with some clever marketing, offering “survivor cases” of wine for around $130. “We did a lot of retail sales,” she says. “I had to close for a while, and business was slow to come back, but then people were ready to get out.”

Cru Hospitality Group appears poised to reach new heights of success, but Bingham says the goals are realistic and attainable. Rather than trying to be the next ABC Liquors, “we want to be one of the top hospitality companies in Tampa Bay. We would look at other opportunities, but we're focused on this area — it has to be somewhere I can drive to.”

(This article has been updated to clarify that Cru Cellars added a kitchen to its facility a year and a half after it opened, not a year and a half ago.)

 

author

Brian Hartz

Brian Hartz is the Business Observer’s Tampa Bay editor. He has worked for the publication since 2017. Brian holds a master’s degree in journalism from Indiana University and has been a St. Petersburg resident since 2013. He has also worked for newspapers and magazines in Indiana, Canada and New Zealand.

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