The financial crisis of 2007/2008 was just getting started as James Wald of North Carolina swung open the doors to his new wine bar & restaurant, Glasshalfull.
He admits the timing could have been better.
“It wasn’t the best time to start a business,” Wald says. “And I’m not sure how good of a job we did that first year.”
But by playing the cards they were dealt, he and his staff played offered creative options to diners feeling the pinch of the economy.
“In that first year, we were happy to serve someone a glass of wine and a plate of fries for $10,” he says. “Even during the economic downturn, people wanted to go out. So, we fit our price range to the times.”
Twelve years later, business is good at 3,700 square-foot neighborhood restaurant in the former mill town of Carrboro, which is just outside Chapel Hill, N.C.
In this week’s Q&A with Boxerbrand blog Recipe for Success, James Wald discusses the concept that helped him survive the downturn and eventually thrive.
Q: How did you decide to open a restaurant in 2007?
It was something of a midlife crisis. My business partner and I had worked for 12 years on three companies in the wine distributorship field. We sold our companies over a three-year period and we thought it would be cool to open a neighborhood place where you could get interesting wines that weren’t necessarily “new world” and not necessarily expensive.
Our initial concept was to open a wine bar. But during the licensing process, we learned that in North Carolina, liquor licenses are tied in with food service licenses, so we put in a kitchen. And after we invested in a full kitchen, the decision to serve food was an obvious choice.
Q: How did you survive the economic downturn so soon after opening?
We did everything we could to appeal to all price ranges. We offered a cool, industrial chic atmosphere where you could spend as little as $10 on a plate of fries with a glass of wine. We wanted people to feel welcome and not rushed. And, we may have been a little better financed after selling our businesses, so we had a bit of a cushion.
Q: How did your customers find you?
At the beginning, the fact that we were new attracted them. People like trying new places. We did very little advertising and focused on growing it organically. As I said, I don’t think we did a very good job that first year. But we kept trying.
Over the years we’ve focused on remaining consistent and not trying to bite off too much. For example, during big holidays, like Mother’s Day, or during graduations, we know we’re going to be busy. But we don’t try to do more than we normally do. Because maintaining our standards and fulfilling expectations is actually what our customers want.
Q: Tell me about your menu.
Our chef Tony Del Sarto, who has been here since we opened, is now a full partner. His menu is a blend of modern American and Mediterranean. So, for example, he makes a pan-seared duck breast with Moroccan spice, which is served with a parsnip puree, crispy fried shallots and sautéed local greens with preserved lemons. Our chef went to culinary school, not one of the big ones, but he has a natural aptitude for the science of cooking.
Q: And please explain your wines.
We serve what is known as old-world wines, as opposed to new-world, which come from vineyards in Australia, California and Argentina. New-world wines tend to be more fruit forward and fatter, more round ,and with less acid. Whereas old-world wines from France, for example, tend to be less jammy and more of a sensation on the side of the tongue. I think old-world wines pair better, and are more interesting with food because the acid cuts offset the fat of a meal.
Q: What’s the best part of the hospitality biz?
The customer feedback! In my other businesses, I didn’t get to experience the reaction a consumer had to our wine selections. We chose the wines we wanted to carry and import, but we were removed by several layers from the actual consumer. But in the restaurant, the results of what we’re doing are known immediately, and I love that. We’re putting on a show every night and we get the reaction as we go along. There’s nothing like it! — Glasshalfull uses Boxerbrand menu covers Cafe Line in their table presentation. Thank you!