In $2 million startup, 11,000 wines and one full circle

You can go home again: Wine whiz David Trone, cofounder of the Maryland-based Total Wine & More retail chain, has brought his winning formula home to Long Island.
By GREGORY ZELLER //

As the latest cog in a multistate corporate wheel likely to spin past $3 billion in revenue next year, Total Wine Spirits & More is not your typical startup, for Westbury or anywhere else.

And it’s not particularly innovative – though actually it is, contorting Maryland-based Total Wine & More’s proven formula (170-something stores and counting) to squeeze through New York State’s regulatory hoops (more below).

But if the megalithic retailer is simply replicating a recipe – equal parts beer, wine and other regional craft beverages, flavored with local foodstuffs, all sampled across tens of thousands of square feet championing farm-to-table values – it’s a great one.

And it’s brand-spanking-new to Long Island, which loses a defunct Sports Authority but gains a culinary experience.

That’s a literal truth for cofounder David Trone, who’s launched 172 Total Wine locations in 21 states with his brother, Robert, but goes it alone in Westbury, where 42,000 square feet of regular old retail space has been converted into a hearth of “experiential retail.”

On the menu: More than 11,000 wines, 6,000 beers and 5,000 spirits, paired in a bazaar-like atmosphere with 500-plus regionally crafted specialty food items and perhaps a locally rolled cigar or two, for the so inclined. Dishing it all out are more than 50 employees, most full time and all specially trained, according to Trone, to enrich that experiential flavor.

“They know about wine, they know about spirits, they know about beer,” the founder told Innovate LI. “The staff’s knowledge is really part of the experience.

“But it’s really the ability to taste products and try something new, to get the right wine for the right food for the right occasion for the right budget,” Trone added. “In today’s world of Amazon retailers, to survive, we have to be experiential.”

Trone knows: Potomac-based Total Wines, which opened its first store in 1991, has been “steadily” increasing sales for years and will pass $3 billion in total revenues in fiscal 2018, according to the chain cofounder.

He’s flying solo (as far as founding) at the Westbury store, Total Wine’s first in New York, in case Robert chooses to open a second location later somewhere else in the state – just one step in a regulatory limbo the Maryland franchiser had to dance to satisfy New York controllers.

The most daring move in the regulatory routine was a full split. Total Wine runs combo superstores in other states offering one huge beer/wine/food/joy destination, but Empire State regulations mandate wine and beer sales be separated – requiring an innovative spin on the corporate model.

Bottle rocket: New York wines feature heavily in Total Wine Westbury’s 11,000-label selection.

Upon entering a common vestibule in Old Country Road’s Westbury Commons plaza, visitors will find the 26,000-square-foot Total Wine Spirits & More, where on-hand stocks include 11,000-plus wines – featuring 1,200 New York vinos, with a heavy Long Island influence – and some 5,000 spirits, spotlighting 400 artisan distilleries around the state.

They’ll also discover the 16,000-square-foot New York Marketplace and Brewery District, boasting a 6,000 pack of global beers – including 2,000 from New York, Island favorites included – and regional foodie fare ranging from popcorn balls to gourmet chocolate to artisanal cheese and beyond.

The “two” stores – combined, the 24th opening of 2017 for the Total Wine chain – offer “far and away, the largest selection” of regional edibles and drinkables, according to Trone, who reemphasized the importance of local flavor in experiential retail endeavors.

“When I surveyed the Westbury area, the average store carried two New York wines. We carry 1,200,” he said. “And the average store didn’t carry any New York spirits. We carry 400.

“It’s the farm-to-table phenomenon,” Trone added. “Customers, Millennials in particular, love to drink and eat local.

“Local rules.”

Deepening the Total Wines Westbury experience are various educational opportunities, most focused on smartening the average bear on what drink works with what pic-a-nic basket. The facility includes three tasting bars – one for wine, one exclusively for New York wine and one for spirits – and an “education room” where classes exploring different kinds of wines and spirits will begin in earnest in 2018.

While it does enrich the overall experience, Alcohol 101 is almost a basic customer service for an enterprise offering everything from a $2 bottle of wine to a $5,000 Pétrus to a $20,000 single-malt.

“It’s really a tremendous opportunity for educational experiences,” Trone noted. “Learn about wine, learn about single-malt scotches … again, all experiential.”

Partial to a good Pellegrino himself, Trone also uncorks a bona fide homecoming with the Westbury startup, which officially opened Nov. 9. Now residing in Maryland, the founder was born and raised in Hicksville; his wife, June, hails from Massapequa and earned a mechanical engineering degree at Stony Brook University, before the two met en route to matching MBAs at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

The founder, who estimates a $2 million corporate investment to renovate and stock the Westbury space, has marked the homecoming with some community outreach. The Nassau County Museum of Art and the Mineola-based Family & Children’s Association each received 10 percent of the profits of all wine and food sales during Total Wine Westbury’s opening weekend – the first of “hundreds of local charities and nonprofits that the store will support,” according to a company statement.

Bringing his runaway retail hit home has been “phenomenally well received,” Trone noted, particularly at the height of the holiday shopping season.

“People are excited to have an authentic selection of New York products, especially around the family holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas and Hanukah,” he said. “And they like that they can get their New York food and beer and at the same time pick up their wines and spirits.”

With New York now the third-largest wine-making state (behind California and Washington State) and the “amazing selection” of craft beverages and foods coming from so many producers, the New York focus creates a selection that results in “absolutely unique one-stop shopping,” according to Trone, who notes that “a lot of what’s happening now in retail is local.”

“In Dallas, people like to talk about Texas wines, which frankly aren’t very good,” he said. “But in New York, people like to talk about New York wines. And quite frankly, they’re really good.”

Total Wine Spirits & More / New York Marketplace and Brewery District

What’s It? 43,000 square feet of experiential bliss, emphasizing NY craft food and beverages

Brought To You By: Well-seasoned oenophile/foodie/corporate magnate David Trone

All In: $2 million, to turn a defunct Sports Authority into a thriving regional-food authority  

Status: Finally home in Westbury


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