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Martin Wine Cellars Rebuilding In New Orleans

June 27, 2011

In late August 2005, Hurricane Katrina lashed through New Orleans, destroying the Martin Wine Cellar store on Baronne Street. It’s been a long process, but next year owner Cedric Martin will reopen that location, where his father David founded the business 65 years ago. Martin Wine Cellar currently has five locations in Louisiana—on Magazine Street in New Orleans, in Metairie in Jefferson Parish, in Mandeville (about 30 miles from New Orleans) and Baton Rouge (90 miles away). About 70% of the company’s sales are in wine, while spirits account for 12%-14% and gourmet food and catering comprise 12%. Beer plays a minor role. Overall revenue exceeds $15 million annually. Long renowned as a retail destination in a city famous for celebration, Martin Wine Cellars has kept pace with change in the marketplace. Shanken News Daily interviewed Cedric Martin recently about trends in his operation.

SND: How has your business fared over the past few years?

Martin: Until November 2008, we were growing back to pre-Katrina levels—even after the big store on Baronne Street was destroyed. After the economy collapsed in the fall of 2008, we saw our sales slide. Collectors weren’t buying, and people were purchasing $25 wines instead of $50 wines. We had to rethink our strategy. Lately we’ve seen some improvement in the economy. In this market, grocery stores can sell wine and liquor, so you must be innovative and you must have a website. Our e-commerce site launched a month ago: we already had an online presence, but customers can now purchase online.

SND: How is the futures market doing for you?

Martin: We’re big in Burgundy, and we sell Bordeaux and Burgundy futures. The 2009s have done pretty well. People want all the big names—not big Bordeaux names because they’ve just gotten too expensive. It’s not like it used to be, but people are still buying futures, which is a good sign. We go to Bordeaux every year to taste the new vintage and buy, and used to do a big Bordeaux business. We bought some 2008s and bought heavily in 2009. We were fortunate that the dollar was stronger when we did. But with the 2010 prices, I don’t know how people will buy first or second growths. It’s ridiculous. We’re being very cautious.

SND: Which wine regions are performing well?

Martin: Good Cabernet prices in California have sort of dried up. So we’ve looked for Cabernet in other countries. We’ve found good prices and quality in Cabernets and Cabernet blends from Argentina, Chile and South Africa. There’s definitely good Cabernet out there.

SND: What’s the sweet spot in terms of pricing for you?

Martin: I would say $15 to $45. My customers want real value. I have a very small market for the $200 range. Customers who once bought cult wines aren’t doing so anymore. We occasionally get a request for Screaming Eagle or something like that, but we don’t want to stock them and wait for someone to buy.

SND: How is the spirits business doing?

Martin: It’s starting to pick up. This is a price-sensitive market. We carry a lot of single malt Scotches and specialty Bourbons. Mixology is big in this city, so we carry a lot of products that bartenders use for exotic drinks. We’ve seen a lot of interest in esoteric products—things you won’t find in your normal grocery or liquor store.

SND: How is your bistro/deli/catering business?

Martin: Before the storm, we had more than 80 people in our prepared food business in two stores. Then I lost my main store (on Baronne Street). Our deli bistro business today is in one location (Metairie). It seats about 120-140 people, and we turn about 275 covers daily for lunch. We recently started serving dinner from 4 pm to 8 pm, and it’s taking off. You can get wine by the glass without restaurant markups. When I started the (Metairie) deli in 1977, I had a counter with 12 stools, and it just grew and grew. Business grew even faster after the storm because hardly anyone else was open. So I’m looking forward to the Baronne Street store’s reopening, because its wine and food selection attracted so many people.

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