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Interview: Minneapolis Retailer France 44 On Navigating The Covid-19 Environment

June 5, 2020

Editor’s Note: Minneapolis-based retailer France 44 Wines & Spirits, a Market Watch Leader, offers an upscale selection of wine, spirits, and beer, as well as gourmet cheeses, meats, and takeout items.With annual revenues of $17.5 million, this boutique-style player operates a main location in downtown Minneapolis and two satellite food stores in the city—one for cheeses and one for meats. Like other U.S. retailers, France 44 felt the impact of Covid-19 almost overnight. Shanken News Daily recently spoke with France 44 owner Rick Anderson about how he’s been navigating the change.

SND: First, how have France 44 and the Minneapolis community been impacted by the events surrounding George Floyd’s death?

Anderson: Everyone in Minneapolis has been impacted, though France 44 did not suffer any damage or looting. Many of our staff, however, live in the neighborhoods where the riots were most intense. On top of that, the whole situation has made these crazy times especially painful. George Floyd’s death has been deeply felt by almost everyone here, even though 99.99% of us never met him. It has forced us all to really examine all the things we thought we knew about our town.

SND: What specific changes have you carried out in response to Covid-19?

Anderson: Very early on, we began directing as much discretionary business as possible to our smaller, boutique-level distributors. We have numerous distributors—some of them large, but many of them boutique players. They tend to service the restaurant trade thanks to their upscale, sought-after portfolios. But they’re also very important to us, because we trade in those types of products.

SND: How have you re-engineered your business practices?

Anderson: We pushed hard toward social distancing and curbside pickup. The hard part about moving to pickup was order-taking: we had the space, but not the people. So I reached out to sommeliers from local restaurants, who’d all been furloughed, and offered them work. Under Minneapolis unemployment benefit rules, you can still work up to 30 hours a week. Unemployment compensation is 50% of pay, so we were able to make them whole. We put together a call center pretty much overnight, with a bank of call operators who really understand the product.

SND: As Minneapolis restaurants grapple with full reopening plans, have you found other ways to help the restaurant trade?

Anderson: The restaurants still have been able to produce exceptional meals, but haven’t had the opportunity to sell wine with them. We partnered with the somms to create a system whereby guests would pick up a meal from a restaurant and then come to our store. We’ve offered a preselected list of wines, picked out by the somm and our team, and priced at a discount. The customers love it. It hasn’t been a big revenue play, but has been a good way of showing that we’re all in this together.

SND: What about activity on the food side at France 44?

Anderson: Artisanal cheese producers are suffering badly because so much of their business is with restaurants. We’ve created cheese kits, which we’ve dubbed social isolation kits. We offer them through our web business every Thursday, for local pickup. We also match them with a wine or a beer, and follow up with a Zoom call for a social isolation happy hour, where we talk about the cheeses and one of our wine or beer staff discusses the choice that’s been paired. As for the bars, we’ve got tight relationships with many local mixologists. We’ve been doing Wednesday events with local bartenders using Zoom and other platforms, where the mixologists discuss three different cocktails. People want this experience.

SND: How do you see the picture as businesses return to normal in Minneapolis?

Anderson: I don’t believe anything will be like it was pre-Covid. We’ll be fine, but a lot of others in our market will struggle, particularly on the restaurant side. A lot of businesses won’t make it, but there will be opportunities for some to prosper under different initiatives—and for new businesses to emerge once the dust settles.

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