2A Wine Merchants, a new wine store and tasting room, is in the works at 577 East Erie St. in Milwaukee's Historic Third Ward.
The concept, set to open in mid-June, is a project two years in the making for owner Rob Levin. After leaving his role as vice president of operations at Milwaukee-based F Street Hospitality in January, Levin shifted focus to creating a business of his own.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Levin and his business partner, Tony Bisciglia, who is co-founder of Chicago-based WACH Hospitality, had plans to open a full-service restaurant in the area. Over the past year, they adjusted and readjusting their original vision as consumer behavior changed.
"I think people will be enjoying and celebrating in groups again eventually, but I do think there has been a very huge shift in people’s needs, desires, and practices as it pertains to dining," said Levin. "We've gotten very comfortable with eating on our couch, drinking in our PJs."
They abandoned the idea of operating even a small-size kitchen -- it likely wouldn't produce enough ROI, he said -- and finally landed on a storefront where people can buy, taste and learn about wine from around the world.
2A Wine Merchants will sell a "kaleidoscope" of both recognizable brands and new or unique product that customers have never tried, with prices in the $10-$13 and $30-$55 ranges.
"We'll also have some higher end bottles that not everyone is drinking on a daily basis," said Levin.
In addition to wine, 2A Wine Merchants will sell beer, high-end, small-batch spirits as well as pre-made charcuterie items, such as locally sourced cheese, meats and crackers. Levin was adamant that the business is not a bar, but for those who want stay for a beverage, limited on-site seating is available, both inside the 1,978-square-foot space and on the outdoor patio along the south side of the ground-floor space.
The mixed-use building is situated along Milwaukee Riverwalk and a dock with several boat slips. Levin sees as an opportunity to drive business both from river traffic and the above condo units. The wine retailer’s name, 2A, stands for the ‘second act’ of both Levin and Bisciglia’s careers. Now as business owners, they’re doing something that "we’ve always wanted to do and (doing) it our way," said Levin. However, they'll continue to use their experience in hospitality and restaurants to enhance the retail experience and build customer loyalty.
Levin wants customers to feel comfortable asking questions and trying new things. In turn, recommendations can be made based on preference, Levin said. There will also be a wine club, in which members get exclusive offers to certain inventory.
Another post-pandemic must, 2A Wine Merchants' e-commerce site will allow customers to place orders for in-store and curbside pick-up.
"I think everyone has noticed how important the online piece is to all businesses," said Levin. "People walking into your business is never going to die, I don't think, but people have become very accustomed to going online, checking a box and getting it."
The Erie Street space is currently under construction, headed by Milwaukee-based design firm Three Sixty. When the project is finished, it will look "almost museum-like," said Levin, and not like a typical retail shop. The atmosphere will be laid-back and relaxed.
2A Wine Merchants plans to open for e-commerce business in mid-June, followed by a weeklong grand opening of the storefront after the fourth of July. The business awaits licensing approval by the City of Milwaukee.