At Vino Cellars, you’ll hear people talk about the “Vino family,” but that’s not a sales pitch coming from the owners. Regulars use the phrase, too.
“It’s like family up there,” said Sally Scheid, who stopped into Vino Cellars on its first day of operation and has been a customer ever since. “A couple of years ago, my husband was hurt seriously and in the hospital for months and those people came to see him in the hospital, called to see what I needed. Everybody at Vino took such good care of me.”
It’s that tight-knit group that prompts Rita Shelton to drive in from Nixa twice a week for a glass of wine.
“We have made a ton of friends there,” Shelton said. “A bunch are coming over tonight. Last weekend we were at some other Vino folks’ house. It’s a very social place. We started a book club and it’s mostly Vino ladies now. We have a Bunko group that’s mostly Vino people, too.”
Vino Cellars had a lot against it when it opened eight years ago. For starters, the owner, Matt Bekebrede (pronounced Bake-a-Brady), was a 26-year-old first time business owner. He was the little guy competing in a market dominated by one or two big players. And his timing was terrible: Bekebrede opened in April 2007, not long before the “Great Recession” hit.
Despite it all, not only did he survive, he continues to expand.
In February 2014, he opened a second location on Table Rock Lake, which his wife Stephana manages. Then, the couple bought a restaurant next to Vino Cellars on the Lake and opened Bistro 58 in October.
“The 58 comes from the year the lake was created in 1958, so we’re paying homage to the lake. Our target here is the locals and weekenders, people with lake homes. We aren’t marketing towards the tourists,” he said.
In the last two weeks, he renovated his Springfield location on Republic Road and doubled seating capacity from 40 to 80.
Over the years, the business has transformed from a wine shop to more of a wine bar with lots of events and a strong base of regulars.
“The economy, as much as it wasn’t fun, taught me lessons I carry with me today. How to be financially smart. How to have a pulse on your business at all times. That time period further emphasized the importance of relationships,” Bekebrede said.
He already knew the importance of relationships.
Bekebrede grew up in Waynesville working in his family’s restaurant from the time he was 14. He eventually ended up at Missouri State University, where he graduated from the department of hospitality and restaurant administration.
He was a restaurant manager at Chateau on the Lake, Chardonnay restaurant and clubhouse manager at Millwood Golf and Racquet Club. He also worked at Twin Oaks Country Club for a year.
While working at country clubs, his appreciation for relationships was solidified.
“When you work at a country club, you see the same customers all the time. You get to know them and their families, they get to know you. Relationships are so important. I knew I wanted to bring that family environment to the store,” Bekebrede said.
In 2006, Bekebrede started to put together a plan to open his own business.
He didn’t have the capital to start a restaurant, so he decided on a wine shop, because he could manage it himself and not have to depend on staff. One aspect of the restaurant industry he didn’t like was high turnover and a young staff that didn’t care about the business the way he did.
He wanted to make wine fun for his customers and take out any snobbery associated with it. He wanted something casual where people could learn about vino.
When Bekebrede initially opened, the store was called Vino 100 and it was part of a franchise whose niche was it carried 100 wines for $25 or less.
The first year was not as good as he had hoped, but he had nothing to compare it to. But a year later, now into the recession, he saw his numbers were below the previous year. He didn’t lose customers, but they downgraded their wine; his average bottle sold went from $18 to $12.
He focused on customer service and cultivating events, such as Vino Cellars University.
“We started the wine classes, which wasn’t being done at the time. That set us apart. I try to carry wines that are different than anyone else,” he said.
He focused on building a wine club, which now has 275 members between the two stores.
There’s a Vino dinner series, which he initially intended to be a quarterly event, but he found demand was there for a monthly dinner series and he regularly sells out.
He added quarterly murder mystery dinners, too.
In fact, most nights, there’s something going on: There’s Two-Fer Tuesdays, where customers can buy one and get one free; Teacher Thursday, where the same deal applies to teachers only; Friday night wine tasting from 5-8 p.m.; Flight Night on Wednesdays featuring three 3-ounce pours (pricing varies based on wine), and so on.
And that appeals to his customers.
“There’s always something,” said Shelton.
The events help customers get to know each other, said Stephana Bekebrede, Matt’s wife.
“I notice at Friday night tastings, people stay and talk and you get more insight into people’s lives,” she said.
The past two years, the Bekebredes have started organizing an annual trip to California wine country with customers.
In 2012, he broke away from the Vino 100 franchise, moved down a few doors in the same shopping strip and reopened as Vino Cellars.
He was nervous about the change but said it’s been fantastic.
As an independent business owner, he has a lot more freedom and has grown his customer base and expanded.
Dedication to customers
When Bekebrede opened, he started with one employee, but now there are 11 between the two stores and restaurant.
To his staff, he tries to preach the importance of learning customers’ names and making them feel appreciated.
“I genuinely appreciate the fact they are supporting my business and my family,” he said.
He has a large family to support. While operating the businesses — they also own a loft at the lake location that’s available for rent — the Bekebredes have five children. They are a blended family. He had one, she had two, and they have two together.
The kids range in age from 5 to 18.
The couple actually met at the store. Stephana was one of his first wine club members.
“My sister lives in Springfield and talked about this great place that she and her friends went to and I noticed the cute guy working the door. My sister wanted to go on a date with his brother. So we went on their first date and were the wingmen for them,” Stephana said.
Both couples got married, but Stephana says she and Matt married first.
It may seem counterintuitive that opening a second location means they get to spend more time together, but it does. The Bekebredes live at the lake, so Matt is home more now and in Springfield less.
He works 60 hours a week and Stephana thinks her husband has been successful because he’s dedicated to his customers.
His customers feel it and brag about the atmosphere he’s created.
“Vino is a place you can go and be yourself without anyone judging,” said Shelton.
And if you go on a Saturday, not only can you taste great wine, but an employee, Sawyer, works Saturdays and will answer all your questions about how to work your iPhone, laughed Scheid.
“We call it Saturdays with Sawyer,” she said.
Want to go?
- Vino Cellars, 2137 W. Republic Road, Springfield; 417-883-8466
- Vino Cellars at the Lake, 15038 Highway 13, Branson West; 417-739-1985