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VOL. 35 | NO. 39 | Friday, September 30, 2011

Zoning change lifts Bellevue’s spirits

Competition spurs innovation as liquor stores tap into market in which retail sales had been banned

By Vince Troia

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Jules O’Connell talks wine with a customer during this week’s wine tasting at Iroquois Wine & Spirits. Weekly tastings are a feature of the shop, one of three new liquor stores in Bellevue.

-- Photo: Lyle Graves, Nashville Ledger

The 49-year drought of no liquor stores in Bellevue may be over, but the battle for liquor-store customers is only just beginning.

New liquor store owners – all three seemingly unconcerned about the string of shuttered Bellevue businesses, including Bellevue Center mall – are celebrating the successes of their grand openings.

Despite some tough economic times, the proprietors are spending freely on amenities, advertising and special events targeting Bellevue folks who are likely keeping tighter grips on their cash these days.

It makes for lively competition between the shops, all within a mile and a-half of each other. It also begs the question: Can Bellevue support all three?

“The market will bear it out,” says second-term Metro Councilman Bo Mitchell, who played a role in annexing land that made it possible to establish liquor stores in Bellevue. “Look, when I first became a councilman, there were three things Bellevue residents said they wanted – a new library, the mall back and a liquor store – and not necessarily in that order.”

Mitchell says the financial health of Boulevard Wine & Spirits, Iroquois Wine & Spirits and RED Spirits/Wine primarily depends on the marketing and customer-service philosophy of the individual businesses, as well as understanding Bellevue’s changing demographics.

“The community’s changed,” Mitchell adds. “New homes and a growing college-educated and diverse population has changed the dynamics.” Translation: No longer is it just young apartment dwellers, or active seniors, or longtime blue-collar neighborhoods that define Bellevue.

Metro residents, who might see Bellevue only as the community with the “ghost town” mall, might view these ventures as ill-timed. However, there is recent Bellevue history on the side of these new businesses. Denizens of this southwest Davidson community have over the last two decades shown a propensity to reject retail businesses in general with one exception: If the goods can be consumed, Bellevuers will buy.

In the early 1990s, the area boasted a slew of well-known and successful stores, including Gap, Ann Taylor, Haverty’s, Williams-Sonoma, Abercrombie & Fitch, Charter Club, Disney Store, Circuit City, Home Depot, Banana Republic, Eddie Bauer, Toys R Us and Victoria’s Secret. Of that list, only Home Depot and Toys R Us remain.

However, over the same period, restaurants (mostly fast food), pharmacies, bars and take-out joints have grown like kudzu in Bellevue. So, on the surface, it appears liquor stores are ripe for success in the land of approximately 40,000 food-and-drink aficionados.

One in particular, RED Spirits/Wine, seems to be pulling out all the stops. For starters, RED has been promoting its dedicated wine-tasting station built around individually mounted iPads that allow customers to check ratings, food pairings, or print specialty drink recipes for the wine of their choice.

The stylish interior of the 10,000-square-foot “superstore” contains one of the only instant wine chillers in Tennessee, giving customer the ability to purchase a bottle of wine off the shelf and have it chilled in less than four minutes.

RED is branding itself creatively, as well, with a fiery logo and full-page color advertisements that seem to beckon the more sophisticated client.

“We view RED as more than just a wine and spirits store,” says Ed Fryer, store operator.

That’s in contrast to the philosophy at Iroquois Wine and Spirits, which has set up shop directly across Highway 70 South from RED.

“I look at (Iroquois) as a customer-service business – that’s the primary focus,” Ernie Paquette, Iroquois’ general manager, says while surveying his well-lighted, more traditionally designed 5,400-square-foot space. “We pride ourselves on being knowledgeable about our inventory, but there are no wine snobs working here.”

Iroquois promotional material touts weekly wine tasting events, the shop’s stately oak front counter, and a vodka display that surrounds an authentic Russian motorcycle and sidecar.

Will it really take iPads, instant wine chillers or Russian motorcycles to sell wine in Bellevue?

B.J. Francescon doesn’t think so. The closest thing to a promotional tool in the Boulevard Wine & Spirits shop he runs is the full-sized white Styrofoam statue of Jack Daniels.

“We’re about customer service and treating every one who comes in like friends or family,” says Francescon, the shop’s general manager. That’s practiced as well as preached, he says, since his father, Stephen, owns the store and cousins and friends work there.

Boulevard Wine and Spirits

600 Old Hickory Blvd., Suite 106
(Tolbert Place Shopping Center, near I-40, across from Sam’s Club)
Owner: Stephen Francescon, Sr.
General manager: B.J. Francescon
Size: 3,000 square feet
Official opening: July 1, 2011
Hours: 9 a.m.-10 p.m. Mon-Thur, 11 p.m. Fri/Sat
Phone: 457-1257
Website: [pending]
NOTES: Family-owned and operated. Opened more than two months before the competition.

Iroquois Wine and Spirits

7063 Highway 70 South at Old Hickory Boulevard
(Kroger shopping center, next to Dalton’s Grill)
Owner: Mary Thomas
General manager: Ernie Paquette
Asst. manager: Gus Bellos
Size: 5,400 square foot
Official opening: Sept. 12, 2011
Hours: 9 a.m.-10 p.m. Mon-Thur, 11 p.m. Fri/Sat
Store phone: 662-WINE
Website: iroquoiswineandspirits.com
NOTES: Boasting more than 70 years of experience, the staff at Iroquois includes Gus Bellos, a local icon who ran West Meade Liquors for 18 years.

RED Spirits/Wine

7066 Highway 70 South at Old Hickory Boulevard
(Belle Forest Shopping Center, former Rite Aid site)
Size: 10,000 square feet
Official opening: Sept. 16, 2011
General manager: Ed Fryer
Hours: 9 a.m.-10 p.m. Mon-Thur, 11 p.m. Fri/Sat
Store phone: 646-1400
Website: redspirits.com
NOTES: Fryer formerly ran The Wine Shoppe at Green Hills. Amenities include a state-of-the art chamber that perfectly recreates the conditions in a wine cellar and a 10-door cooler that can hold a huge selection of beverages.

The shop on Old Hickory Boulevard near Interstate 40 looks nothing like the other stores. Boulevard’s 3,000 square feet makes it the smallest, and the storefront windows, white walls and strip-mall lighting makes it the brightest, but its proximity to the interstate along a ‘feeder’ road that carries commuters in and out of Bellevue also makes it the most convenient, Francescon says.

“You can park right in front of the door, something you can’t do at the other places,” he says. “Plus, we established a customer base first, and our regular customers have told me they haven’t gone anywhere but here.”

Boulevard, perhaps due to its size and limited inventory, opened more than a full two months before the competition. RED’s owners had been the first to file for a business permit, but construction delays made it the last of three stores to open. Work on the building’s exterior remains incomplete.

Nonetheless, the opening of these stores has been a reason to celebrate for many. Francescon says some of Boulevard’s first costumers actually skipped and danced into the store on their initial visit.

“That doesn’t surprise me,” says Denise Full, president of the Bellevue Chamber of Commerce. “This is something that Bellevue has tried to get for a long time. Everybody’s very excited.”

The Metro Charter, established in 1963 when the city of Nashville and Davidson County formed one government, created the Urban Service District and General Services District. Seven smaller cities (Goodlettsville, Ridgetop, Lakewood, Belle Meade, Forest Hills, Berry Hill and Oak Hill) and most rural areas fell in the General Services District, with residents paying lower taxes in exchange for fewer services.

Being in the GSD also meant no “wine and whiskey” sales. So for years Bellevue residents had to journey at least four miles into the USD to grab that bottle of scotch or jug of Chianti.

On Sept. 7, 2010, a bill by Metro Council’s Emily Evans and Eric Crafton was introduced, asking for annexation of GSD land, and the 900 properties within, to the USD. Section 1.05 of the Charter then lists what governmental services will be rendered within the new USD boundary, including additional police and fire protection, water and sewer services, street lighting, street cleaning, refuse collection, and – wait for it – wine and whiskey supervision.

On Oct. 19, Metro Council approved the annexation that basically follows the commercially zoned properties along both sides of Old Hickory Boulevard from I-40 to Highway 70 South (Harding Pike), and permits for liquor and wine sales from future owners of Boulevard and RED were soon filed.

Shortly thereafter, principals of Grace Properties went to Mitchell, whose district at the time included the Kroger Shopping Center on the southeast side of 70S, a center Grace owns.

“The property owners approached me. I did not initiate it. They were upset that the center was not part of the annexation,” Mitchell says. “Looking at the boundaries at that intersection, I saw an unlevel playing field.”

Mitchell says he introduced on Dec. 21 a resolution extending the USD to include the shopping center since it would not affect residential properties. There were no objections from other center tenants, including Bank of America and Kroger, and there was available storefront. Like the previous annexation effort, it passed without a hitch on April 5, 2011, and Iroquois owner Mary Thomas was able to set up shop in the center.

In some ways, it appears Bellevue flew under the radar during this annexation process. Metro Nashville has its share of polarizing issues, from fairgrounds preservation to Bells Bend development, so was it surprising to see the two ordinances sail through public hearings and Council votes?

“Now that you mention it, it does, but I tell you, I haven’t heard anyone who opposed it,” said Full. “Very quickly, we’ve filled up a bunch of empty space. I think it’s great.”

An analysis by Jon Cooper, director of the Office of Metro Council, shows this USD annexation will cost Metro an estimated $41,900 annually and a one-time startup price tag of $287,500. Based on information from the property assessor’s office, Cooper estimates increased annual tax revenues to Metro of approximately $781,000.

While the numbers seem favorable, Paquette cautions new liquor stores are not slam-dunk profitable ventures. The veteran restaurateur brings years of experience and high expectations, but it’s tinged with realism.

“People think food and drink businesses are extremely profitable, but it isn’t like we’re pushing wheelbarrows of cash to the bank,” he says. “This is a commodities industry after all.”

Still, he sees no reason that the shops can co-exist and succeed.

Since none of the shops are discount markets -- though RED may be able to keep prices lower because of inventory space -- the consensus is that success will be measured by how well each business markets itself.

Whether intentional or not, Full has noticed differences among the stores, and she believes that is how Bellevue can support all three.

“They’re all different,” Full says. “Iroquois is female-owned and has a look and touches that seem to convey that. RED is a little high-end and educational, offering classes. Boulevard is family owned and family oriented.”

But Full wouldn’t say which would appeal more to your typical Bellevue resident (if there is such a thing) or which she would personally prefer. Instead, perhaps reflecting on years of lost retail, she offered what most beleaguered residents likely would say:

“Any new business in Bellevue is good business.”

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RECORD TOTALS DAY WEEK YEAR
PROPERTY SALES 0 0 0
MORTGAGES 0 0 0
FORECLOSURE NOTICES 0 0 0
BUILDING PERMITS 0 0 0
BANKRUPTCIES 0 0 0
BUSINESS LICENSES 0 0 0
UTILITY CONNECTIONS 0 0 0
MARRIAGE LICENSES 0 0 0