Martin Wine Cellar gives new meaning to the term “family business.” Although the company was founded almost 70 years ago by the Martin family, which still runs the business today, it also boasts an extended family of more than 200 loyal employees, many who have been with the company for more than 30 years.
Launching with humble beginnings and eventually expanding across multiple locations, Martin Wine Cellar faced an enormous setback during the wrath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. However, the business and its people emerged from the tragedy stronger than ever, and recently celebrated the grand reopening of the store location that was lost nearly 10 years ago.
The small corner store that started it all
Martin Wine Cellar was founded by David Young Martin, Jr., in 1946. After returning to his home state of Alabama after serving in World War II, David was unsure of what career path he should take. An uncle who was in the bulk wine business convinced David to visit New Orleans to learn more about wine and spirits. David liked the vibe of the city and promptly moved to Louisiana with his parents in tow. On May 24, 1946, the very first Martin Wine Cellar opened its doors at the corner of General Taylor and Baronne Streets in Uptown New Orleans. The store itself consisted of a 12-by-12 room that made up half of a shotgun double residence (the other half of the building was a hardware store).
Cedric Martin, David’s son and the current President of Martin Wine Cellar, explains that the first store sold only liquor, which was rationed during the period after the war. The store was located in a neighborhood near several other small businesses, so David benefited from some foot traffic. He would put a sign in front of the store, turn off his single working light bulb, and sit outside to wait for customers. Back then, business was modest but steady.
Soon David became interested in incorporating wine selections in his product offerings. He began reading about French wines and took a trip to New York City to meet with an importer. When he brought several selections back home to sell in his store, people began to take notice, and business increased.
“In the early 1950s, it wasn’t easy for people to get imports,” Cedric explains. “My father was a pioneer. He recognized that customers would want to learn more about wine, and he had the foresight to jump into an area of the market that was virtually unheard of at the time.”
Along with offering European wine selections to his customers, David also traveled to California and formed relationships with proprietors of then-unknown wineries in order to gain knowledge and obtain new products. His commitment to education is something that made him distinctive in the industry, especially at that time period.
“By the late 1950s, my father was holding wine tastings for the public, which was something that just wasn’t done back then,” Cedric recounts.
Known for offering a wide array of unique products and also for his knowledge of the growing wine landscape, David helped make Martin Wine Cellar a destination point for beverage enthusiasts across the south. He also expanded his business by purchasing the other half of the double that housed his store, demolishing it, and erecting a new building in its place.
A diverse portfolio
Launching into wines helped Martin Wine Cellar expand its business, but that wasn’t the only other product line David ventured into. He dabbled in the Bourbon business and eventually tapped a distiller to create two private label whiskies for him: Bourbon Town Club and Martin’s NH. Cedric believes that his father was one of the first retailers to offer shrink-wrapped wine gift baskets, which became a large part of the company business. Customers would request large orders of wine and whiskey baskets, which David would make himself (he purchased deluxe shrink-wrap guns and learned how to make elaborate ribbon bows).
The company needed more space in order to keep expanding its beverage and gift basket businesses. In 1969, David purchased several houses adjacent to his store and expanded his retail area, also adding warehouse space and a parking lot. With the additional square footage, David began repurposing old liquor barrels and turning them into garden planters, which were on display in the parking lot and became a popular novelty item with customers.
Several years later, Cedric began working for his father full-time. In the 1970s, the business formally launched the Thursday Tasting Series, a popular program that eventually expanded to include wine classes, educational lectures and reception-style events. In the early days of the program, customers would pay $15 to $20 for a dinner and tasting event. The store eventually began inviting winemakers from California and Europe to run the tastings. Events could accommodate up to 60 people, and they became so popular that they were eventually offered several times weekly.
Cedric also expanded the business even more by launching a gourmet food section in the store. Working with suppliers in New York City and Boston, Cedric introduced a variety of import foods into the store’s product offerings, such as mustards and olives. In 1977, the store opened a New York-style delicatessen counter, which offered specialty sandwiches, meats, cheeses, pâtés and salads.
“We installed a long table with 16 stools, and people would sit at the counter to eat,” Cedric recalls. “We also sold wine by the glass. It attracted a lot of people to the store during their lunch hour. They’d stay for lunch and then buy a bottle of wine or whiskey to have for dinner that night or on the weekend. Our food business grew and it also helped us expand our retail business.”
Although the food side of the Martin’s business never accounted for more than 12% of the company’s bottom line, it continued to flourish over the next decade. In the late 1980s, Cedric changed the deli counter into more of a bistro atmosphere by hiring a full-time chef, removing the wooden counter and adding tables to increase the seating capacity to 70. He also revamped the menu to include daily specialty lunch plates, homemade soups and other items. Additionally, Cedric launched a catering side to the business and added a glassware rental option so that Martin Wine Cellar became a one-stop shop for local party planners.
“The store became very diversified at that time. It was a destination point for a lot of people,” Cedric says. “We had products that were hard to find, and our customers knew that if we didn’t have something, we would get it for them.”
To keep up with the company’s continued growth, David secured an old movie theater and turned that building into a second Martin Wine Cellar location in Metairie, Louisiana. The 7,800-square-foot location was outfitted with another bistro/deli, along with a reception and tasting room for special events.
In 1993, the business secured a 72,000-square-foot warehouse on Bienville Street in New Orleans to store additional product inventory and to house the company’s corporate offices. The warehouse also became the new location for the Martin Wine Cellar Gift Department. Cedric believes that the acquisition of the warehouse secured the company’s future success.
“My father always believed that you needed to have more product in the back. You always needed to keep everything in stock so you wouldn’t run out, or else your customers would look elsewhere,” he says.
Another concept that kept Martin Wine Cellar doing well even during the slower summer retail months was the creation of Once Upon a Vine, an annual event held in City Park. Launched in 1994, the event was designed to be the premiere wine tasting event in New Orleans, showcasing the company’s vast wine portfolio and various catering offerings. Wine tasting festivals weren’t very common at that time, and the Martins took pride in knowing that their event was one of the first of its kind.
A challenging decade
The 2000s brought additional changes to Martin Wine Cellar, both in terms of growth and loss. The Martins expanded the Metairie store location to its current 12,000 square feet of space. Less than two years later, the family mourned the loss of their patriarch, David, who died of Parkinson’s disease. Cedric took over as the head of the company and was the one to oversee the events that unfolded after August 29, 2005: the day Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Louisiana.
While many residents of New Orleans chose to flee the city, Cedric remained in town. He managed to arrive at the Baronne Street store right when the levees broke–unbeknownst to him, as all forms of communication were out. Cedric opened the store to share water and ice with his neighbors, and then went home for three days. Upon returning to the store the following Tuesday, Cedric discovered that the store had been looted and was submerged in over two feet of water. Power wasn’t restored to the area for six weeks, and the Baronne Street store was completely destroyed.
Additionally, many Martin Wine Cellar employees had left the area and were scattered around Louisiana. Both store locations remained closed at first until the Metairie location was able to reopen in late September. By that time, many of the store’s employees from both locations had returned to the area and were able to go back to work in Metairie.
“The store became a place to eat, see friends and reconnect with each other after everything we’d all been through,” Cedric says. “Our employees’ passion for wine rubbed off on our customers, and we were able to keep our business going.”
Quickly reopening the Baronne Street store wasn’t an option for the Martins, but they knew they needed to rebuild their business. They also wanted to make sure that all of their former employees had a place to work. In December 2005, the company opened a new store in Mandeville, followed by another store in Baton Rouge in January 2006.
These locations were much smaller in size than the Baronne Street store, but they carried wine, spirits, beer, gourmet foods and gift baskets. Most importantly, they provided a steady income for many people and also helped rebuild the local business community, which suffered severe losses after the hurricane.
In addition to opening the two new locations, Martin Wine Cellar continued to expand its business plan in other ways. The company began shipping products across the country in 2011, and now sells wine and gift baskets in 37 states. The Metairie store’s bistro also expanded its hours and now offers dinner service five nights per week. And in 2014, the Martins finally reopened their original store on Baronne Street. The new 14,000-square-foot location features a 140-seat deli area in addition to a cheese counter and the traditional wine, spirit and liquor offerings.
Starting over on Baronne Street brought with it a fresh new set of challenges. Many of Martin Wine Cellar’s former customers have since moved out of the neighborhood, requiring the company to rebrand and remarket itself. So far, Cedric reports that business is doing well.
“New Orleans is a great city to live in. There’s a lot of opportunity here, but there’s also a lot of competition now that didn’t exist before,” he explains. “We have so many other restaurants in the area.. We’re still tweaking the look of the store, but we’ve already seen a lot of growth, and we’ve only been open a few months. We’re just getting started.”
Cedric credits the success of the company to the talented people who work for Martin Wine Cellar. While he hints that additional stores could pop up a few years down the road, Cedric says that for now the company is focused on getting to know its customers in the new market, providing the best possible service to encourage people to keep coming back.
“In Louisiana, you can really buy liquor everywhere. It isn’t as exclusive as in other states, and that’s always presented a challenge for us,” Cedric says. “But people don’t want to drink the same wine every day. We can show them a lot of variety in both product and price point. We have quality products, too. We are proud to but a bottle in a customer’s hand and say, ‘You’ll enjoy this,’ because it’s the truth.”
With a business model like that, it’s safe to say Martin Wine Cellar will still be going strong for another 70 years–and then some.