This feature is part of our 2023 Next Wave Awards.
The first thing you’ll notice upon darkening the door of Penny’s Wine Shop in Richmond, Va., won’t be the warm, comfortable bar or the hand-built wooden racks stacked with wine. It’ll be the stoplight.
It’s one of those old-timey traffic fixtures, bright yellow and way bigger than you realize. “You see how big that thing is?!” co-owner Lance Lemon says. He laughs and shakes his head at the idea of trying to remove the stoplight from its perch dangling above the shop’s center. Not that removal is in the cards, mind you. A business called Stoplight Gelato once occupied this storefront in Richmond’s Jackson Ward neighborhood, but the proprietor passed away, and then the pandemic hit, and then Lemon and co-owner Kristen Gardner Beal came along.
“The stoplight was a favor, and to pay homage to what was here at one time,” says Lemon. The two agreed to the building owner’s terms to keep the light suspended from the ceiling as they turned the place into the city’s hottest new wine spot. In a metropolitan area that’s enjoyed — or endured, depending on whom you ask — the state’s biggest influx of new residents during the pandemic, and a neighborhood that’s struggled to retain its historic identity in the face of decades of racism and underfunding, the stoplight offers some continuity as the city moves from what it has been to what it could be.
In many ways, Penny’s embodies what Richmond can be — and what the area’s homegrown talent can make it. The shop opened its doors in February 2023, availing the Jackson Ward of its living-room atmosphere, a clutch of smart and well-executed small plates, and, of course, a tightly curated selection of natural, organic, and biodynamic wines from both domestic and international producers. Penny’s isn’t a full restaurant, nor an encyclopedic bottle shop, nor a straightaway wine bar. Like most everything about it, that’s the product of careful consideration.
“We knew that with our experience — and also, just being honest, financially, because we didn’t have the money to build out a full-blown restaurant — we thought this smaller space, smaller seating [concept] we could really manage,” Lemon says.
Not that this is their first rodeo. Gardner Beal and Lemon — who grew up together in Mechanicsville, a greater Richmond suburb just 15 minutes from the shop — have spent years selling wine to get to this point. During overlapping stints in Brooklyn, the pair reconnected, and Gardner Beale, who works in finance, found herself hanging around the wine shops Lemon was working in at the time. “Watching him in a space, he’s a natural. He could sell wine to a grape,” she says. “We started talking across the table: What would it look like for us to do this on our own?”
Toward the end of last decade, they landed on an answer, returning to Richmond and laying the groundwork for a project called RichWine. They had fundraised with friends and family, and even scouted spaces. But when Covid-19 hit, they pivoted the business to contactless deliveries of the wines they were excited about. As one of the first operations to do so in the River City during the pandemic’s early days, it was serendipity meets supply and demand. “The business just took off,” says Gardner Beal. “That gave us the momentum and the funds to start planning for an actual brick-and-mortar concept.”
They hadn’t initially looked for a space in Jackson Ward, a historically Black neighborhood with fewer restaurants, bars, and foot traffic than The Fan, Richmond’s densest district for eating and drinking. The neighborhood, declared a National Historic Landmark district in 1978, has long been the seat of Black business and entertainment in the Commonwealth’s capital, and has survived everything from segregationists’ infamous “Massive Resistance” campaign to racist uses of eminent domain that bulldozed entire blocks. Lemon had worked at Mama J’s Kitchen, the area’s venerable soul-food stalwart, years prior and both he and Beal knew the surrounding blocks well. The more they thought about it, the more they realized that the neighborhood had the pieces — the charming cityscape, the nearby restaurants, the proximity to Richmond’s main thoroughfare, Broad Street — their new business would need to succeed. Things fell into place.
“Jackson Ward knew that we needed to be here,” Lemon says. “Jackson Ward was like, ‘No, you can bring your ass over here and open up your little wine shop here, because this is where you need to be.’” As the shop approaches its first anniversary, it is basking in that local welcome. Reservations are a smart idea on prime nights. It’s not just the fare that’s drawing customers to this place on Brook Road that the partners once worried might be too far off the beaten path. Penny’s is weaving itself into the civic fabric of Richmond and central Virginia with fundraisers for local nonprofits and participation in efforts to increase diversity in Virginia’s burgeoning wine industry.
“It’s important to me that, as a whole, Virginia wine flourishes, not just in the vineyards, but also in the retail, also in the restaurants,” says Lemon. That’s not to say Penny’s selection is Virginia-only, or even Virginia-forward. “For me, there’s no real regimen to how we’re sourcing. We’re going to find something that you’ll like within whatever your parameters are.” If it’s Virginia wine that you wind up choosing, that’s great; if not, that’s great, too. As Lemon says: “It’s no ‘pinkies up.’”