Despite the pandemic putting a damper on Charleston’s otherwise lively nightlife, Graft Wine Shop managed to sustain itself as a local favorite with national appeal.
Co-owners and sommeliers Miles White and Femi Oyediran first met in 2008 while working as busboys at the Charleston Grill. As the youngest members on staff with a mutual love of wine, the two formed a bond that endured through the years, even while careers took them on different paths.
For White, the journey included various wine-related stints in the U.S. and abroad, along with completing the Culinary Institute of America’s wine and beverage program. Oyediran also continued to hone his expertise, eventually becoming an advanced sommelier and winning multiple wine competitions.
Determined to put their mark on Charleston’s wine scene, the friends reunited and opened Graft in 2018. Initially both a wine shop and bar, Graft quickly became a local favorite offering guests an attractive space to buy and sample wines with an emphasis on biodynamic farming and sustainable practices. Graft’s popularity grew quickly, eventually reaching an audience outside Charleston.
It wasn’t long before White and Oyediran became known on a national level with press from The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, and more. Their shop was even listed as one of VinePair’s annual 10 Best Wine Stores. Clearly they had found their niche.
But like so many in the restaurant and service industry, the pandemic dealt Graft a devastating blow, forcing White and Oyediran to think outside of the box in order to stay afloat. As Oyediran explains, “We were doing everything we could to bring some dollars through the door.”
VinePair spoke with the two friends about the challenges of the last year, the ways they were forced to re-envision their business, and the surprising silver linings that they found along the way.
1. What has the last year managing a wine store and bar together during a pandemic been like?
MW: Femi and I had to decide what we wanted to do, as opposed to somebody making the decision [to close] for us. There’s no rules and regulations [locally] against that. When we were forced to close, Femi and I always wanted to build a website, we just never had the time. We were able to integrate our inventory over pretty easily. The website worked and allowed us to keep things curbside only and the reception was great. I think before we opened Graft we didn’t realize how much work went into owning and operating a bar and when we shut that down, for the first time in a long time, we actually got to get back to the wine.
FO: We got to be productive in a way that was foreign to us. The bar was open all day, every day before, and we had people in and out all the time. Being able to have undisturbed time to work really gave us the time and space to re-conceptualize the way we do things, and focus on retail in ways we hadn’t been able to do before. For instance, I write a weekly newsletter that goes out now, and it’s been a huge thing for our customers. They flock in after reading the newsletter. Working on other projects [such as] a new wine club which we have coming up soon, and rearranging the way we do our bar program. It’s given us a lot of time to get creative and input new ways of doing business that, honestly, we didn’t have the time to do before.
2. What are some of the biggest hurdles you’ve dealt with during the pandemic?
FO: Our bar was shut down for seven months, and that was definitely a hurdle. Margins are certainly a little bit more attractive with the bar, but the good news is we had some really great support locally on the retail side. Ultimately, I don’t think that was fantastic for our employees. I don’t think [they] applied here to work at a wine shop. They wanted to work at a bar where they get tips. That was a hurdle of its own. I think we did a really great job of coming up with ways to stay afloat. We introduced a load of new merchandise: hats, T-shirts, and sweatshirts. One thing that was a game changer is we introduced what we call “Graft, Take the Wheel,” essentially these curated curbside bundles. Our goal was to get as much wine out the door and eventually we realized that this was actually sustainable. We can have people pick up these wines and not have to have any contact with them, so we actually started buying more wine. We’ve done a really great job at adapting and changing the things that we’re doing to make it through.
3. Are there any changes you might keep in place after things return to a more normal state?
MW: Everything that we did we’re planning on keeping. We can actually have people place orders at midnight. People still don’t want to pick their own wine and have gotten to a point where they trust us. People still don’t feel comfortable coming inside, so we’ll absolutely keep all of it.
4. How has your team worked together during this time?
MW: We’ve gotten tremendously lucky with people. It’s small and does feel more like a little family, as cliché as that is. People stuck with us and we were able to get our first round of PPP in. Obviously, no one is doing as well as they were this time last year. We are faring better than a lot of people, which is really pretty tragic, but it’s allowed us to keep everyone on and happy and keep everyone off of unemployment.
5. What, if anything, has helped you weather the past year together?
FO: Miles and I are pretty optimistic dudes. We see tough situations and we go, all right, what can we do? That kind of shared mindset is really important.
MW: We’ve had a lot of newer customers in the past seven or eight months, just from a retail perspective. Charleston is already a bit of a drinking town. There’s a good sense of community here and I think people make a conscious effort to support locally. We have a lot of people that shop at all of the wine shops, not just us. They do such a great job of supporting everybody. The community has been awesome and people are curious, and want to drink and try new things.
6. What’s new and exciting that you are drinking right now?
FO: There is so much good wine out there and every week there is new stuff that comes in. Just the idea of new, small growers. I know it sounds cheesy or corny to say that, but it’s true. I write the [Graft] newsletter and we have so many new wines every week. I think it would be a disservice to say one thing.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.