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COVID-19 killed pop-ups, so this business went back to the drawing board

Ashley Payne-El, left, and Virginia Wilkens, the owners of Wine O'Clock, help a customer at their stall at the Mount Vernon Marketplace. (Submitted Photo)

Ashley Payne-El, left, and Virginia Wilkens, the owners of Wine O’Clock, help a customer at their stall at the Mount Vernon Marketplace. (Submitted Photo)

When Ashley Payne-El and Virginia Wilkens organized their first pop-up event in Essex, the friends and business partners had no idea it would also be their last.

Wine O’Clock, a boutique wine store, was launched in hopes of providing additional income for the two women, both of whom work in the fashion industry, Payne-El as a designer and Wilkens as a makeup artist.

They hadn’t known from the jump that they wanted to sell wine; the idea to start a business together came first, and different concepts came later. One idea — a beauty supply store aimed at women of color — was quashed when a similar store opened nearby. When Payne-El initially called to suggest they sell wine, though, Wilkens recalls she wasn’t immediately sold.

Emerging from COVID This is part of an occasional series that explores how businesses of all types and sizes are adapting to the pandemic. To read more in this series click here.
“I was like, OK, well, if we sell it I don’t want to do the cliche liquor store with the lottery and the plexiglass. I want it to be a fancy place for people to … pop in and buy wine,” says Wilkens, who has a retail background. Both she and her business partner are mothers, so she pictured the store as a place parents would feel comfortable bringing their children into.

That was in January 2020.

Like most businesses, Wine O’Clock has since had to contend with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, making major pivots that were never part of the owners’ original concept for the companies.

For some businesses like Wilkens’ and Payne-El’s that opened just before the pandemic, though, pivoting to combat the spread of the virus was more complicated than switching to online sales and curbside pickup. It meant essentially starting from scratch.

It was February when Wine O’Clock held its first pop-up event, during which it sold out half of its inventory in two hours. The business partners began eagerly looking forward to pop-ups they had planned throughout the spring and summer at festivals and farmers markets — Wilkens guesses they had somewhere around 10 events and appearances planned.

They had even invested in what they refer to as a “wine cart” — a machine, a little smaller than a hotdog cart, that could sell single-serving bottles of luxury wines and homemade sangria on-the-go — to supplement these efforts and solidify their brand.

“Our goal was just to kind of get our name out before we settled down with the store,” Wilkens says.

Needless to say, things didn’t pan out as expected.

As the spring rolled around, it became clear that the festivals and farmer’s markets their business model depended on were going to be closed for the foreseeable future. Still, the duo pressed on, knowing that if they didn’t come up with a strategy soon, it could be the end of their business.

Opening a physical location, it seemed, was their only option.

These days, Wine O’Clock can be found in a stall at Mount Vernon Marketplace, a market that Wilkens lauds for hosting a wide range of exciting businesses and a neighborhood she appreciates for being “artsy.” They opened last November, nearly nine months after the store’s first event earlier that year.

It was a much faster opening than the partners had planned back when the bulk of their business model relied on events and pop-ups. Still, the outpouring of support from the community, coverage from local bloggers and holiday season promotions offered the store a boost in its first few weeks.

Sales aren’t especially robust, says Wilkens, who works in the shop from 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. and typically sees only a handful of customers daily, most of whom come into the marketplace; they offer curbside pickup, but customers rarely use it.

Most days, Wine O’Clock makes between $100 and $400, though there were days during the height of the recent COVID-19 spike, when strict restrictions were placed on Baltimore businesses, in which no customers came in at all.

More recently, warm weather has led to increased foot traffic through the Mount Vernon Marketplace; in Wilkens’ view, Wine O’Clock is doing well, considering the circumstances.

“It’s been a blessing, in all honesty, because it kind of gives us time to focus on what’s important in our business and test out a few things,” she says.

For example, difficulty setting up service with third-party delivery apps inspired the owners to hire their own delivery driver, who is set to start working the weekend of St. Patrick’s Day. The owners also hope to redesign their storefront by the end of March in hopes of attracting more attention once foot traffic increases even more in the spring.

Payne-El and Wilkens are looking forward to breaking the wine cart back out sometime this spring or summer and unifying their original pop-up model with their current strategy. Last year, so little was known about the virus that events were being canceled left and right; a year later, governments are allowing outdoor gatherings, like the festivals and markets Wine O’Clock plans to visit, to go ahead as planned, albeit with reduced capacities and other restrictions.

But when exactly they will return to that original concept remains uncertain.

“We had a lot of things on the books that we had planned on doing prior to the pandemic and I realize that the pandemic probably won’t be gone for a little while,” Wilkens says. “So we feel like the show must go on, in that aspect.”

 


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