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Behind the business: how OC Wine Mart is adapting to COVID-19

Ten years ago in Irvine, Calif., Julie Lim opened OC Wine Mart, an upscale wine shop hoping to answer the long-standing question: “Do liquor stores have to be so grungy?” No one came. But as an immigrant entrepreneur, Julie is a fighter. She wasn’t going to give up on her dream that easily, and rather than accept defeat, she continued to evolve the business. First there was the addition of the wine bar to bring in more foot traffic. Then Julie cultivated a different kind of atmosphere with live music and hot food service. OC Wine Mart became a community gathering place. 

Fast forward to 2020: Julie now operates three locations of OC Wine Mart throughout the greater Los Angeles area. A family-owned business, OC Wine Mart has two working grandparents on staff, along with a handful of “career” OC Wine Mart employees and a larger bunch of young staff who are learning the ropes of customer service, professionalism, and hospitality. 

“For many of them, it’s their first real job,” said Julie. “We train them on everything, including customer service and how to take care of people. I’m very proud of my staff and how they’ve grown, and I always want to encourage them to go on to bigger, better things when they’re done with their schooling.”

With the current circumstances, OC Wine Mart’s in-person charm and community appeal is unfortunately not possible. Deciding whether to make operational changes to meet the safety and health regulations imposed during the COVID-19 outbreak or to simply shut your doors is not an easy call, but for Julie there was no other option. 

“My initial reaction was that of survival. I felt I either had to sink or swim. I chose to swim, obviously. Swim as hard as I could to stay afloat. I’ve been in this situation before, 10 years ago, and I felt like I was on the Titanic. As a new business, we were sinking. I had to be extremely creative and work very hard. That’s what we’re doing now.”

We sat down with Julie (virtually, of course) to hear more about the initial impacts COVID-19 had on the day-to-day operations, staff, and community, as well as the ways they’re pivoting to continue to serve their customers.

What initial adaptation did you need to make given the COVID-19 restrictions?

First, we immediately closed the wine bar. We kept the deli open for takeout only and then almost immediately implemented curbside pickup where people could call in their orders and pay via mobile payment or credit card over the phone. The next step soon after was delivery. We started implementing free food delivery in the local area, and then started providing free wine delivery, not only in Orange County, but throughout California.

We just put our website into high gear. Our online store was always there, but it was not a very big part of our business. Now we are actually busy fulfilling orders and have to hire drivers or basically use our existing employees as drivers and even family members to serve the demand. We all moved into action.

What impacts have these operational changes had on your staff?

When the shelter in place went into effect, I immediately gave the option to my employees. You can stay home or continue working. Those who may have an underlying health issue or our older employees—including our two moms, my mother-in-law and my mom, they’re both in their 70s—they were the first ones. We actually forced them to stay home. They wanted to go to work, but they were not allowed. I gave all the other employees the option of either staying home or working.

For those who are staying home, they are applying for unemployment. We would hire them anytime they choose to come back. With that, we only had half of our employees who were willing to work, so we are running on a skeleton staff right now. My husband has to work pretty much six, seven days a week. I’m working every day.

What new strategies have you implemented that are seeing success so far?

We had to make contactless deliveries and contactless curbside pickup. We had to wear masks and gloves. We had to sanitize and take extra precautionary measures. Basically, it’s one day at a time and adapting to whatever we need to do. We just have to think quickly on our feet, be extremely responsive, and move as fast as possible.

We’ve also had some fun with it. We started doing deliveries for virtual happy hours. For example, if you want to do a virtual book club with a dozen other women, we deliver this set of wines to each of you so you can all have a virtual happy hour together. All these things, we’d never heard of before. You never heard of virtual tastings, virtual happy hour, contactless delivery. These are brand-new concepts, but we have to be ahead of the curve and be innovative, and it’s okay to copy and learn from others and just pick the best ideas and do it for yourself.

We’re about to launch our wine club. We’ve been thinking about a wine club for a very long time, but this situation is making it urgent now.

What’s one piece of advice you would give other business owners during these challenging times?

Reach out to other business owners. You’re not alone. Don’t be afraid to reach out to others for help. Don’t be afraid to reach out to your community, to your fanbase, to your customers. Every business has their own fanbase. Reach out to them, reach out to your supporters, and share what you’re doing. Share what you need and share how the community can help you.


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