In many ways, Matt Bekebrede’s life has been shaped by wine.
After opening his retail-restaurant hybrid store as a Vino 100 franchise in April 2007, the former Millwood Golf and Racquet Club clubhouse manager met his wife Steph when she was a Vino customer. The two hit it off and married in late 2008, and she now runs the daily operations of the duo’s Branson West store.
They currently operate as Vino Cellars and are known for a family atmosphere.
“A lot of the people say it’s the ‘Cheers’ of wine,” says Matt Bekebrede, seated in the lounge of the couple’s flagship store, 2137 W. Republic Road in Republic Plaza. “We’re getting to know our customers and our customers are getting to know us. We’ve formed lifelong friendships. There’s so many people who have been regulars since day one.
“It’s very close-knit.”
Now an independent wine shop, Vino Cellars grew apart from its franchise roots.
In May 2012, the Bekebredes bought their way out of the Vino 100 franchise for undisclosed terms.
Matt Bekebrede says he was originally enticed by the franchise because it matched his needs and supplied footing for him when he was 26 years old and striking out on his own. At the time, the Philadelphia-based company had more than 70 stores, but Bekebrede began to discover its resources were lacking. Vino 100 now has six stores, according to its website.
“It wasn’t supported the way it was supposed to be,” he says. “We didn’t really have to answer to them, because it had gone so far downhill that they weren’t really doing anything.”
Around the same time as the franchise switch, the Bekebredes doubled their store’s square footage with a move two doors down to their current location.
“Vino Cellars was the first name we came up with,” Matt Bekebrede says. “We probably went through another 30 different names, and then finally, we’re just like ‘You know, I think the first one we came up with is the best.’”
In 2014, Vino Cellars opened its second store, near Table Rock Lake, with the purchase of property previously used by Steve and Mandy Hoffman to run Gourmet Grocer. An old house, Bekebrede says the Branson West store has a modern Tuscan feel. The shop on Republic Road has a retail component, as well as a bar, seats and tables for tastings, with a full food menu and a private room for parties. Vino Cellars also hosts regular events, with a recent party launching a series of private-label wines.
The Bekebredes teamed with Augusta-based Noboleis Vineyards to launch The Matriarch, Vino Cellars’ first house brand, on Aug. 24.
Priced at $23, the blend is made of 60 percent Norton, 30 percent crimson cabernet and 10 percent chambourcin grapes. Matt Bekebrede says the company has since sold 27 of the 80 cases commissioned.
“Norton’s the state grape,” Matt Bekebrede says, noting Augusta, near St. Louis, was the first federally designated American Viticultural Area, ahead of Napa Valley. “The whole goal is to create wines that people want.”
Bekebrede says the company has 10 private-label wines planned, each with a different winemaker in mind. The Matriarch is only available at the company’s two stores, but Bekebrede has aspirations of selling Vino Cellars’ varieties at retailers in St. Louis and Kansas City, as well as by-the-glass sales at Springfield-area restaurants.
Next month, Vino Cellars is scheduled to launch The Patriarch, a blend developed for the company by Lodi, California-based Jeremy Wine Co. Bekebrede is tight-lipped about the beverage’s ingredients, not wanting to spoil the surprise for the launch event.
In the case of Jeremy Wine Co., Vino Cellars is building on exclusivity.
“We’re his only distribution place in Missouri,” Bekebrede says, noting names and art for other varieties in the private-label line will be inspired by his five children.
Beyond the new house brands, Vino Cellars carries a variety of wines that typically run below $30 per bottle, along with craft beer and whiskey, as well as tapas, pizza and sandwiches.
Vino Cellars buys products from 10 suppliers, including St. Louis-based Pinnacle Imports LLC.
Distributor representative Dave Fender estimates Vino Cellars buys about 400 cases of wine – a standard case has 12 bottles – each year through Pinnacle Imports. Fender works with such local clients as Brown Derby, Macadoodles and MaMa Jean’s Natural Foods Market LLC.
“We represent more of the artisanal, boutique, ma- and pa-owned wineries,” he says, noting Vino Cellars has been a client since he started with Pinnacle nine years ago, and the competition is stiff. “There’s days I go in to try to have a meeting with them and there’s three representatives in front of me because they’re all fighting for the business.”
Bekebrede says the core tenet of Vino Cellars is that both novice and experienced wine drinkers can enjoy beverages in an easy to access format.
Combing the shelves, customers can find wine descriptions and ingredients to help them narrow selections.
“They’re very helpful and don’t make you feel stupid,” says Betsy Worthy, a customer since the shop opened. “They’re so hands on, so usually when you go there, they’re there.”
Declining to disclose revenue, Bekebrede says sales rose by almost 10 percent last year. Vino Cellars’ revenue split is about 60-40 in favor of the Springfield store.
“The whole goal since the day we opened was to bring really high quality wines to people that were not extremely high priced,” Bekebrede says. “There’s a lot of really good wines out there in that $15 to $30 price point.”
Bekebrede says a wine of the month club helps to grow a sense of community at the store, as well as the bottom line. Between the two stores, Vino Cellars has over 300 club members who pay $35 a month to receive two bottles of wine, discounts and access to special events.
“The club is the central part of the family,” he says.
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