It’s funny how life’s experiences can lead to doing what you love and doing it well. Niches are discovered somewhat by happenstance, not necessarily by design. Experience is a great teacher, and often, it’s the failures that are the best learning experiences when you look in the rearview mirror. I enjoy hearing the backstory that leads to something really great. That’s what Red or White Wine is all about.
Randy and Sherri Williams met in Aurora, Colorado, and have been married since 1991. Randy was born in Loma Linda, California, but his family moved to White Rock, British Columbia, when he was a boy. His dad was Canadian. Sherri is a West Mobile girl. She became a flight attendant with Continental Airlines. This is how the two met in Aurora, Colorado.
Randy worked with Kobrand, a wine and spirits importer, the first established after prohibition. Sherri was based in Newark, NJ, ”with a “crash pad” (no pun intended) for overnight layovers. It wasn’t ideal. They both really wanted to stay in Denver, so Randy left Kobrand, opened a restaurant that didn’t work out, and closed after a year and a half. Sherri was based and flew out of Denver until they moved to Chicago
He joined Sonoma Cutrer, a chardonnay producer in California as the sales manager for ten midwestern states. They moved from Aurora to Chicago for Randy’s work and raised their sons in Barrington for 12 years. By this time, Randy knew all the wine distributors and accepted a position as Vice President of Sales for Heritage Wine Cellars, a family-owned importer and distribution company. “It was a rough job,” he says. “I was working all the time.”
Along the way, Randy and Sherri would travel to Fairhope to spend time with her sisters for vacations. In 2001, they left Chicago and purchased a home in Fairhope's Fruit and Nut section, the same home they live in today. Their home was where the movie Our Friend was filmed. “I baked cookies with Dakota Johnson,” says Randy. Pretty cool!
After five years with Heritage Wine Cellars, Randy had even more connections in the industry and accepted a position with Chalone Wine Estates, which had wineries in France, California, and Washington. Randy was in charge of the Eastern United States. Randy would fly out of Pensacola every Monday. “A group of us, all on the same Atlanta flight schedule, met at the airport at the beginning of each week to go do our thing.”
Chalone Wine Estates was a publicly traded company that always seemed “financially challenged,” he says. On top of the grueling travel schedule, he says he had “The World’s Worst Boss.” “I owe him in a way because I told myself I will never work for anyone else again.”
In 2004, Randy and Sherri decided to open Red or White Wine in Fairhope. With a terrific selection of retail wines, gourmet appetizers, antipasto, meat and cheese boards, and specialty items, including delicious pizzas and nightly specials, it has become our go-to place to enjoy a wonderful atmosphere and visit with friends. We go often, and it’s one of our favorite places. The food is so good, and it’s a fun place every time.
“Originally, nothing was open on De La Mare in the evening. We stayed open later, and people would come to meet their spouses after work.” They had never owned a small business before and did everything themselves, including the books. “Everything we made went into inventory.”
“We were lucky,” says Randy. “We’ve never had to borrow any money, so we survived the first year and made a little profit in the second year.” Fortunately, Sherri has a Business Management Finance degree from Auburn, and she handles all the accounting, payroll, and business licenses in addition to helping oversee the business.
Four years later, they opened a second location in Mobile in the old Nixon Drugs across the street from the Dew Drop Inn in midtown. It was tiny, with about three high-top tables scattered among the wine aisles. It, too, was a hit with the locals. After a while, they moved into a larger space at the old Smith Bakery on Dauphin Street, where they are today.
Red or White opened a third location at The Wharf in Orange Beach. This is a partnership, but Randy buys most of the wine for the store. More recently, Randy and Sherri opened a fourth location in the Forest Park area of Birmingham. Linda and I took my son and his wife there and had a delightful evening. They loved it.
For those of you familiar with Birmingham, Western Supermarket dominated the wine business for years. Western closed a few years ago, opening up an opportunity that Randy and Sherri seized upon. “Our goal is to be the best wine stores in the state of Alabama,” says Randy. The Birmingham location is similar in feel to the other Red or White shops and has a private dining room. “People are still discovering us, but it's going well,” he says.
“Covid kicked us hard,” says Randy. “Everything changed. The community was very supportive, but it was so different. Customers would order full dinners to-go, which added another aspect to how we usually operate. Packaging full dinners and making sure orders were correct before they went out changed the whole ball game.” Randy credits the loyal employees that stuck with them through the pandemic.
Red or White has a great staff of managers, servers, and chefs. They have had great success with employee retention, and Randy credits that with their hours of operation. “We all want a reasonably normal schedule.” Red of White operates as a retail wine and gourmet gift shop by day and a restaurant venue by night. “We stop taking orders at 8:00 PM, which means we get home at a decent hour, and it's a manageable schedule.”
Another thing I find interesting and appreciate is that they encourage customers not to tip on retail wine purchases. If you pick up a bottle of wine and a pizza to take home, they will tell you to please just offer a tip on the food purchase if you choose. How refreshing in this day and time!
So what are some of the secrets to Red or White’s success? Early on, they offered a Saturday afternoon wine/charcuterie plate pairing. Four wines under $20, totally at the general manager's discretion, are served to a group that usually runs around 40 people. These are still going strong and are very popular. “Our clientele is split fairly evenly between men and women,” says Randy. “We do have a lot of women groups that come in all our locations.”
The gift market is growing and is especially strong during the holiday season. They have a good online business where people order wine, and they will have it ready for pickup at any of their locations.
What about the future, I ask. “Our goal is just to improve,” says Randy. “We want to get better and better at everything we do. There have been lots of changes, mostly positive. We are so much busier than we used to be. The area has been discovered, if not in the national eye, certainly in the regional eye.”
What do you like to do in your off time? “I’m a bad golfer, but I still enjoy playing. I’d like to learn how to fish.” In the meantime, Randy, Sherri, and their great staff continue to parlay their career experiences into something truly special. Don’t you love it when people find just the perfect niche that pulls all their experiences, both good and bad, to create something that people love and appreciate? I certainly do.
Congratulations on all your success. Please keep doing what you are doing. And I’ll get us a tee time and bring extra golf balls. I’m right there with you!