business COVID-19 food and drink

How Swirl Wine Bar & Market survived and even thrived during the pandemic

Swirl Wine Bar & Market, 3143 Ponce de Leon (courtesy of Swirl)

By Jeanne D’Arcy, Mid-City Messenger

When Beth Ribblet opened the Swirl Wine Bar and Market 15 years ago in Faubourg St. John, she probably never realized that the “market” part of the business would help keep the doors open during a future disaster.

Owning a wine shop and bar was Ribblet’s long-term plan in 2005, and then Katrina hit. “Like many of us who went through that experience, we learned that our entire lives could change in the blink of an eye and everything you hold dear could be wiped away with no warning,” Ribblet said. “So why wait? Do what you want to do now.”

She was out for a run one morning in November of 2005 and saw a “for rent” sign on a shop, which had been a satellite for La Boulangerie.

“I knew it was the perfect space,” she said. “We secured it in December and began long negotiation process with the Faubourg St. John Neighborhood Association, to open a wine shop. We completely renovated the space and finally opened our doors in June of 2006.”

After navigating the pandemic restrictions, Swirl is basically back to regular operations, including its popular tastings.

Last year, the city health department considered Swirl a grocery because of its packaged food sales — it carries wine accompaniments such as cheese, cured meats, chocolates and olives — and its alcohol license, so Swirl did not have to shut down completely during the pandemic.

Ribblet suspended the bar business and constantly adapted operations to keep her employees safe and follow the guidelines.

In the beginning, the entrance to the store was blocked with a table, allowing people to walk up and order. Customers had to be masked and use hand sanitizer before and after picking up their orders.

Not knowing what to expect with the absence of bar business and limited operations using fewer employees, Swirl made a successful application to the Payroll Protection Program. The shop did not need to apply for the second round of PPP.

Customers also were given the option to phone in an order for pick up or delivery, a service that continues to this date. As restrictions eased, small numbers of people were allowed in to shop, and when bars could do outdoor seating, Swirl began serving wine by the glass to go and allowed people to sit at outdoor tables in front.

Eventually they began limited wine tastings by reservation in September 2020, in the patio in the back of the store. They created a safe environment for people to taste and learn about wine, starting with six people per each 20-minute time slot.

To keep Swirl employees safe, they restricted indoor consumption for quite some time, even after it was allowed in the city. But once the mask mandate ended they went to both indoor and outdoor service.

Swirl has recently allowed patrons into the store again. (courtesy of Swirl Wine Bar & Market)

When Ribblet saw how people were using Zoom, she thought it would be a great way to continue to do wine tastings and education. Swirl teamed up with then-employee sommelier Michelle Gueydan to do weekly virtual wine tastings and also worked with local chefs Susan Spicer of Rosedale and Jacques Soulas of Café Degas to do virtual wine and food pairings.

On the day of the event, participants would pick up their food packages from the restaurant and the wine-pairing package at Swirl. Gueydan and the guest chef would be on Zoom together talking about the pairings.

Then Event Consultants Global, an event-planning firm based in New Orleans, contacted Swirl in August 2020 to do virtual tastings for a large national corporation. These became a tremendous financial success. The number of participants ranges from 50 to 300. Gueydan and another local sommelier, John Mitchell of the Windsor Court, conduct the tastings.

“The event planners use St. James Cheese to provide the snacks, keeping everything local. These events, which are ongoing, are one of the reasons we survived and even thrived in the later months of 2020 and now into the first half of 2021,” Ribblet said.

Loyal customer Ron Brinkman, a Parkview resident, has been going to Swirl for about seven years. “There are so many components that I enjoy about the shop, not the least of which is the neighborhood ease of access,” Brinkman said. “And the attitude of the shop personnel makes even the novice wine drinker feel comfortable, but note that these folks are also extremely knowledgeable.”

He went on to say “The owner is almost always there to answer questions when it comes to wine and food pairing. She is delightful and always makes everyone feel at home. The customer base is both diverse and friendly, and almost always open for any and all discussions. It is a very cool place!” he concluded.

Another Mid-City resident who is a regular at Swirl added: “I appreciate all the hard work that it took to keep changing with COVID. I always felt safe.” Both customers liked the fact that the place is dog friendly and always has a water bowl for four-legged friends.

Although Swirl does not have online sales, it has a social media presence, a website and a weekly newsletter with a 4,000 subscriber base that gets the word out about how and what they are doing.

“Emotionally, this has been a really difficult time for everyone,” Ribblet said. “There was constant worry about getting sick, getting someone else sick or having people we know and love get sick was extremely hard, especially early on. Keeping a smile on our faces and providing the level of service our customers are used to was not always easy.”

She said she is especially grateful to her employees, who stayed with the shop through the hardships of the pandemic, as well as the customers.

“I can’t say enough about our employees,” she said. “We have a solid local following and people were so happy that we were doing our best to stay open that they wanted to support us — and, trust me, they did!”

Swirl Wine Bar & Market
3143 Ponce de Leon St.

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