The Urban Grape’s TJ and Hadley Douglas have a tagline at their South End wine and spirits shop: Drink Progressively.
It’s their approach to varietals — a method to help steer drinkers from light and crisp whites to sultry reds — but the phrase has increasingly taken on a deeper meaning over the past year-and-a-half.
For the latest episode of Bold Types, the couple sit down with Boston Globe business reporter Janelle Nanos to discuss diversity and inclusion in the wine industry, and how sharing their experiences running a Black and woman-owned business has deepened their connection with customers.
Like many small businesses, the couple was forced to pivot during the pandemic-imposed shutdowns. That meant closing their decade-old store to the public for 54 weeks and finding new ways to serve customers. They created a text line for wine assistance, a new website, and a custom wine counter in the store’s vestibule for in-person pickups.
“We tried to think really creatively,” said Hadley.
“This pandemic gave us the opportunity to see that we needed to meet these customers where they were,” TJ added.
And customers in turn came out to support the couple in more ways than they could have imagined.
On the evening after the George Floyd protests last summer, opportunistic vandals broke into the store, shattering a glass window. It was a heartbreaking moment for the couple on many levels: The violation of a break-in, and the sadness of such thoughtless actions piercing the spirit of the protests.
But those emotions were coupled with a deeper angst. When TJ went to check on the store the next morning, he tripped its alarm system. On the phone with the alarm company, Hadley’s mind went blank, unable to think of the passcode to stop the alert. Knowing that the police would be sent to the building, only to find her Black husband inside of the broken-into store, she panicked. “If you call them, you have to understand what you’re condemning him to,” she told the alarm company representative.
Luckily, TJ was able to shut off the alarm before the police arrived. And Hadley’s subsequent social media post about the experience drew an outpouring of support.
“[W]indows are not lives,” she wrote. “Dreams deferred cause rage. Our window is broken but the roots of this are in 400 years of knees on necks.”
The day after the break-in was their biggest-ever day of sales. The couple used the money from those sales to help create the Wine Studies Award for Students of Color in partnership with Boston University. They then raised $200,000 to endow the fund for the program, something they see as part of their legacy.
“It brings some equity into the wine industry,” said TJ. “Over time you’re going to see a more diverse community of wine people and hospitality people because of the practical work experience and education.”
Despite the challenges of the 18 months, the Douglases say 2020 was their most successful year yet.
“In many ways we found our stride last year. Because we’ve always had the dual meaning of Drink Progressively. Drink on the progressive scale but also vote with your dollars and sip in a more conscious way,” said Hadley. “We were never sure if the city would get completely behind us being Black-owned and women-owned and this is what matters to us and you’re going to shop differently here.”
But that’s no longer in doubt, she said. “This city has risen to support us in ways that I never could have imagined.”