Vino Garage owner Doug Aylard took a chance when opening his first business in Columbia’s North Main district. Three years later, he’s thumbing his nose at the banks that snubbed him and hopes his success will attract more business to the area just beyond downtown.
By John Del Bianco
Nov. 23, 2015
Vino Garage stands out on Columbia’s struggling North Main Street, its big white doors covered in local brewery logos.
Behind those doors is Doug Aylard who lives in neighboring Cottontown and who three years ago took a chance, bought what was once an old transmission shop and began selling beer and wine, especially local craft beers.
Aylard had a background in beer and wine distribution and saw an opportunity to own his own business, but he struggled to get loans from bankers not confident in the North Main district.
Today, Aylard says he’s seen growth each year and hopes other entrepreneurs will join him on North Main.
“There are lots of properties available,” Aylard said. “But I’ll be honest; I’m very tired of being alone. I wish someone else would kind of follow me.”
The city is counting on businesses like Vino Garage and owners like Aylard to reinvigorate the once-thriving area just a few blocks from the city’s new baseball stadium and Bull Street development. But it won’t be easy, said city Councilman Cameron Runyan, who lives in neighboring Elmwood Park.
“At the edge of the development zone we’ve made it very difficult for entrepreneurs to get going in there area because of all the costs government is sticking on everyone’s backs,” said Runyan, who lost his bid for re-election.
Columbia Voice caught up with Aylard at the Vino Garage to talk about why he wanted to start his own business, what it’s like to be his own boss, the business’s growth and North Main Street’s struggles.
This excerpt has been edited for length and clarity.
(Listen to the full interview, including what wines and beers he enjoys. )
So what made you want to be your own boss?
I’ve always had the sort of itch to start my own business. … I’m young enough so if it doesn’t work out as well I can still recoup. It just seemed like the right place at the right time. …
I’ve seen online that you are in the process of trying to expand? How is that process going and what made you want to expand more than what you have right now?
This area doesn’t have any place to hang out. It doesn’t have a restaurant, it doesn’t have a bar. … To help further serve the neighborhoods, that’s one reason we want to do that. … There is over 2,112 households within a mile radius of this place and I consider that walking distance, so it would just be really nice for a neighborhoods to have a place to kind of call their own and just kind of walk here, hang around with some other neighbors and then walk home.
Explain the idea behind the wine tastings and the little social gatherings that you have. How does that help you as the owner connect with your community? …
We don’t have national brands on our shelves, and because of that people aren’t familiar with some of our stuff, so we have these tastings to sort of show people what real wine’s supposed to taste like, you know, wines from Greece, wines from Portugal. … It’s always nice to hear people say, “You know I never would have suspected of wine coming out of Greece that tasted like that.” And it’s happened a number of times so it actually makes me feel really good.
Can you talk about the process of someone stepping in here for the first time and not knowing what kind of wine goes with what and what kind of beer they should get for a certain time of year. How do you learn that process of explaining to a first-timer what to purchase? …
You’ve got about 30 seconds to kind of figure this out. So usually I have a number of questions that I ask people, particularly if they’re here for the first time. … If you’ve had wine in the past what wines have you enjoyed? Is this supposed to go with food? So, some very clear questions, even what kind of coffee do you enjoy? That tells me what kind of wines I should start thinking about to suggest for you. …
Talk about what you have seen in the three years that you have been here, the growth, the anticipated growth and what this part of Columbia could eventually become? …
One of the hardest things that I had when I started this was trying to get money from bankers to start this. I heard a number of times that “It’s the slum, we’re not going to invest in this area, there is nothing else around you.” …
What you see on Main Street is not indicative to the neighborhoods that are behind it. But there is still that stigma that this is the slums. So when we did get the money for it, we went right ahead and every year we’ve seen double-digit growth. Right now we’re sitting at 11 percent over this time last year, which is double what banks like to have.
So I’m kind of thumbing my nose at the bankers that said no. It’s been three years, we’re still here, the lights are still on and the neighborhoods have been nothing but supportive. I would say 85 percent of my business comes from the contiguous neighborhoods.
In terms of what is changing right now? We have a War Mouth Barbeque coming in. They should be open probably December or January. The same developer, Frank Cason, … is looking at a number of other properties in this area. And I think the baseball stadium development, no matter what anybody thinks about it, I think it’s going to change that idea that this part of town is the slums.
But if you look at a map, the city can only expand through this area. Every other direction it’s expanded into. … There are lots of properties that are available. But I’ll be very honest; I’m very tired of being alone. I wish someone else would kind of follow me. …I hear grumblings of some things, but nothing has solidified as of yet.