It’s been a long road, but Gwen Hurt is starting to realize the vision for her startup business, Shoe Crazy Wine.
Wine is now flowing from the company’s warehouse in Petersburg to big-box retail stores in several states. The Shoe Crazy Wine brand, created by Hurt six years ago, is now being sold in about 200 retail locations in Virginia, Maryland and North Carolina. The wine will soon be in Sam’s Club stores in those states and Georgia, too.
“We’ve landed in Sam’s Club and Food Lion and in Walmart,” said Hurt, who created Shoe Crazy as a second career and has faced hurdles while pursuing her entrepreneurial dream, including skepticism and rejection from numerous restaurateurs, retail shops and wine distributors.
But more doors are opening now, and Hurt said she has big ambitions for her wine brand. She’s hoping to have her wines for sale in about 400 locations by the end of the year.
“It is a good feeling to know that they [retailers] are looking at us a lot differently than they did four or five years ago,” Hurt said. “We sent out so many samples of our wines to distributors and we were told ‘no’ for many different reasons.”
“Now, the tide has turned,” she said. “A lot of it is because of the pandemic. More sales are happening in the grocery stores and convenience stores than in restaurants and the hospitality industry.”
Hurt started her journey in the wine business in 2013 after leaving a long corporate career working in management roles for computer companies IBM and Lenovo, a job that took her overseas including a lengthy stint working in Asia.
“I bring a corporate background to my business,” she said. “I understand manufacturing from a computer [industry] perspective. I understood building your supply chain before you have customers and making sure you can supply that product to your business.”
Hurt, who was born in South Carolina and grew up in New York, first moved to the Richmond area in 2005 before leaving the next year to take a work assignment overseas.
After Hurt returned in 2013, she lost her job in a corporate downsizing, and then Hurt and daughter Brittny were injured in a severe car accident that required them to go through about a year of physical therapy. During her recovery, Hurt rethought her career goals.
Shoe Crazy Wine was born from her personal love for wines and her hobby of mixing her own blends of wine. “It’s a labor of love,” she said.
The brand name came from her love for shoes. “I am an avid obsessive about shoes,” Hurt said. “At one time, I had almost 500 pairs.”
“Now the shoes are only here,” she said, pointing to one of the company’s distinctive wine labels, a drawing depicting a woman reclining in a giant shoe and drinking a glass of wine, designed by Ellen Jones of Chesterfield County, Brittny’s friend.
Shoe Crazy wines are custom-blended wines that Gwen mixes herself with help from Brittny, who manages the company’s marketing and social media and also helps mix and taste-test the new blends. It has become a family business, as Gwen Hurt’s son Ron also works in the business as vice president of sales.
Shoe Crazy partners with vineyards, mostly in the wine-producing area of the U.S. West Coast, to mix and supply the wines that Gwen and Brittny have developed. Their target market is wine lovers who prefer mild-tasting, fruity or sweeter wines. Hurt calls them “soft palate” wines.
“These wines are not bitter, aggressive or bold,” Hurt said. “They are very soft and easy to drink.”
With retail prices between about $8 and $15 a bottle, Shoe Crazy sells eight different wines under names such as Sweet Harmony, Strawberry Passion and Melange Red Blend.
One of the most popular is Sweet Bella, a red wine named for Gwen’s mother, Mable, who died earlier this year from complications of COVID-19 at age 79. She had suffered from a thyroid condition and early-stage dementia, but she loved red wine and urged her daughter to create a mild, low-alcohol red wine that she could drink even though she took medication.
“I think what has sustained me is the fact that my mother used to say, ‘When they tell you ‘no,’ just understand that is their problem, not yours,’” Hurt said. “‘You are better than they think you are.’”
And Hurt said she has faced a lot of “no’s” over the years — “no’s” from restaurant owners and “no’s” from retailers and distributors.
“They gave reasons, but the reasons to me were somewhat flimsy,” she said. “A lot of them said it was the branding — they didn’t want a brand with a shoe on the wine bottle. Distributors would not pick us up because they said that no one would buy from a black-owned wine company. Or they said, ‘You are a woman and you will be gone in a year.’”
The result was that Hurt created her own distribution company to distribute her wines. She still has a presence in some independent grocery stores such as The Market @ 25th in Richmond and in some local restaurants, but she has mostly focused on selling to big-box retailers.
“We have distributors coming after us now, now that we have built a brand,” she said.
In mid-October, Gwen and Brittny mixed and tasted wine at the company’s Petersburg warehouse and office to create a new blend called Front Line, which is named to honor the front-line workers who have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic. Proceeds will go to support those workers, Hurt said.
“We wanted to give back,” Hurt said of the wine, which is a red consisting of about 30% cabernet, 60% merlot and 10% petit verdot.
She got the opportunity to sell her wines at Walmart through the company’s “Open Call” process, which gives mostly smaller, U.S.-based entrepreneurs the ability to pitch products to the company’s buyers.
“Shoe Crazy Wine was selected because it’s both a quality product and fills an interesting niche targeting female customers,” said Walmart spokesman Charles Crowson.
At the start of her journey, Hurt said, “I put myself on the five-year plan, and I feel like I have met those goals, and now I have a three-year plan. My goal is to make Shoe Crazy a national brand.”
To win a national market, Hurt is going up against some mighty competitors: mass-market wine brands like Barefoot and Stella Rosa and Yellow Tail that are owned by large companies and do hundreds of millions of dollars in sales at convenience stores and grocery stores across the nation.
In 2019, Shoe Crazy bought a warehouse in Petersburg, where it stores wines shipped from its partner vineyards and then ships those wines to retailers.
“I was very keen on getting a building in Petersburg,” Hurt said. “I was thinking that as we grow, where can we affect the employment rate? The overall unemployment rate was high in Petersburg even before the pandemic. I thought we would go someplace where we could help with the employment.”
While the COVID-19 pandemic took a bite out of sales earlier this year — mostly because the company could no longer do sales at wine tastings and festivals — Hurt said she is targeting about $500,000 worth of sales this year.
“By next year ... with some new clients coming on, we should do close to $2 million” in sales, Hurt said.