I walked from the Brooklyn Hotel for about 10 minutes and took in a familiar yet unfamiliar Brooklyn. The streets look the same, but the make up of the residents walking the streets are more diverse and the trendy cafés offering brunch and mimosas is a sign that gentrification is here to stay. Whether your feelings on the subject of gentrification are tempered or not, I’m happy to be on my way to visit a black owned wine and spirit shop in Crown Heights. James Lewis and Ryan Grandville have been together for 10 years and have been married for one year. As two black gay men in Brooklyn, NY they have found their passion and purpose in selling wines in their joint business venture of opening J&R Symposium. James and Ryan are similar and different in that one is the creative soul and the other drives sound business practice with his years of working in accounting.
Joseph: Who came up with the idea on opening J&R Symposium?
James: I met a guy who owned a wine and spirit store called Atlantic Cellar and asked him if I could do an apprenticeship with him. After one year of working underneath him I decided to approach Ryan and see if he was interested in opening a business in the form of a wine and a spirit shop. With my knowledge and Ryan’s background I felt we could be successful.
Ryan: For me, I’m a firm believer in educating yourself on anything before you get in to deep and realize that you are in uncharted territory. So I agreed to it, but I knew that I would go to school and learn about wines to be able to give suggestions to our customers and not just speak without knowing first hand what it was all about.
Joseph: Tell me a little about your apprenticeship James and Ryan let me know how the formal training went?
James: By the end of the apprenticeship I learned that this was a sustainable business venture that could turn a 50% profit or 100% profit on a product because with the changing demographics in the area wine had become popular amongst our potential customers.
Ryan: The course was difficult for many reasons; the course is instructed in old world and new world concepts about wine. The language barrier of learning about wine in French and German was difficult and although I’m great with numbers being able to decipher a second language was very difficult. The classes were taught in English, but the organization/school was underneath a UK curriculum and this was also hard. My dedication and hard work paid off when my exam grade was received and I past the class with Merit.
Joseph: What was the most difficult part of starting the business after getting more knowledge?
James: Finding a lawyer to work with us took some time and finding a space was difficult. Once we got a lawyer we then had to find a space and then get approval from the lawyer on how suitable the place was and this took us a while. The most difficult part was getting the license to open the business. This held us back for a long time. We paid rent on a spot that wasn’t selling anything from January 2015 to July 2015.
Ryan: No it wasn’t July, it was August because we opened in September [Ryan reminds James]. The lawyer submits your application and then you get a date to meet with New York State Licensing Authority.
James: Honestly, we didn’t think we would have gotten the license because the board is typically made up of three people and we walked into a two panel made up of an Asian and White man. We also had liquor stores in close proximity trying to block our license because they are allowed to contest applications if they want to for whatever reasons they see fit to mention. The owners protesting were primarily Asian and had stores that were bullet proof and had encased closing around the cash registers.
Joseph: So why do you think you got the license?
James: The Asian man on the panel said that the Crown Heights area needed it and that it would be good for the area, but said we could not make it a bullet proof store like the others that were protesting our license.
James, brought up race to show that they were approved by the Asian guy on the panel despite being protested by Asians and that was a good feeling for them because it showed that their vision was not being blocked.
Ryan: Being able to walk into a store in this area and go through a wine tasting is a very special experience and we love being able to share that with our customers. I know that being able to educate with our customers was a big reason we got the license.
Joseph: That’s a great point Ryan, how are you helping the community with your venture?
Ryan: Most blacks in the neighborhood go for sweeter wines that are bad for a population prone to diabetes. So we try to teach our customers about the benefits of moving to a dryer wine that is healthier for them. We do blind wine tasting with our customers and take them through learning about palette and pairing wines with different foods. Also helping them understand what makes a wine special.
Joseph: How has traveling influenced this business venture?
James: Traveling definitely played a big role in this venture because I spent time in wine country before leaping into this business. For my birthday in 2013 I rented a limo and went to winery in Upstate New York with some friends. I encourage my friends and customers to visit wineries in the area. In fact, there’s a good one in the city called Redhook Winery.
Joseph: How diverse is the wine business?
Ryan: In terms of the top positions in the business being a sommelier is the most respectable and we know one black female in the area out of 100’s. She’s been helping us and has been helpful in giving suggestions for the store.
Joseph: What’s a sommelier?
Ryan: It takes years to become a sommelier, but they need to know types of wine, be able to speak on the geographic places the vineyards are located, the soil type used to grow the grapes, the climate that might influence productivity, and pairing of wines with foods. Most important, the individuals should have enough knowledge to be able to recognize any wine by taste and scent.
Joseph: Do you want to be a sommelier?
Ryan: I would love to but being a self sommelier is more practical for me right now…it takes years to become a sommelier and the test to become one is very difficult.
Joseph: What other plans do you have for the business?
Ryan: I think being self-sufficient most importantly, but moving into working with restaurants and eventually creating our own bottle. Although we have different palettes and deciding on a bottle will be interesting. Lol.
Joseph: Why do you feel you’ll be successful at creating your own wine?
James: We’ll be successful because we’re passionate and have a great concept and we love knowing our customers appreciate our hard work. Every wine in the store is hand picked and selected by us and having our own bottle will be the icing on the cake for us. When we see people fall in love with a bottle we know we are on to something.
Ryan: As a child growing up in Guyana I sold anything that grew in my mom’s yard…mangoes and cherries were for sale. I have kept that mentality throughout my years in business. America is a place of opportunity and I’ve been fortunate to tap into that spirit of entrepreneurship. Creating our bottle would be a challenge, but not out of my scope because selling is what I do and crunching numbers is my life.
The interview ends with a brief discussion on the state of black America. Both James and Ryan are passionate about being strong black men and business owners and want to share their story in hopes it might inspire a younger generation. There’s something about listening to James and Ryan’s story that makes it clear that they have tapped into an awareness of black buying power and they are adamant on being able to share this with the community.