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Fighting to stay in business, Columbia wine bar reopens after 16-month COVID shutdown

Published: Jul. 23, 2021 at 7:02 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - After a 16-month hiatus, Lula Drake Wine Parlour is opening its doors and serving loyal patrons once again.

WIS caught up with the head sommelier and owner of Lula Drake, Tim Gardner, ahead of the bar’s grand reopening.

“When we shut down on March 15th, we knew it was gonna be a long haul,” Gardner said. “We didn’t know it was going to be 16 months.”

In those 16 long, difficult months, Tim Gardner said he had to get creative to survive.

“We sold thousands of bottles,” Gardner said. “Seeing high-end burgundies and Bordeaux’s and all these crazy natural wines fly out the door was great. It was kind of sad, but it was also something that helped us survive.”

That cash flow would turn out to be Gardner’s savings account – allowing him to reopen his doors in July 2021, after shutting the operation down on March 15, 2020.

“I opened Lula Drake because I was very passionate about wine and because I had worked over in Europe and wanted to bring that experience here,” Gardner said. “So to see that slip away was gut-wrenching.”

The spaces between 1633-1635 Main Street, according to Historic Columbia, were built in 1865 and remodeled in 1937. It was rehabilitated in 2015, ahead of Lula Drake’s initial emergence onto the Main Street scene. It’s a corridor that hosts a plethora of locally-owned and grown businesses.

The Lula Drake space has been so many things over the years. Once it was a bank, then a department store – and now home to a wine bar prioritizing natural, sustainable European wines.

If you ask Historic Columbia’s John Sherrer, he’ll tell you businesses like Lula Drake are important to the fabric of the downtown district.

”You have a community that has been enriched because of all of these personal investments all these individuals have made,” Sherrer said.

Sherrer said these unique venues have been transformed into locally-grown investments for a reason. It dates back to 2012 when a National Register District was established there, allowing investors to leverage tax credits for preserving historic buildings.

But when the pandemic hit, many of those businesses and investors only had themselves to fall back on.

”Commercial equipment cannot sit for a year,” Gardner said. “We had plumbing issues. We had all kinds of issues and then we lost our chef two weeks before we were going to reopen. We had to retool from the ground up.”

While some businesses shut down completely, others emerged for the first time.

A hop, skip and a block south on Main Street is Alpha One Fitness. The gym opened in November 2020.

”We thought that was the best time to do it,” said co-founder Neal Boozer. “It allowed us to work on the kinks and by the time things got back to normal we would be good to go and ready to run.”

The resurgence of the Saturday morning Soda City crowd and the proximity to student-specific housing like The Hub made it easy, he said, to market the new gym.

”You have to be resilient in what you do,” Boozer said. “You have to be obsessed with what you’re doing.”

That’s a feeling Gardner shares. It’s fair to say he is obsessed with his love of wine, invested in the success of the business and was clearly willing to weather the storm.

It has been a rollercoaster, Gardner said, but he’s happier than ever to welcome longtime patrons back to their barstools.

”My landlords helped us survive,” Gardner said. “They gave us a break on rent and encouraged us to keep the word out there that Lula Drake was coming back and that meant everything.”

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