Associate Manager, Communications and Strategy, U.S. Chamber of Commerce
October 21, 2021
From more than 1,000 applicants from across the United States, The Urban Grape in the South End of Boston was named the 2021 ‘Dream Big’ Small Business of the Year during an awards ceremony at the U.S. Chamber’s Big Week for Small Business virtual summit.
The company’s co-founder and CEO TJ Douglas, along with co-founder and CMO Hadley Douglas, accepted the award which comes with a $25,000 prize. The Small Business of the Year Award recognizes a small business that exemplifies the spirit of innovation, entrepreneurship, and individual initiative. Urban Grape’s innovative business strategy, rapid growth, and commitment to community development stood out among this year’s nominees.
“We’re Not Wine Snobs”
It’s a surprising admission from someone who owns a retail business selling wine. Hadley states this in a video about the company—and walking into Urban Grape, one understands the sentiment. Rather than selling wine by the region, the company has developed a unique scale to help customers understand and develop their palate. Called ‘Progressive Shelving,” the system organizes wine by the body, as opposed to region or varietal.
To introduce customers to the concept, Urban Grape suggests thinking about wine like milk products. Skim milk being the lightest would rank as a 1 on the scale, while heavy cream would rank as a 10. The idea is to apply that scale to red and white wine, and you have a range of wines differentiated by weight and composition.
The approach is more customer-friendly than conventional wine stores, as shoppers can more easily identify what their preferences are on the Progressive Shelving scale.
With its unique approach to the education of its customers, Urban Grape makes everyone from novice wine drinkers to seasoned collectors feel comfortable and welcome, particularly Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) shoppers who have previously felt unwelcome and unrepresented in the wine industry.
Founded in 2010, Urban Grape has 14 employees dedicated to the store’s purpose of making all people feel like wine is for them by breaking down barriers and creating access. Urban Grape is also one of the largest sellers of BIPOC-owned and -produced wines in the country—and sells over two thirds of all the BIPOC-produced wines sold in New England.
Growing in Challenging Times
“What I realized from a lot of retail stores, really throughout the country, is that there is a lack of hospitality,” TJ says in a video on Urban Grape’s website. That hospitality-driven model was challenged by the COVID-19 pandemic, which required the company to halt in-person visits to the retail store for 54 weeks straight.
No stranger to innovation, the company quickly adapted to not only carry on with operations, but to grow. On its website, Urban Grape installed a text support line to make shopping easier. The company also quadrupled its fleet of delivery vehicles and drivers to service more customers at home. For its events, Urban Grape went digital, offering virtual educational events to teach about wine in fun and interesting ways.
As a result of their efforts, at a time when most businesses saw revenues decline, Urban Grape grew by 65%.
While Urban Grape was able to adapt to succeed throughout the pandemic, it was also able to give back to fellow Boston businesses. The company teamed up with local restaurants to offer meal/wine pairings, ultimately returning over $80,000 in sales to the Boston restaurant community. Alongside these efforts, Urban Grape organized weekly online meetings for other small businesses to assist them in navigating the pandemic.
Changing How People Think About the Wine Industry
Urban Grape has changed how its customers see the wine industry, but it’s also changing the industry. BIPOC individuals are historically underrepresented when it comes to wine—something TJ has experienced firsthand as a Black wine retailer.
Amid the racial unrest in 2020 after the death of George Floyd, and the national conversations about racial equity that ensued, Urban Grape used its online event spaces to host discussions about racial issues. These discussions led to the creation of The Urban Grape Wine Studies Award for Students of Color at Boston University, an award helping to create pathways to careers in the beverage industry.
TJ and Hadley explain the importance of their program: “You can't be what you can't see, and our hope for this program is to create access for BIPOC to the wine industry. People of color deserve a place at the table—and through this program, we make sure that place is also set with a wine glass.”
Urban Grape has previously been recognized as the Best Wine Store in Boston by Boston magazine, was named a Top 100 Retail Store in America by Beverage Dynamics, was named the Best Winestore in the Northeast by VinePair, and was nominated for Wine Store of the Year by Wine Enthusiast in 2020.
TJ and Hadley Douglas were named Local Heroes by Thrillist in 2020, and won a Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce Small Business Award in the same year.
Urban Grape reflects the core aspects of what makes businesses such a powerful source for good in their communities. The company’s commitment to breaking down barriers and supporting fellow businesses in Boston made it a standout in this year’s applicants.
The 2021 Dream Big Awards also named the following winners in eight categories. Learn more about all the finalists.
- Emerging Business Achievement Award: Imperium Data Networks – Tampa, FL
- Green/Sustainable Business Achievement Award: Recyclops – Sandy, UT
- Minority-Owned Business Achievement Award: TOOTRiS – San Diego, CA
- Veteran-Owned Business Achievement Award: Building Momentum – Alexandria, VA
- Woman-Owned Business Achievement Award: Made in Corpus Christi – Corpus Christi, TX
- LGBTQ-Owned Business Achievement Award: Hideaway Cafe – Winchester, VA
- Young Entrepreneur Achievement Award: Embark Trucks – San Francisco, CA
- Community Support and Leadership Award: Medium Rare – Bethesda, MD; Washington, D.C.; Arlington, VA
More information on the Dream Big Awards.