How This Small Wine Business Grew By Offering Connection And Education

Food & Drink

Crystal Cameron-Schaad says that she is grateful that her small business has not only survived, but managed to thrive over the past couple of years. As the owner of Crystal Palate Wine & Gourmet, a boutique and education center in Norfolk, Virginia, Cameron-Schaad is an inspiration to people interested in working or further establishing themselves in the wine retail and learning industries.

“Connection was the common thread that still prevails in 2023,” says Cameron-Schaad. “After the isolation of COVID and a world full of automation and technical gadgets, I truly believe people are longing for meaningful ways to connect and foster community.” She shares that Crystal Palate was started in 2017 based on her “vision to create a regional destination for wine enthusiasts and professionals alike.” This diverse offering is thanks to a range of classes and events that incorporate art, food, and other interactive elements into the wine experience.

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Prior to launching Crystal Palate, Cameron-Schaad worked in the broadcast industry and held roles as press secretary on a gubernatorial campaign, communications director on Capitol Hill, and national PR director for a Fortune 500 company. She says that starting a wine industry career wasn’t in her original plans. “It was a medical scare in my mid-30s that served as a major trajectory shift in my journey,” says Cameron-Schaad. “I believe that heart surgery, my love of wine and seven little words from my husband, ‘I don’t want to bury my wife,’ may have just saved my life.”

For those who’ve wanted to break into wine industry work, Cameron-Schaad says that disruption created by the pandemic has caused many people to seek an encore career, similar to her own experience. Looking at the people side of the business sheds some light on what it takes. “At Crystal Palate, we look for enthusiastic individuals with a zest for life, love for people and curiosity to learn all there is to know about wine,” she says.

According to the 2022 Economic Impact Study of the American Wine Industry, 1,007,459 people are employed through some aspect of the industry from farming to production to sales. This amounts to $40.11 billion in wages and $111.55 billion generated to national economic activity.

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The small staff includes some pros with decades of history: store manager Allyson has 20+ years of experience in retail wine and a culinary arts degree from Johnson & Wales; Tina is a Certified Sommelier and degreed pastry chef; Krysta worked at a tasting room in California; Yvonne is experienced in retail and wine events; Lauren and Catherine have retail and customer service backgrounds. “As a wine educator, I am confident that I can teach my team the ins and outs of the wine industry,” says Cameron-Schaad. “However, teaching customer service skills can be much more challenging. You either have it or you don’t.”

This dedication to customers, even through trying times, has earned Crystal Palate enough loyalty to support an expansion in 2023, which will be celebrated by a grand opening next month. “We are more than doubling our size to create a dedicated classroom and event space,” says Cameron Schaad. “In addition to more tasting opportunities, classes and WSET Courses, we will also be partnering with local artists for seasonal displays and receptions to bring more cultural experiences to our region.”

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Crystal Palate also serves as a space for professional Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) courses and a a satellite provider for the Capital Wine School, which is located in Washington DC. According to Silicon Valley Bank (SVB
VB
) State of the Wine Industry Report 2023, “finding labor at any price is sometimes more of a problem than it once was.” Cameron-Schaad says that the hospitality training offered at Crystal Palate has benefited local restaurants and wine shops. “I look at this as a unique opportunity to help create a new generation of wine professionals in our community and beyond,” she says. “It’s an awesome privilege and responsibility to pay it forward.”

She says that wine brings people together and though most customers are dealing with inflation and other economic concerns, they have shown lasting support that adapts with the times. “They have a renewed focus on value and quality,” says Cameron-Schaad. “Some are drinking less but buying better bottles.” This buying pattern is acknowledged by the SVB report which reveals that in the US, premium categories continue to offer growth.

A thriving wine industry fosters community, connection and conversation,” says Cameron-Schaad. “It helps create a regional destination filled with bustling restaurants, unique wine shops, robust tourism, a vibrant art scene and the incredible opportunity to discuss and learn about different cultures and regions around the world.”

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