Where did you go?

Nelson, with a $50 fur coat, at a Prague flea-market

Well y’all, it’s been a minute. What follows is the long overdue answer to the very reasonable questions that I have received innumerable times since closing the bar; what happened, what are you doing now, will you reopen, and where can I buy good wine? If the below is a bit long winded, you have my apologies, but I don’t imagine any of you the would want to read it will be surprised or perturbed.

What happened?

In short, a bit of everything. I think to understand why the bar closed, we need to go back to why it started, and what it started as. Ampersand, as a brand, emerged for me in college with the creation and proliferation of the ouroboros encompassing the ampersand, which forms the logo you all know. At first, it was something of a loose metaphor for my propensity to work in a variety of styles and mediums, but after college, it became something of a shorthand for the rapidly increasing panoply of work that I was outputting; from visual art, to writing, sculpture, sidetrack’s coffee machine, and so many bicycles.

In 2015, I decided to run for city council. That went…about as well as you would expect for a 22 year old kid. But the election created a vacuum in my time, and my father encouraged me to start this little wine bar that I had been chattering about since I studied abroad during my junior year of college. It was a shoe string operation, to say the least. Our first wine order was only $600, and had less than a dozen wines. I had no dishwasher, no employees, no money, and no sign. This original ampersand was the one that many of you fell in love with. It was our little secret; some sort of speakeasy dive bar with a fabulous list of wines by the glass. Hours were suggestions, the record player was a team effort, and great conversation was a given.

But with the ambition that is so common to young men, I found myself wanting to grow the business. We were in desperate need of more space, and the makers market that occupied the front of our space was far from thriving, as evidenced by the languishing sales of vintage bicycles which I was still producing under the ampersand name. So I negotiated to take over the whole space, and expand while we were still running. This was a monumental effort which saw me, along with more than a few loyal friends, working the bar until midnight, then doing construction on the expanded space into the wee hours of the morning. But when it was done, the new space changed everything.

We went from twenty to over a hundred seats, from one bar to three, and from a Nelson+1 arrangement, to a real staff. The business grew, and so did the sophistication of its offering. We added drag shows, art shows, and even the odd concert. Winemaker visits became routine occurrences, and the list ballooned to well over 300 wines by the glass. What’s more, this space allowed for me to refine the back end systems that made ampersand possible. It was a wild and exciting time, but my heart was still set on growth, and I dreamed of a more opulent space, and the addition of cocktails to the offering.

All of this came to pass in the opportunity afforded by 2020. With no need for customers to be in the shop, I had the staff, and the time to consider a move. The new space was a mammoth undertaking, requiring nearly half a million dollars worth of renovations. I put on my work boots and set to painstakingly restoring a century old bank. by the end of the process, we had replace the entire floor system, filled two forty foot dumpsters full of 80s drop-in ceilings and sheetrock, and restored 22,000 feet of plaster trim, along with over two hundred holes in the ceilings. And it was magnificent. With the addition of cocktails and and a new service model, it was something out of another world. From the massive chandeliers, to the acres of velvet, it was unapologetic luxury. And between lockdowns, we even got to use it for a time.

But underneath the glamour of the new space, the toll that the last two years had taken on me personally had started to add up. I went through a divorce, and became a single dad in the process. Because of Alabama’s disastrous treatment of the pandemic, and the federal government’s reliance on third party lenders for PPP loans, I had been left out of pocket to support my staff. Eventually, I sold my home to afford the transition. By the time we opened, I was exhausted, broke, and had created a business that couldn’t extend beyond me. What’s more, the customers that had fallen in love with the individual attention of the original bar were being disappointed at a rate that I couldn’t live with. The business was making it, but I was drowning.

After a particularly tumultuous series of events, I ended up running the bar by myself. I was working eighteen hour days for years on end, and I was dead on my feet. I pulled through to the purchasing trip I had planned to Italy, which I had convinced my now wife to go on with me (though at the time we had only been dating for a few months). There, away from the hustle and bustle, I knew that I couldn’t do it anymore, and that I couldn’t trust a buyer to treat my customers with the care and attention that they deserved. Besides, the brand was me, literally. The logo is copied after the tattoo on my chest. Even this website was something that I had bought to write about wine, but never used. So I boxed up the wine, liquidated everything, paid back our debt out of my own pocket, and shut the doors.

What am I doing now?

For years, I had been pushing off a steady stream of people who wanted to know how we did what we did. In the beginning, it was because I didn’t really know. but over time, I codified our system into an actual model. From the customer perspective, ampersand seemed lavishly generous. But behind the scenes, we were averaging a third of the industry standards for waste. What’s more, our demographics were bowing everyone out of the water in terms of diversity in every metric, and our ticket averages were the highest any winebar we could find this side of New York.

With the bar closed, I finally started returning some of these calls, and joined The Marsh Collective, the family consulting company that my father started to spread the work of redemptive real-estate beyond Opelika, and give hope to small communities around the country. For me, this was a lifechanging shift. I am finally able to work at the highest levels of problems in communities and businesses. I write all of the time, I’m always down in the weeds of small business, and I’m engaging daily with the stories and futures of communities that want what we have in our city. So if any of y’all were worried that I died, I can promise you that I am as happy as a clam. Even if I do miss slinging drinks, and serving tableside.

Will I reopen?

In a word: no. Sorry, y’all, but I just can’t do the long nights and still fulfill my highest responsibilities as a husband and a father. But the news isn’t all grim. If you are so inclined, I am still happy to do private events, alongside my consulting work for people who need a more applied business solution. And…I do miss it. I know that I can’t do the bar again the way it was, but hospitality is in my blood, and I can’t ever really get away from it. I’m not sure if it will be brick and mortar or some sort of recurring experience, but I know something else is on the horizon. I’m not sure how it will all land, but not a day goes by that I don’t talk about the next incarnation of sharing great wine with the best place in the world. So take heart, something is coming, and I promised that it will knock y’all’s socks off…Just as soon as I figure out what the hell it is.

Where can you get the good stuff?

Well, there’s a few answers to that question. First, I am more than happy to help y’all find something locally, if you need a hand. Whistle stop keeps a thoughtful, if small, selection, and will happily order most anything for you. For a more bespoke experience, Chris Kennedy at Cerulean in Midtown Auburn has a fantastic knowledge of wine, and a winning palet to go with it. He offers both in house, and take home experiences, and I would heartily recommend his suggestions. For my natural wine nuts, there really isn’t any place that can hold a candle to Golden age in Birmingham. And for those of you who were smitten with the old stuff, The Rare Wine Company out of California can now ship your wine to the ABC store (feel free to reach out if you have questions).