Building buzz via vino
Wine shop gives Texas Cadillac dealership a 'luxury personality'
Photo credit: BRIAN HUTSON
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly characterized the consolidation at the Frank Kent group of dealerships in recent years.
Will Churchill was given a perplexed look when he visited the Texas state liquor board to request a license for his dealership.
"Uh, why does Frank Kent Cadillac need a liquor license?" the worker asked.
The answer: For a 1,600-bottle wine shop that has become a showcase feature of the $18 million Fort Worth, Texas, dealership that Churchill and his twin sister, co-owner Corrie Watson, opened in October.
"You have to do something that separates you from the rest of the pack and gets people talking," says Churchill, 36. The siblings own Honda and Fisker stores at the same location. "The chatter around town is all about the wine shop."
The shop carries $250,000 worth of wine, with bottles priced from $9 to $3,000. In October, about 50 patrons visited the store's first tasting, hosted by Opus One, a Napa Valley winery. The shop, Cadillac Wines, sold $80,000 worth of vino.
"Only about 10 percent of those people were our customers," Churchill says. "The rest were all wine people who love Opus, but who would never have stepped foot in our dealership otherwise."
None of the patrons left buzzed -- all customers are strictly limited to 5 ounces of wine within a 12-hour period. But the shop has become the most buzzed-about feature in the 85,000-square-foot store that
Photo credit: BRIAN HUTSON
Churchill and Watson built to stand out within the parameters of Cadillac's strict image guidelines, which dictated the store's limestone tile exterior and matte porcelain floor tile.
The owners also built a two-acre dog park, enclosed by both a 28-foot-high stone retaining wall and a small stream that cuts through the property. It's a nod to Churchill's great-grandfather and store founder, Frank Kent. He was before his time in making his German shepherd at home in the dealership, which opened in the 1920s as a Buick store.
Churchill's mother and former dealer principal, Wendy Kent Churchill, who died in 2005, often brought her black Lab into the dealership. And Watson has two dogs that are regulars: a border collie and boxer-Australian shepherd mix.
"We've always been sort of canine-focused," Churchill says. "This takes it to the next level."
After Frank Kent got his start in automotive retail with Buick, he sold Fords from 1935 until 1952, when his store became the main Cadillac distributor for West Texas. In the 1990s, under Wendy Kent Churchill, the family added several franchises.
Recent years brought consolidation. Since 2008, the family has seen its Pontiac and Hummer franchises discontinued, lost its Dodge store in the downturn and surrendered its Buick and GMC franchises as a part of a sale to another dealership group.
The group, Frank Kent Motor Co., now operates the remaining franchises in separate rooftops on the same 25-acre property. This year, it expects to sell about 600 new Cadillacs, 2,725 new Hondas and 30 Fiskers.
The Cadillac store also serves vegetables and homemade hummus from a restaurant inside the Honda store. The success of that eatery, established when the Honda dealership opened in 2010, helped spark the idea for the wine shop as a customer draw.
Another feature aimed at getting customers to spend more time at the Cadillac store: a 25,000-square-foot customization shop, which will do anything from bolt-on accessories to paint jobs and turbocharger installations on any brand.
Chase Hawkins, Cadillac's vice president of sales and service, says Frank Kent's wine shop gives the dealership a "luxury personality." Hawkins attended the store's grand opening in October.
"If you're not interested in wine, it's still a great feature in the store. I don't think it detracts from the overall ambience," Hawkins says.
The glass-enclosed shop has an automatic wine dispenser to ensure the pours are fresh -- and not too heavy. Churchill has a wine expert on staff, Brad Kimura, whom Churchill calls a "cork dork" -- not yet a sommelier but studying to become one. All of the wines in the shop must be approved by Kimura, Churchill or Watson.
The wine shop is fully owned by the siblings but operates as an independent business.
So how many of the wine patrons who have visited the store have bought a car? None -- yet.
"We're laying a foundation for the future," Churchill says. "If you think you're going to open something like this and in two months say, 'Hey, we sold six cars,' it ain't gonna happen."
You can reach Mike Colias at firstname.lastname@example.org.