Rue Cler is a French bistro anchoring downtown dining in Durham, NC, since 2006. Co-owner Nathan Vandergrift also handles the wine program.
What did 2020 look like for your restaurant?
You know, it’s funny, because February 2020 was the best month in the history of Rue Cler. We were really in a groove. I think the food is better than it’s ever been. We’re selling a bunch of wine. It’s Valentine’s, right, which is always a big day, but the rest of the month was just great.
I was actually in California when this whole thing started and we had lunch at Chez Panisse on Rudy Gobert Day [when the NBA shut down and everything else followed suit], and Jonathan Waters was opening up crazy stuff because who knew what was going to happen, and then we flew back Saturday and shut down the restaurant.
Our landlord is being really, really cool—he’s given us a real incredible rebate on our rent, so that’s been a big thing. He owns a bunch of spots around here in downtown Durham and I think he’s working with everyone.
We were shut down completely until the second week of December when we started offering to-go orders, and we’re doing that five days a week. We made payroll through the end of March and then immediately let everyone go so they could collect unemployment. My day job is in infectious disease, as a statistician, so I knew this was going to be a long haul. Taking a PPP loan would have bankrupted us, whereas closing down has allowed us to keep our powder dry even though we’re still losing money. But closing down and letting people go was the worst thing I’ve ever had to do in my life.
Now that we’ve reopened for take-out, we have just three staff—the manager, the chef, and a line cook—and me as the owner handling the wine. We’re sitting on almost $50k of wine inventory and we’re just working through that. We haven’t bought anything since the first week of March. Well, that’s not quite true—I’m still taking some allocations of stuff, in the hopes of keeping things going, but it’s minimal.
How does wine fit into your take-out program?
We’re kind of known for our wine, and we made categories for the online ordering of stuff which we call Rue Value, Rue Classic, Rue Treats, and Booyah. We took what would have been our list price and we subtracted $20, which puts it somewhere around high retail. I’m a statistician, so I wrote an algorithm for our mark-ups, and the more the bottle costs, the lower the markup, so there are some ridiculous deals right now, like 2014 Fichet Meursault Les Gruyaches on the Booyah list for $99.
Do people email or call in to ask about the wine, or is it all online?
It’s all online. I wrote tasting notes and put them on the site under the wines. I’ve chosen certain selections for the online list, not everything we had when we shut down. I don’t want it to be too repetitive at certain price points.
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