TJ Douglas of The Urban Grape is changing the face of the wine industry
Running a business

TJ Douglas of The Urban Grape is changing the face of the wine industry

Name: TJ Douglas

Location: Boston, MA

Pronouns: He/Him

Business: The Urban Grape

Describe yourself in three words: Ambitious, happy, intrigued. 

Why did you decide to start your own business? How did you get started? 

I’ve always been an entrepreneur. As a child, I started my own wood stacking and lawn mowing business and a baseball card shop. After getting into hospitality at age 14, I realized I liked the instant gratification of making people feel welcome. I spent years in the restaurant and distribution businesses, but always believed that wine could be sold at retail in a more customer-friendly and hospitality-driven way. I was able to bring my unique approach to retail to life in 2010 when my wife, Hadley, and I started The Urban Grape. 

What is the biggest lesson you learned in the first year? 

We didn’t start with enough capital. We self-funded with a second mortgage and by clearing out our 401Ks and savings. We did not have a relationship with a bank which we now know is a must. When you’re starting a business, write your budget…and then double it. 

What was the most surprising thing about becoming a business owner? 

Even on the hardest and most frustrating days, it’s still yours. It motivates you to keep going for those amazingly perfect days. It’s surprising because I’ve rarely felt like throwing in the towel. 

How does running your own business make you feel?

It makes me and my family feel proud that we can bring a unique and well-loved experience to our entire community. I like that small businesses are allowed to be transparent in their motivations, in a way that larger corporations are not. There’s a lot of freedom with that. I also feel a great sense of responsibility to my employees—it’s a humbling feeling to be someone that can help others build careers in an industry that I love. 

What are some of the challenges you’ve overcome or are working to overcome? 

The biggest challenge we have faced for the past decade is that the wine industry doesn’t believe in or promote Urban Grape’s “Progressive Scale,” which is our proprietary system of organizing, educating, and selling wine by body instead of varietal or region. Customers see the power of it instantly, but the wine industry discredits it because it's not the traditional way of selling wine. But what’s the saying? The customer is always right. If the industry doesn’t get on board, I can live with that. 

What challenges do you feel are unique to Black business owners? 

Financing. Whether in the form of a loan, line of credit, or equity investment—Black business owners traditionally do not have the relationships needed to secure consistent financing. Another challenge is always having to prove your business model and expertise. I’ve had to go through my entire resume of experience to prove to a customer that I’m fit to sell them a bottle of wine. 

What are your proudest moments? 

The first is starting the Urban Grape Wine Studies Award for Students of Color at Boston University’s Metropolitan College in 2020. This groundbreaking program combines education, paid internships, and mentorship to create access for BIPOC to the wine industry. Our first cohort is already making an impact via their new careers, the second cohort is well underway, and applications are open for our third cohort! 

The second is winning the 2021 US Chamber of Commerce Small Business of the Year Award. I never could have imagined that we’d grow our business to the point that it was receiving national recognition for the work we are doing—and, more importantly, how we’re doing it. 

What are the next big plans you have for your business? 

We are in massive growth mode right now, with huge changes to our order fulfillment channels, and national corporate partnerships that have changed our business model forever. We have many plans in the works, but you’ll have to wait and see what those are! 

When you’re having a tough day, who or what keeps you going?

The inspiration to keep me going is that we have so much to do to bring BIPOC consumers and workers to this amazing wine industry. When you’re having a tough day, nothing turns it around like helping another person to find success. 

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When you’re having a tough day, nothing turns it around like helping another person to find success.

How can Black business owners support each other and their community? 

Buy Black, first and foremost—the easiest way to support a business is with your dollar. In Boston, there is a great platform called Black Owned Bos that connects consumers to local Black-owned businesses. There are also a lot of new platforms that connect corporations with Black-owned businesses to increase B2B connections. Connections like this are game-changers for Black-owned businesses. 

What advice would you give to other Black business owners just starting out? 

Go for it! Contact your local Chamber of Commerce as there are a lot of grants and resources to help start the dream. 

What’s your “power song” and why? 

This is the easiest to answer. “Hustlin’” by Rick Ross.

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