Ramsey’s Metro Market, Marion

Conrad Ramsey received help from the Iowa Small Business Development Center at Kirkwood Community College in optimizing his business plan, comparing possible locations, and finding financing so he could open his unique wine bar.

Conrad Ramsey had always wanted to operate his own business. It was simply a matter of choosing the appropriate enterprise, recognizing when the time was right, and then moving ahead with a well-considered plan. Conrad and his wife, Lu Ann, had opportunities to travel abroad and often found themselves enjoying the informal atmosphere, popular beverages, and light foods available in continental wine bars. It was not until 2010 when the couple stopped at an establishment in Galena, Illinois that was reminiscent of the bars they had visited in Europe, that the idea of opening such a venue began to take real form.

Conrad recognized that the Cedar Rapids metro area was almost totally lacking these unique locations with their relaxing environments. A study of the surrounding demographics revealed two well-established wine stores in Cedar Rapids, but their locations were not convenient for Marion residents. Furthermore, Conrad wanted to provide more than a retail outlet. Since there were no specialty food stores in Marion that also served wine, he selected Marion as the site for his proposed business.

Initially, when looking for a place for his new business, Conrad considered purchasing the site of a former Jiffy Lube. The location was convenient with plentiful parking; however, the building would need a total—and expensive—renovation to be suitable for a food-based establishment.

Conrad did not consider these obstacles as deal-breakers. Indeed, he planned to move forward with the purchase. Yet, he does not hesitate today to admit that what he did not recognize at the time—the cost of buying and renovating the Jiffy Lube site—would most likely have made it impossible for his new business to succeed. However, a combination of factors, including assistance from Al Beach, regional director of the Kirkwood Small Business Development Center (SBDC), coupled with fortunate timing, enabled Conrad to reassess the proposed Jiffy Lube location and subsequently select a more suitable and cost-effective one.

Both the Jiffy Lube site and the Market’s current location were near churches, and a city ordinance prohibited serving alcoholic beverages within a designated distance of a church or school. The SBDC was able to provide information that allowed Conrad to work with the city to resolve the issue. With Al’s direction, Conrad wrote a letter to the city asking them to modify the restriction on serving alcoholic beverages near churches and schools. Ramsey’s Metro Market is allowed to do so with the caveat that 50% of its sales must be from non-alcoholic items (i.e., food and specialty items).

Conrad first learned about the Small Business Development Center and its services after his wife, Lu Ann, heard Al Beach speak. When Conrad first met with Al, he had a business plan already in hand; with direction from Al, Conrad was able to optimize it. The SBDC provided advice about different types of loans, helped Conrad understand how to approach the bank, and explained what information the bankers would expect him to provide. Al also helped Conrad to identify the various licenses and the insurance that would be needed.

Very significantly, Al and Conrad met with Jill Ackerman of the Marion Chamber of Commerce at the time when Conrad was considering the Jiffy Lube location. Jill made Conrad aware that a café in downtown Marion had recently closed, and the now-empty space was for rent. The facility was almost tailor-made for the business Conrad was planning.

The cost to purchase and renovate the former Jiffy Lube location was estimated to be approximately $350,000. This amount was in comparison to $100,000 that was needed to move into the former Flat Tire Café location. Two significant factors were in play: 1) Conrad could rent, rather than purchase, the café location, and 2) the former café, already a restaurant, required only minimal modifications in order to become Conrad’s vision of a wine bar. Projected break-even sales for the café location were more than one-third less than those needed for the Jiffy Lube site. The disadvantages of the smaller space and limited parking offered by the café site were more than offset by the cost differences. Al recommended that Conrad develop 30-40 percent of his sales from carry-out and deliveries, to compensate for the space and parking constraints.

While Conrad did not purchase the former Flat Top Café business, he did purchase several major pieces of equipment. The Small Business Development Center helped Conrad obtain funds from a commercial bank loan backed by an SBA guarantee.

Ramsey’s Metro Market, located in the heart of Marion’s downtown district, opened in May 2011 as a limited liability company. Josh Ramsey, son of the owners, is the Market’s full-time business manager. He brings 15 years of experience in the hospitality and retail industries to his position.

Conrad has nothing but good things to say about the assistance he received from the SBDC. “We went from taking possession to opening our business in just three weeks. We would never have been able to move as quickly without Al’s help. He put us in touch with the right people, identified things I was missing and things I didn’t recognize that I even needed. He was very instrumental in making sure that we had covered all our bases. With the information that the SBDC provided, I understood how to approach the bank and was able to talk intelligently with them.”

Ramsey’s Metro Market provides the experience of a European-style wine bar. Patrons can drop into a charming environment to enjoy a glass of wine without the atmosphere of a traditional bar. Along with their wine, customers can also select plates of specialty meats, cheeses and crackers, or simple sandwiches. These same items, as well as assorted breads, spices, oils, and novelty items, such as decorative wine glasses, are also available for carry out.

The atmosphere that first drew the Ramseys to the wine bar concept is proving to be popular with area residents. Special events and other activities have become a regular and growing part of the Market. One night each week is “open mic night” where patrons can share their varying talents. Events featuring professional entertainment are common place, and a well-structured “wine club” is growing. Ramsey’s Metro Market is a perfect complement to other businesses already established in the Marion Square area and is in alignment with Marion’s Uptown Streetscape plan.

Ramsey’s Metro Market opened with one full-time and one part-time employee. After 21 months, it had two full-time and five part-time people. The business has experienced a 25 percent growth from its first year to its second one. Conrad anticipates a further growth of 10 to 15 percent for 2013. Conrad’s five year vision is to open a high-end steak and fish restaurant possibly near The Market’s current location, and at the same time, open another wine, meat, and cheese store in either Cedar Rapids or Hiawatha.

Be sure to check out this unique wine bar at http://RamseysMetroMarket.com. And if you’re in downtown Marion, stop in and sample the wine.

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