Walking into the Midtown offices of SevenFifty, it’s clear this is not your typical tech start-up.
There are no foosball tables, beanbag chairs or any of the trappings found at glitzy Silicon Alley start-ups. Instead, the nondescript offices on a decidedly unhip block look like they’ve barely been unpacked — save for a lemon shrub, the fruits of which the founders plan to use in cocktails.
But then, who has time for decor when you are out to revolutionize the wine industry?
SevenFifty — launched in January 2012 by three young friends with ties to the hospitality business — has created an online platform to bring together professional wine buyers and sellers. On it, wine buyers can view the portfolios of distributors and wholesalers; they can search by region, vintage, type of wine (or spirit) and price; arrange tastings and place orders. Sommelier and SevenFifty cofounder Aaron Sherman calls it “a technology backbone for the wine and spirits industry.”
That may not sound so revolutionary to consumers long accustomed to websites like Wine-Searcher.com, Wine.com and others dedicated to the wine-buying public. But when it comes to the business side of wine and spirits — the supply chain that links professional buyers with the distributors and importers who represent producers — it’s as if we’re stuck in a rerun of That ’70s Show.
Wine buyers at restaurants and retail shops must flip through titanic tomes to find a bottle, identify the wholesaler who reps it and check its price. Then they typically pick up the phone to check its availability and place an order. The process can take hours or —when putting together a new beverage program — days or weeks.
In the age of Google and i-everything, it’s a head-scratcher for many young wine professionals. “We’ve often wondered, ‘Why are we in the Dark Ages when it comes to digital?’” says Thomas Pastuszak, wine director at the NoMad.
That question led Sherman and his two cofounders to start SevenFifty, named for the standard 750-milliliter wine bottle. Fittingly, it all began in a bar.
Sherman and Gianfranco Verga had both worked as sommeliers, bartenders and industry consultants, so they knew firsthand how time-consuming and frustrating the buying process could be. The two — who had met while attending NYU and studying abroad in Florence — were both working at Louis 649 in the East Village when they befriended Neal Parikh, a Wall Street quantitative analyst, cocktail connoisseur and regular at the bar.
The trio — all in their late 20s at the time — soon cooked up the concept for SevenFifty. “The idea,” says Sherman, “was to bring technology to an industry that has never had real tech solutions.”
With the Tippler, a subterranean bar below Chelsea Market where a friend worked, serving as their unofficial headquarters, they hashed out the plan and raised money from angel investors. They brought on Steve Pike, a 26-year-old engineer, to head development, and SevenFifty was born.
The company has quickly won rave reviews from buyers at restaurants including Momofuku, Eleven Madison Park and dell’anima. “This is a fast-paced business that needs efficiency — we are counting the minutes in our days,” says Pastuszak of the NoMad. “So SevenFifty was a breath of fresh air.”
Pastuszak first heard about SevenFifty when the wine director for Colicchio & Sons said the site was particularly helpful when cobbling together a wine portfolio from scratch, as Pastuszak did when helping to open the NoMad a year ago.
“You have a general idea… you want to paint a picture, and you have to fill it in,” he explains. With SevenFifty, he could quickly find the bottles he was looking for — and discover new ones. “You can search for, say, a cool-climate pinot noir. And if you come across something you haven’t tried, you can arrange a tasting,” he says. “It allows us to search through the best of what’s out there, without having to sort through 25 different books.”
Another fan is Jeremy Noye, vice president of Crush Wine & Spirits, a wine shop on 57th Street. “What makes SevenFifty so popular is its ability to work with smaller wholesalers and importers. They offer so many more options.”
Indeed, as the artisanal wine and spirits category has exploded, the industry has had a hard time keeping up. A new wave of small distributors and importers have built small but carefully curated portfolios. But good luck finding all of them in one place. Beverage Media, the industry “bible,” captures just a portion of the industry. And because it can be expensive to advertise in its pages — the publication and its companion website charge for each product listed — many wholesalers list just part of their portfolio, or skip it altogether. SevenFifty charges a flat monthly fee.
Sherman says that his site has 140 distributors listed in New York while Beverage Media has closer to 80.
“They’ve cast a wider net,” says Noye, “from large companies to the smallest wholesalers which might have only five producers in their portfolio.” That helps him track down wines for customers who come in requesting a certain bottle that they may have tried at a restaurant.
Or a small craft producer. SevenFifty works with a number of small artisanal producers who choose to sell direct to consumers, like Van Brunt Stillhouse, a maker of small-batch rum, whiskey and grappa in Red Hook. The distillery has gotten a lot of buzz, acknowledges Daric Schlesselman, who cofounded it with his wife. But “not everybody is just calling me up because they read about us,” he says. “SevenFifty has been great for reaching people we wouldn’t be able to reach or have the time to reach — I can’t afford a staff of 20,” says Schlesselman, who by day is an editor for The Daily Show.
“We just started using them recently. It is fantastic,” says Channing Daughters winemaker, Christopher Tracy, whose wines have achieved near cult status but are still self-distributed. “What do we like? Organization and efficiency of information. Having our wines easily accessible and in front of wine buyers. [They] have so many great tools, and they are improving all the time.”
SevenFifty’s monthly fee covers more than just access to advertising space, however. The site offers other perks as well. For example, distributors can publicize their industry tasting events, and there’s a tasting app designed to replace wine-splotched notes with a searchable digital version. Up next: a digital credit app to streamline the payment process for distributors and retailers (a process that used to involve a lot of old-world faxing).
Sherman and his team see their product as a foundation for streamlining all of the communications that take place between wine buyers and sellers. “There’s so much more that can be built on top of this,” says Sherman. “The wine business is a tightly knit community. We want to try and capture that with new features down the line.”
In the meantime, the company is growing quickly. After launching in New York, it’s expanded into New Jersey, Connecticut, California and Colorado on its way to going national—a move that should appeal to brands like Whole Foods.
At this rate, better to leave the boxes unpacked — Sherman and his team may need bigger offices soon.
Photograph by Adam Krause