FALMOUTH, Maine — After 22 years, it’s time to put the cork back in the bottle.
Early next month, the long-running wine and gift store Cork & Barrel will close its doors after a final event — a wine tasting on Friday, May 2.
Owner Connie Koengeter is calling the wine tasting “a finale” to the store she began in 1992 with her husband, the late Nik Koengeter.
The decision to close was difficult, Koengeter, 63, said. The business had a record-breaking day of sales on Black Friday last year, and closed out 2013 with strong sales, she said.
After several tough years through the Great Recession, it was “heartbreaking” to call it quits just as things were trending upward, Koengeter added. But it was time.
The reason: good workers are hard to find.
When Chris Rothweiler, Koengeter’s sidekick at the store for the past three years, announced she was moving to Florida, Koengeter decided to pack it in.
“It’s just too difficult to train someone for this job,” she said.
It also proved difficult to find someone to buy the store outright. Koengeter searched for several months late last year, but it didn’t pan out.
“I assumed I’d transition someone. All the heavy lifting was done. It’s a turn-key business, great location, loyal customers,” she said. “I was flabbergasted that there wasn’t anybody.”
So, she made the decision to close, which she announced in January. Since then, the store’s inventory has been slowly dwindling. Most of the gifts are gone or steeply reduced. The wine, now priced at 10 percent off, still occupies shelf space, but not in the same numbers as the run-up to Christmas.
Chris Craig, a real estate agent at the Dunham Group, said two parties have expressed interest in leasing the retail space, but it’s too early to make any announcements about what might replace the wine store.
Cork & Barrel was originally at 190 U.S. Route 1, the current home of the UPS Store, where the Koengeters operated for two years. Then the couple moved the operation to 204 U.S. Route 1, where it remained for two decades.
The couple arrived in Falmouth in 1992 after several years in the Napa Valley region of California, where Nik worked as a winemaker. Earlier in his life, Nik also taught classes in wine tasting. He grew up in a vineyard in his native Germany, and had an “encyclopedic knowledge of wines,” Connie said.
“He had the knowledge. I had the palate,” she said. “We complemented each other.”
In September 2010, Nik died suddenly at age 67, leaving the store at a crossroads. Initially, business suffered, Koengeter recalled.
“People had a hard time coming in here after Nik passed,” she said. “It was part of the healing process.”
Koengeter turned to Rothweiler, who had been helping out in the store on and off for several years, and offered her a full-time position.
Together, they “hand-sold” wines to a customer base of about 1,000, Rothweiler said.
Running a retail store is challenging, Koengeter said. Aside from interacting with customers, the challenge is what she’ll miss the most.
“There are so many moving parts to a business like this,” she said. “It’s so multifaceted, you never get bored. Every season, you’re preparing six months ahead. So, it’s always changing and the store always had to change because the customers.
“It’s not like being in Portland where you’ve got a new shipload of people on cruise every week. Here, the same people came in year after year after year, and you had to change the store to keep them interested. That was the challenge. You always had to be what was ‘new.’”
Koengeter, a native of Wisconsin, said she plans to stay in Maine through the summer, before moving to Beaufort, S.C., partly for the warm climate. She’s not yet sure how she’ll fill the time.
“I’ll have time to take up golf, learn bridge. Who knows? Go for walks. Watch sunsets. I honestly don’t know. I’ve never had free time. I’ve always worked. It’ll be a learning experience,” she said. “It’s positive. I’m looking forward to new adventures. There’s nothing sad or depressing about it. It’s a little bittersweet, but I think any change is.”