Crystal Cameron-Schead says she’s thankful that her small business has not only survived, but has been able to thrive in recent years. As owner of Crystal Palate Wine & Gourmeta boutique and education center in Norfolk, Virginia, Cameron-Schaad is an inspiration to those interested in working or furthering their business in the wine retail and leather industries.
“Connection was the common thread that still predominates in 2023,” says Cameron-Schaad. “After the isolation of COVID and a world full of automation and tech gadgets, I truly believe people are longing for meaningful ways to connect and foster community.” She shares that Crystal Palate was founded in 2017 based on her “vision to create a regional destination for wine enthusiasts and professionals alike.” This diverse offering is due to a series of classes and events that integrate art, food and other interactive elements into the wine experience.
Prior to founding Crystal Palate, Cameron-Schad worked in the broadcast industry, holding positions such as press secretary for a gubernatorial campaign, communications director on Capitol Hill, and national public relations director for a Fortune 500 company. She says starting a career in the wine industry was not in her original plans. “It was a medical scare in my mid-30s that marked a big shift in my journey,” says Cameron-Schad. “I believe that heart surgery, my love of wine and seven little words from my husband, ‘I don’t want to bury my wife,’ may have saved my life.”
For those looking to break into the wine industry, Cameron-Schaad says the disruption caused by the pandemic has left many people looking for an encore career, similar to her own experience. Looking at the people side of the business sheds some light on what it takes. “At Crystal Palate, we are looking for enthusiastic people with a zest for life, a love of people and a curiosity to learn all about wine,” she says.
According to the Economic impact study of the US wine industry from 2022, 1,007,459 people work through some aspect of the industry, from agriculture to manufacturing to sales. This equates to $40.11 billion in wages and $111.55 billion in national economic activity.
The small workforce includes several professionals with decades of history: store manager Allyson has more than 20 years of experience in the wine trade and a culinary arts degree from Johnson & Wales; Tina is a certified sommelier and a certified pastry chef; Krysta worked in a California tasting room; Yvonne has experience in retail and wine events; Lauren and Catherine have a background in retail and customer service. “As a wine educator, I feel confident in my ability to teach my team the finer points of the wine industry,” says Cameron-Schaad. “However, learning customer service skills can be much more challenging. You either have it or you don’t.”
This commitment to customers, even in difficult times, has earned Crystal Palate enough loyalty to support an expansion in 2023, which will be celebrated with a grand opening next month. “We are more than doubling our size to create a dedicated classroom and event space,” says Cameron Schaad. “In addition to more tastings, classes and WSET courses, we will also partner with local artists for seasonal performances and receptions to bring more cultural experiences to our region.”
Crystal Palate also serves as a space for professionals Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) courses and a satellite provider for the capital wine school, based in Washington DC. Silicon Valley Bank (SVB
She says wine brings people together and while most customers are dealing with inflation and other economic issues, they have shown continued support that adapts with the times. “They have a renewed focus on value and quality,” says Cameron-Schaad. “Some drink less but buy better bottles.” This buying pattern is recognized by the SVB report which shows that premium categories in the US continue to provide growth.
A thriving wine industry fosters community, connection and conversation,” says Cameron-Schaad. “It helps create a regional destination filled with vibrant restaurants, unique wine shops, robust tourism, a vibrant arts scene and the incredible opportunity to discuss and learn about different cultures and regions around the world.”