Frank LaPere sells Grapes & Gourmet after a decade at East Ferry
The Town Council approved the transfer Monday of the liquor license associated with Grapes & Gourmet, one of Jamestown’s two liquor stores. Owner Frank LaPere sold the business, as well as the condominium that it operates in, to Jamestown resident Bill Wilson. The sale is pending approval by the Police and Fire departments.
LaPere was operating a printing business in Austin, Texas, back in 2001, but printing wasn’t on his mind when he went home at night. Instead, he thought about cooking the meal for that evening – and pairing it with the right wine. His passion for cooking and entertaining far outweighed his interest in printing.
Soon LaPere began to think that his next business should focus on the things he had a passion for: food and wine. He spent a year traveling around the country looking at different businesses that incorporated those elements. He began to work on a business plan. In the meantime, he sold the printing business and decided to move back to his home state of Rhode Island.
“At the time, we thought we could live there until the kids got out of high school so that they could grow up around grandma and grandpa, and then we’d figure something else out,” LaPere said.
LaPere quickly learned that Rhode Island has some unusual laws when it comes to liquor stores. He was searching for a market where his concept would not only succeed, but would be legal. Only Rhode Island towns with less than 10,000 people allow the sale of food in liquor stores, and there are only five such towns in the state.
“Jamestown was the town that we chose,” LaPere said. “It had a liquor license that wasn’t being used, so we negotiated with the person who owned the license.”
LaPere bought a house in Jamestown and spent the next year getting the business ready for opening. On July 3, 2003, Grapes & Gourmet opened in the East Ferry site that had been the longtime home of one of the island’s two liquor stores. After two Rhode Island winters, however, LaPere and his wife decided that the years of living in the Southwest had made the cold New England winters difficult for them to endure. They moved to Tucson, Ariz.
LaPere still had his house in Jamestown and would spend about four months a year in town. He would also return for monthly visits during the year to work at his store and continue to build his business. He developed a stable staff for the store, and the time he was needed in Jamestown became less and less.
Two years ago LaPere started a new construction business in Tucson, and his annual time spent in Jamestown decreased to three or four weeks a year.
“It was a great lifestyle living in Tucson in the winter and Jamestown in the summer, but I made the decision two years ago that I needed to focus on one business,” La- Pere said. “I decided at that point to try to sell Grapes & Gourmet.”
According to LaPere, economics didn’t play a major role in his decision to sell the business. He said that Grapes & Gourmet has been profitable since its second year, and it has grown aggressively. The peak came just before the economic collapse of 2008. Sales were lost for the year, but soon began to return. Today, he says, the business has nearly returned to its peak level.
“Economics didn’t really play a role in my decision to sell,” LaPere said. “It was really a lifestyle decision.”
LaPere knew that it would take awhile to sell his Jamestown business. He wanted to make sure that he found the right buyer. One of his major requirements was that the new owner would agree to retain LaPere’s loyal staff.
“I had several other offers to buy the business, but they wouldn’t ensure that the staff would be retained,” LaPere said. “The vast majority of the staff has been retained, some of them contractually, and some of them because the new owners realize that the staff that they have is really an asset.”
The process took nearly two years, and in the end it was a talk with one of his staff members that led to the sale. In October 2011, LaPere was approached by employee Will Wilson, who did not know that the business was on the market. Wilson said that if LaPere was ever interested in selling the business, Wilson’s father might be interested in purchasing it.
LaPere said that the town of Jamestown could not have been more accommodating for his business. While he cited summer parking at East Ferry as an issue he has had to contend with, he soon realized that it was not something he would be able to resolve. He adapted to the situation.
“If there was more parking down there it would be great, but there’s really not the availability down there to do that,” LaPere said. “The town of Jamestown has bent over backwards to work with us.”
LaPere said that the sale of Grapes & Gourmet was bittersweet for him. He regrets that he wasn’t able to live in Jamestown full time, but he still enjoyed the benefits of what he called a “wonderful community.” While he was in town, he did enjoy the social aspect of running a local business.
“When you own a liquor store in Jamestown you get to know the whole town,” LaPere said. “It was awesome going out to dinner and seeing half of the tables filled with people that I knew. We felt like members of the community from the beginning.”