Bunky Mastin & Wade Tyler
Published: Friday, March 29, 2013 at 2:54 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, March 29, 2013 at 2:54 p.m.
The Christmas season is traditionally bustling at the Wine and Cheese Gallery on North Main Street downtown. Amid the regular lunch crowds and shoppers perusing bins and racks of wine, thousands of custom gift baskets are created, brimming with bries and goudas, gourmet crackers, Champagne and chiantis and imported bottles of beer.
Downtown affiliation: Co-owners of the Wine and Cheese Gallery on North Main Street.
Their contributions to downtown: The Wine and Cheese Gallery has been a downtown landmark since opening 40 years ago this spring.
What they expect to see next:
Encouraged by the new vibrancy, they are optimistic about the future. They predict the Wine & Cheese Gallery’s new evening dining offerings will thrive.
If you roll back the calendar four decades, you’ll understand just how fitting is this annual holiday buzz of celebration at the 19th-century house that has been the Wine and Cheese Gallery’s only home.
It was Christmas 1972 and in Washington D.C., plans were underway for the second inauguration of Richard Nixon, coming up the following month.
Meanwhile, in Gainesville, three young neighbors had gathered at a holiday party and, fueled by a couple of bottles of Charles Krug Cabernet, were honing in on some plans of their own.
Among the friends was Thomas “Bunky” Mastin, originally from Chattanooga, Tenn. After graduating from the MBA program at Emory University, he’d moved to Gainesville but traveled a lot, raising money with graduate school friends for gas- well exploration in West Virginia. He had a wife in law school and a 3-year-old son, and he wanted off the road.
How about if we start a new business, the friends pondered, not for the first time. Something the town doesn’t have yet, something, well, innovative?
But what? The answer was close, almost as close as the wine glasses they held in their hands.
“We all lived at the “new” Oak Forest apartments, socialized poolside, played a lot of tennis, and quickly became very bored with the five to 10 wine selections at a little store called Tom Thumb Liquors, remembers Wade Tyler, who had recently finished undergraduate and graduate degrees in art at the University of Florida.
Before the night was through, an idea that Mastin carried with him to Gainesville fueled the “eureka” moment that ignited their plans:
“A friend from the Emory MBA program had the first cheese shop in Atlanta,” Mastin remembers saying, “and had expanded into wine. Great idea, right?”
They abandoned the other possibility they were kicking around — Gainesvlle didn’t have a maternity shop either — and got to work. They visited retailers in Atlanta, where the idea of a “wine and cheese shop” had taken hold, and sought advice from Mastin’s grad school friend.
“By late March of 1973, with almost no money and a lot of energy, we opened in our current location,” says Mastin. “After a 40-year odyssey, we are still there.”
This spring, Tyler and Mastin celebrate four decades as partners in the downtown business. (They bought out the third, Neal Benson, soon after opening, with an investment by Dr. Marc Gale, who remains a silent partner and friend.)
“We opened... with a whopping 52 wines; earth-shattering for that time in the South,” says Tyler. They currently stock almost 3,000.
“One had to go to Atlanta or Miami to find better selections. Progressively we ‘created’ a few sandwiches, added take-out food service, then Gainesville’s first patio bistro, several expansions and finally our Panache restaurant.”
One has only to glance at the worn-through checkerboard linoleum floors in the wine store for a gentle reminder of the passage of time, or study a menu from the ‘70s that hangs on the wall in the restaurant, boasting 89-cent sandwiches and salads for $1.25.
In the early days, business was brisk and they had the gourmet cheese and wine market to themselves. Over the years, their venture has been written up everywhere from The Times of London to “Florida’s Off The Beaten Path: A Guide to Unique Places,” to Florida Trend magazine, which dubbed it “The Best Wine Store in Florida.”
It was a heady time, with tastings at top wineries in Europe and visits to the fledgling wine industry in California. And in many ways, it still is: “There are always more wines,” says Tyler, “new vintages and exciting new wine adventures.”
The secret to the longevity of their partnership? Different interests and a division of labor.
“I have been totally dedicated to wine all these years — wine education and knowledge — and travel ‘wine-wise’ extensively both stateside and in Europe,” says Tyler, who grew up in a Navy family. He is married to Kathy Wade, an endodontist, and the father of two sons. Mastin, befitting his graduate degree in business administration and undergraduate degree in accounting, “tends to the business side, bookkeeping, cheeses and customer chit-chat.”
They committed early to their downtown location, but it has not been without its ups and downs. Tyler ticks off, one by one, “... an expanding metro area, interstate development, westward growth, downtown redevelopment, economic downturns and various business competitions, which mostly failed with time.”
“If anything, we’ve persevered for four decades,” Tyler says with a hint of wonder. “How, at times, seemed very debatable.”
When they opened for business, downtown still held vestiges of an era when it was truly the retail center of the city. Tyler remembers, “the department stores were downtown and Mike’s Bookstore, G-Dale Design Shop, 12 East, Shoe Shop, etc.”
But after 40 years, Mastin says, the duo is encouraged by the youthful energy that surrounds them downtown.
“It’s more vibrant,” says Mastin, a father of four sons who wears his long hair tied back in a ponytail.
“Downtown is really the place to go for evening entertainment. I love all of the people living nearby in the apartments and condos. Lots of techies. The 20-to-30-year-old set wants no part of the suburbs. It’s boring out there.”
Now the partners have commenced on their own “latest adventure” — serving dinner on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights.
“It promises the same roller coaster ride as always,” says Mastin. “But at least it’s our roller coaster.”