Passion and customer service are the by-words of the proprietors of three different Massachusetts boutique wine stores when asked what the single most important part of their businesses is.

by Kim Foly MacKinnon

These words are what the owners claim is the reason customers turn to them, in their smaller spaces, with less big name brands and less stock, instead of visiting large chain stores with endless selections and perhaps less than perfect service.

BRIX 1284 Washington Street, Boston, MA O2118, 617.542.2749, www.brixwineshop.com.

The owners of BRIX, Carri Wroblewski and Klaudia Mally, have created a wine shop in the Boston's South End which evokes more of a bar atmosphere than a store. And a very hip bar at that. Dark colors, Italian lighting, a granite tasting table, and an open floor plan make it seem as though the room was made for a trendy cocktail party, except for the floor-to-ceiling racks of wine on three sides. The back wall, where the register is found, holds a selection of liquors on shelves that glow from lights below. And just like at your favorite bar, if you've been in the store before, it's very likely Wroblewski or Mally will know your name.

A BUSINESS BORN WITH CUSTOMER SERVICE IN MIND

Before opening BRIX, Wroblewski and Mally had become fast friends years ago after meeting at a South End wine shop that Wroblewski worked at. One day, while waiting for a buyer in a different wine shop, Wroblewski saw a customer wandering around, obviously in need of some advice. There was nary a clerk in sight. Taking pity on this person, Wroblewski offered to help. She happened to be on the phone with Mally at the time, who, while listening to Wroblewski assist the hapless customer, had a Eureka! moment. She shouted to Wroblewski, "I've got it! I've got it! How would you like to own a wine shop?"

They went into the project with that focus on customer service held as paramount. Wroblewski says, "We treat clients as if they were in a five-star restaurant."

In addition, they knew what they didn't want. Wroblewski says, "All stores look alike. Case stackings everywhere. They're difficult to navigate." Mally adds to that, saying, "What is lacking is a design element, ambiance that is exceptional." Mally designed certain items in the store, such as the wrought-iron door made to look like stacked wine bottles in a rack. Brix, with its open space, is easy to navigate, another important element of customer service often neglected or overlooked, says Wroblewski.

THE NUMBERS GAME

At any given time, Brix offers about 85O to 1OOO different types of wine (as well as some liquors). Bottle prices average about $15, even though the store is located in a higher end location of the city, which is currently heading toward being even higher end. Despite the fact that most of their clients are well off, Wroblewski and Mally wanted to keep prices reasonable because they researched what the neighborhood wanted. "They drink wine every day," says Wroblewski, who could draw on her years of experience in other retail wine stores in the area. "It's a part of their lives. Though they have money, they don't always want to spend a lot on everyday wines." Mally says, "Carri calls them 'Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday' wines," which is apt description and perfect for a client who may come in three or four times a week on their way home from work.

GET ORGANIZED

Another part of the business Wroblewski stresses is organization. "If you are organized, it's easy to accommodate customers," she says. "Each customer (if they choose) is included in a database Brix keeps. It tracks their buying history." This highly unusual practice, in the wine retail business anyway, is a useful tool for both the store and the customer. Say you had a fabulous wine six months ago but can't remember the name of the bottle. Simply ask Wroblewski or Mally and they can look it up instantly.

SPECIAL TOUCHES

Other ways that the pair breaks away from standard wine shop protocol include their policy of using crystal wine glasses instead of plastic cups for their Friday night weekly wine tastings. Besides being better for the wine, allowing a true taste possible, it is simply more elegant and inviting. The store will also allow customers to special order three bottles of wine, rather than the usual six bottles or a case. While this increases cost a bit, it is an added service that clients seem to like. E-mail updates to customers let them in on special deals and events. A new program the pair has started is called "Industry Night", when a local chef prepares a signature item and they match wines to it. Recently a pastry chef brought in desserts and customers could try dessert wines with them.

Both Wroblewski and Mally are thrilled with the store so far, which will be open a year this December. Mally says, "If you love what you do, it all comes together. You have to be passionate."