No one has to tell Adar Ben-Lapid and Michael Greathouse about tough times.
They are, after all, starting a new business in Pittsburgh — a kosher wine import concern called Premier Wine Imports — at a time when unemployment tops 9 percent, stock indexes are plummeting, banks are reluctant to lend and economists warn of a new recession.
They personally were laid off from their previous jobs, victims of the weak economy.
Still, the business partners have faith in their new venture, which they formally launched in June.
“We believed in ourselves and believed there was enough of a market out there that we could still succeed,” Ben-Lapid said.
They also have a reason to believe — a novel business strategy.
The two-part strategy includes marketing boutique Israeli wines not well known in the United States, and, perhaps more important, partnering with Jewish charities or nonprofit organizations to support their missions while selling wine.
The idea behind the second point, also known as cause marketing, is to pair an individual wine Premier Wine Importers sells, or perhaps a whole winery, with an individual charity. The charity receives 10 percent of every sale of its paired wine or line of wines.
“[We] find a bottle of wine that matches that organization,” Ben-Lapid said, “so it [helps] a Jewish organization.”
The two also plan to do their own product promotion.
Cause marketing is not a new idea. A cooperative venture between for-profit businesses and nonprofit organizations for mutual benefit, it has been employed by businesses in many industries, including the wine industry.
Ben-Lapid and Greathouse say they base their model on the Jewish custom of maaser (a tenth) — taking a tenth of one’s income for charity.
According to the Cause Marketing Forum in Rye, N.Y., which promotes successful company/cause alliances, corporate cause sponsorship will grow 5 percent in 2011 to $1.7 billion. In fact, cause sponsorship has grown every year, except 2009 when it declined by a negligible 0.3 percent, since 2002, according to the forum.
So far, Premier Wine Importers has made corporate/cause arrangements with four Jewish NPOs:
• Sharsheret, a not-for-profit organization supporting young women and their families, of all Jewish backgrounds, facing breast cancer;
• The Friendship Circle, a nonprofit organization that provides programs and support to the families of individuals with special needs;
• The rebuilding of the kever (tomb) of Hillel, which has long been neglected; and
• Bonei Olan (Children are Magical), a project to help infertile couples to become parents.
Ben-Lapid and Greathouse pair wines with these charities based on many factors — the type of vintage, the color of the wine, or where the vineyards are located — something that connects the wine with the charity.
For instance, they matched a white wine from the Tulip winery in Kfar Tikva with Friendship Circle because Kfar Tikva (City of Hope) is a community developed around special needs individuals. And Agur Rosa, a rose wine from the Judean Hills, was paired with Sharsheret because the color of the wine is consistent with pink, the universal color of breast cancer survivors.
According to Greathouse, other kosher wine importers do use cause marketing, but usually as a promotion, not as part of their regular business practice.
“We wanted to be a consistent entity,” he said, “not just do it once in a while.”
Premiere Imports markets and sells wines whose vintners believe have received little if any promotion once they reach the stores.
“They said … that there is no marketing aspect, that their wines get stuck on the shelves so to speak without the marketing behind then,” Ben-Lapid said. “We thought this is great opportunity to step in.”
None of the wines they market are mevushal, heated wine that remains kosher no matter who pours it, though Ben-Lapid said some may be added in the future.
The partners, who have a warehouse in Pittsburgh, don’t see themselves as competition for existing kosher wine merchants in Pittsburgh.
In fact, they note that the Vaad HaRabbonim, Pittsburgh’s kosher certifying body, has approved their venture on the conditions they do no directly pursue customers of other establishments and they only market wines that cannot be found elsewhere.
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)