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Table Talk: Vino Garage owner Doug Aylard reflects on 10 years, Columbia's food scene

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Doug Aylard eats lunch at Sound Bites Eatery. Photo by Hannah Wade. 

On the day that Vino Garage, a wine and beer store on North Main Street, celebrated 10 years of being open, owner Doug Aylard said it was just like any other day over the last decade. 

"Honestly I was like, 'Oh, it's been 10 years? Interesting, okay.' Someone called out sick, so, 'Great, gotta go to work," Aylard said. 

Aylard and I sat down for a meal on a brisk Thursday afternoon at Sound Bites Eatery, a small cafe that opened late last year just off Main Street. Aylard sipped on a sweet tea as we discussed his shop's 10-year anniversary and the upcoming charcuterie program he'll begin at Vino Garage. 

Later, as we talked Columbia's food scene, he ate a Twerky Turkey sandwich while I enjoyed a Chicken Rap. We both ordered the orzo mac 'n' cheese as our sides. 

The self-described contrarian opened the bottle shop after moving to South Carolina more than 20 years ago. Aylard jokes that, at 25, he hopped on the interstate in his hometown of Cleveland, Ohio, and took it all the way to Columbia. 

He worked a few odd jobs, including in an office where he met his wife, Karen Oliver, before landing in the beverage distribution industry, where he worked for several years and developed his passion for wine. 

When the beverage company he worked for merged with another and changed the bars and restaurants he distributed to, he decided to open his own place. 

"I had the best independent retail restaurant route in town, and then after the merger, they gave me the college bar route. So I was selling Red Bulls to college bars, and that didn't last long," Aylard said. 

Seeing a lack of wine shops around his neighborhood at the time, Aylard and his wife opened his store, Vino Garage, in the space that's now Curiosity Coffee. Three years ago, when Aylard and landlords butted heads over rent prices and maintenance issues, he decided to move a minute up the street to 2501 Main St. 

At the second location, his store weathered the COVID-19 pandemic, he built an outdoor patio space that he's used to host local food trucks like Mary's Arepas and Cheese and Thank You, and he'll soon introduce a charcuterie program. 

The meat and cheese offerings were not in Aylard's original vision for Vino Garage. Adding on food offerings to a bottle shop is complicated, expensive and time-consuming. But when his service insurance went up more than 400 percent this year — from just under $6,000 a year to $23,000 — because he didn't sell food, he decided to change that. 

"It's like zoning gymnastics, where I'm too close to a church to make food, so I have to be careful with how complex the food can be," Aylard said. 

Aylard said the wine shop was successful throughout the pandemic, something he often feels guilty about given how it affected other restaurants and small businesses. 

"We did pretty well during the pandemic because we went straight to retail and Cottontown, Elmwood and Earlewood are all walking neighborhoods. We did well," Aylard said. 

And while Aylard has friends within the service industry, he criticized the lack of creativity in the cuisine around Columbia and said he wished the city had more places that were doing unique things with their menus. 

"I would love to be able to go to a place, spend $200, walk out and feel like I need to light a cigarette. Like the food was that good, the service was that good. My toes curled, time and space rolled around me," Aylard said. 

He said there are pockets around Columbia where cool things are happening, pointing to chef-owners like Kristian Niemi, who owns Bourbon, Black Rooster and the forthcoming The Dragon Room, and Mike Davis, who leads Terra in West Columbia, but the overall dining scene avoids going outside of the box.

Aylard hopes that with football season ending soon, which he said negatively impacts wine stores like his because of the lack of wine-drinking at tailgates, and with the State Fair, which notoriously draws money away from local restaurants according to Aylard, passed through, he looks forward to the future. 

"There have been a few times in there that maybe I could've called it, but we stuck it out and here we are. We're an integral part of the community in that area," Aylard said. "2023 I'm hoping is going to be a good year." 

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