“Little did I know that the cute coed would turn out to be my wife and business partner,” Torrey says.
Torrey quickly discovered that wine was Jen’s fierce new obsession. He knew he had a connoisseur on his hands when Jen brought her own glassware on their dates. She had recently studied abroad in Australia, where her friend invited her to several vineyards and got her hooked on the romantic quality of wine – and next, Jen would get Torrey hooked.
“I was very happy with my watery beers until Jennifer came along,” Torrey recalls. “She loves wine so much, it’s contagious. I was falling in love with a girl and falling in love with wine at the same time.”
Jen was happy to educate him on vino, and eventually, she inspired him to become a sommelier like her. Yet they’re quick to point out that wine has taken center stage in more of her career than his. At 21, Jen got her first wine-related job doing tastings at a small wine shop in Ohio, followed by a stint in a high-end grocery store’s wine department in Chicago. By 22, she was promoted to buyer at a neighborhood wine shop in Chicago, which would inspire the Binghams’ future business. But Jen had one more stop to round out her experiences at an Intercontinental Hotel in Chicago, starting in wine service and working her way up to wine director of a 600-bottle list.
After seven years working in the wine and food world, and having completed several wine courses and certifications, Jen felt ready to do things her way. Meanwhile, Torrey had honed complementary skills managing a hamburger shack and working as a salesman for a safety engineering company. Jen and Torrey moved to Tampa and opened their first wine shop in Palma Ceia in 2010, within eight months of relocating. They named it Cru Cellars – a short, sweet French word meaning growth and commonly seen on wine labels to indicate a special vineyard location. The Binghams’ first location became clear upon meeting Gianpiero Ruggeri, owner of Gianpiero’s Pick of the Vine, who was looking to pass along his wine shop’s lease and inventory. Both just shy of 30 years old, the Binghams became business owners with guidance from Torrey’s father, Butch, an entrepreneur in the trucking industry. Young, eager and with a lean budget, they started with Jennifer serving, buying and accounting, while Torrey made high-end cheese and charcuterie plates (arguably Tampa’s first) and washed dishes in the back – even on his 30th birthday, they recall with a smirk.
“We started very small and grew as we could,” Jen says. “It started with a genuine approach and a true excitement and passion for wine.”
Jen is the self-proclaimed heart of the operation, while Torrey is the backbone. Their mission from the get-go has remained constant: serving small-production wines and creating community. Jen is passionate about working with many distributors and importers to curate a balanced wine list that impresses customers and intrigues them to try new things. They emphasize quality organic, natural wine and small production labels supporting family owned wineries, mostly from France, Italy and California.
While most of the list is under $100 a bottle, they also have plenty of allocated and collectible wines. Cru has also done collaborations with Broc Cellars in Berkley, California, and Broken Earth Winery in Paso Robles, California, to give guests an option they won’t find anywhere else. In addition, Cru has done blendings with Tampa distillery Dark Door Spirits and Tampa brewery Magnanimous. As for the food, it’s always been high-quality and beautifully presented, but the selections have expanded. Two years after opening, the Binghams added a full kitchen and dinner menu at Cru. And a year after that, they expanded with a wine garden outdoor patio area.
One of their longest customers, Paul Abercrombie, lives a handful of blocks away and walks or rides his bike there weekly for wine, burgers and charcuterie. Like many surrounding residents, he considers Cru a neighborhood staple. He got to know the Binghams as they were getting started.
“I remember thinking, ‘Wow, that is pretty gutsy and risky to come all the way down here and buy a wine shop,’” Abercrombie shares.
As a member of their wine club, he’ll often go to pick up his bottle and happen upon an impressive winemaker pouring samples, which he finds to be a delightful surprise.
“It’s such a laid back, yet sophisticated place,” Abercrombie says. “It’s really lovely. The staff is very welcoming and remembers encyclopedic knowledge of your particular palette and what you like. They inspired me to learn more about wine. I learned to love sauvignon blanc and see how wonderful it can be. They introduced me to some Austrian wines, and I’m enjoying more rieslings. They’re forever trying to convert me to more natty wines and it sometimes works.”
Eight years after launching, Cru opened its second location in 2018 in Armature Works. Jen had seen indoor food hall concepts in Washington, D.C. and Chicago flourish, and she told herself that if one ever came to Tampa, she’d have to open another Cru. Sure enough, she caught wind of Armature Works opening and immediately reached out to sell them on the concept. The highly trafficked spot exposed Cru to many more people and served as the catalyst for a turning point in their business: For the first time, they were getting approached about expanding to other locations.
That’s how the Binghams found themselves opening a third Cru Cellars three years after Armature Works, in May 2021, as the first restaurant in the Marina Landings Town Center in the budding Westshore Marina District. This is Cru’s first location with a liquor bar, as well as its largest selection of wine at 2,000 bottles displayed in a tall wine room with a glass wall. Between all three locations, Cru has about 80 employees today. A key to the Binghams’ success has been hiring people with the same wine philosophy as them: genuine, down to earth and not snobby, as well as teaching and mentoring their staff.
Last year, the Binghams also formalized and accelerated their event program of wine dinners, classes and growing events, hosting 41 events in 2021 on and off site. This past fall, they launched and sold out their first wine festival, Fet Du Vin, donating 50,000 meals to Feeding Tampa Bay. Community minded, Cru has also supported other local charities, such as Dress for Success and Metropolitan Ministries.
“It’s been pretty surreal,” Jen says. “We’ve grown the business a lot and haven’t slowed down, even during the pandemic. We saw 50% growth year over year from 2020 to 2021 and are trending even higher this year. It’s amazing to see the brand grow beyond what I could have ever imagined.”
Customers Megan and Jeff Dempsey frequent Cru, whether as a couple, with friends or for Megan’s law firm gatherings.
“We’re insane fans,” Megan says. “We have traveled and visited various trendy wine locations, but never really had anything like Cru. I can always go to Cru and know I’m getting a good glass of wine and the food is absolutely phenomenal. They put a lot of thought into the pairings.”
She raves over the Fig and Gorgonzola Flatbread at Palma Ceia and the Tasso and Hot Honey Pizza at Westshore. As members of Cru’s wine club, they enjoy attending events, the most notable of which featured an “absurdly large bottle the size of a 5-year-old child,” Megan recalls with a laugh. Through the years, the friendly staff helped educate them and turned them on to natural wines.
“I’m much more comfortable and confident around the wine list,” Megan says. “My palette has definitely gotten more refined. I would’ve never touched a gamay three years ago and Cru has me totally onto gamays.”
Early patrons of the Palma Ceia location, they’ve also dined at Armature Works and Westshore.
“They have progressively gotten more and more fabulous,” Megan says.
Jen and Torrey will open three new concepts this year in two of Tampa’s hottest markets. At the base of luxury apartment tower Cora in Water Street Tampa, Small Giant Bar & Restaurant will serve craft beer and cocktails and will introduce Ohio-style pizza to Tampa, while Wine on Water, a modern wine and liquor shop, will offer over 500 selections of wine and liquor options with a focus on small-production wines, an outdoor garden and educational classes and tastings. Small Giant was Jen and her sister’s nickname from their father. In Hyde Park Village, the Binghams will open Bouzy next to Hyde House as their first sparkling wine-focused cocktail bar, also serving small plates.
“We’re committed to being part of the community and complementing the neighborhoods,” CEO Kyle King says. “It’s not just about education of wine, but it’s also about being surrounded by passionate people. You can’t get that feeling everywhere. We want to be the premiere hospitality group in Tampa Bay.”
Doubling their number of businesses this year sounds like a challenging feat, but when you’re the perfect pairing, opportunities just keep bubbling up for Jen and Torrey Bingham.
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