A Little Bit of Europe on the Corner
CBD neighborhood wine merchants John and Aimee Keife drew inspiration from old apothecaries and their world travels to create Keife & Co.
If it seems as though the wine and liquor store in the corner space of the early-to-mid-1900s-era building at 801 Howard Ave. has always been there, that’s because it was designed to appear that way.
The two-story, triangular building has served many purposes over the years. According to neighbors, an auto garage first occupied the well-lit, 1,200 square feet before Kinko’s moved in for a spell in the ’80s. Prior to the current incarnation, it was used as offices.
In 2010, John and Aimee Keife acquired the space, which a year and a half later was transformed into Keife & Co., a wine, liquor and specialty food shop. For the design, the couple drew inspiration from their European travels, and in particular, the bath and body shop Rose & Co., in West Yorkshire, England.
“We would see really cool wine stores and boutiques and we wanted to sort of have that apothecary look,” says John.
The vintage look is employed throughout the space, from the shop’s signage to the dark stained, floor-to-ceiling shelving (made by carpenter Dragan Segvic), and up to the dropped, pressed tin ceiling and eye-catching French Imperial-style chandelier.
The pièce de résistance is an L-shaped, bar-style cash wrap where customers can pull up a stool and, in 1920 speakeasy slang, hand over a few clams for some giggle juice.
To design a wine and liquor store after an apothecary is especially fitting in New Orleans. The city was home to apothecary owner M. Antoine Peychaud, who most people in the know credit with inventing the Sazerac — the city’s official cocktail—in the 1830s, the recipe for which included (and still does) his famous bitters.
During Prohibition, J. Marion Legendre continued to sell his herb-infused “medicinal” spirits from the family’s Baronne Street pharmacy. The concoction was later branded Legendre Herbsaint and used as a legal substitute for absinthe in drinks such as, you guessed it, the Sazerac.
Keife & Co. offers wine and Champagne from small producers, and “medicinal” spirits like whiskey, rum, tequila, mezcal, gin and vodka from popular and artisanal producers.
A surprising European inclusion, however, is the shop’s selection of fine Italian tomatoes and sauces, along with pasta by Martelli, bread from local Bellegarde Bakery, and chocolates, honey, cheeses, meats, spreads and other accoutrements. The shop can create custom cheese and charcuterie platters and boards and will put together picnic or gift baskets on request.
“Our ambiance can seem sort of fancy, but we have something for everyone,” says John Keife. “There’s a range of products for really any price point — good producers, small producers, things with a story. We want to sell everyday wine as well as special occasion.”
Now, Keife & Co.’s 1,000-square-foot retail area is overflowing, but Aimee Keife says that wasn’t always the case.
“We opened in 2012, right before Tales of the Cocktail,” she says. “We didn’t have much product.”
To fill the empty space, the couple actually arranged empty boxes to help flesh out the look.
“Now we are running out of space,” says John Keife.
Being stocked to the gills isn’t the only thing that has changed since the store first opened; several of the nearby buildings in the Central Business District were unoccupied at the time. Next year, the New Orleans Culinary and Hospitality Institute (NOCHI) will open across the street — a natural complement to a wine and specialty food shop. The area is now decidedly more residential as well, and as a response, nearby restaurants, bars and other businesses have sprung up to cater to the people who live in the neighborhood, which is exactly what the Keifes strive to do.
“It’s nice to go into [the shops in Europe] and the wine guy is there, and he opens a bottle and says, ‘Here, have some.’ It’s so welcoming,” says John Keife.
When asked if he feels the shop has achieved that atmosphere, he says, “I overhear people here all the time saying, ‘It feels like we are in France again.’”
Surely the Keifes’ “forefathers,” Peychaud and Legendre, would agree.