OLDSMAR — Cork & Olive, a startup trying to capitalize on the wine bar trend, has abruptly closed its headquarters, laid off 40 workers and locked up eight company-owned stores after running into a severe cash shortage.
The closure leaves nine franchisees — one of them the owner of an Orlando store that has been open only a week — scrambling to figure out how to keep their businesses afloat. Also left in the lurch: several other franchisees around Florida who have been preparing to open stores.
The franchisees gathered Wednesday to map a survival strategy.
"We all want to stay open and the distributors appear willing to provide us product," said Vicki May, co-owner of the Trinity Cork & Olive franchise in Pasco County. "We have to pay our bills."
Cork & Olive president Michael Probst said he had been working on the assumption a New York hedge fund was going to invest about $3-million in the company. On Friday, however, the group insisted it take on controlling interest as a condition. Probst balked. On Monday he shut down corporate operations including the headquarters on Race Track Road and company-owned stores in Brandon, Countryside Mall, Largo, Oldsmar, St. Petersburg, Wesley Chapel and South Tampa.
"It's unfortunate," Probst said. "We are still trying to get financing, but my conscience would not let me have our people continue working when we were short of money and could not support our franchises."
Probst started the company in 2004 based on the idea of using wine tastings in a comfortable setting to sell moderately priced wine by the bottle, along with olive oil and spices. Most of the offerings are European, Californian and Australian labels that are thinly distributed in the United States. Cork & Olive, which had a plan for 20 stores soon, started selling franchises in 2006.
Mark Albright can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8252.