When the tangled and all-but-abandoned Jabberwocky Tree Farm in Canton serendipitously fell into the possession of the Swaldo family, they saw it as a place to create a nice, in-town family getaway. Within a year, the concept ballooned into Gervasi Vineyard, a 55-acre estate where hundreds of thousands of people celebrate, congregate, dine and drink.
Its growth from a rickety old barn — old as in 1820s, barn as in former home of cows — and farmhouse on an overgrown mess of land to 48 overnight rooms, a vineyard, winery, spirit/coffee house, bistro and other eateries is the result of visitor requests, employee input, reading the demographic tea leaves and a willingness to listen to everyone.
Scott Swaldo, the Gervasi general manager who oversees all operations and development, says that when his father, Ted Swaldo, stepped away from ASC Industries, a business he co-founded, he was looking for something to do in retirement. When his sister’s friend’s husband died unexpectedly, she planned to put the property on the market but instead offered Ted a look around. He and Scott toured the property, and both were struck by its potential.
Ted bought it on a handshake in December 2008. That same friend casually mentioned that she thought the property would make for a cool winery, with a vineyard replacing the nest of trees. The idea piqued Ted’s interest.
“What he liked about it was that it was something the family could do together,” Scott says. “Wineries are kind of generational, they’re things you hand down and stay in the family. I think he felt like it was something the community would enjoy, and it could become part of the community — not knowing the scale of what it’s become now, but still feeling like this could be something.”
By March 2009, Gervasi Vineyard was under construction.
As the endeavor became more serious, the workload increased. Scott was helping as a volunteer, picking out the light fixtures and starting to think about a menu, when it became clear it was turning into something bigger. So he left his position as senior vice president of operations at ASC and stepped in to run the operation full time.
Scott worked with an architectural firm that drew up design elements for the barn, which stimulated more ideas
“Now it’s not this just rustic, clunky barn,” he says. “It’s a beautiful space. People are going to want to stay here. They might want more than snacks. They’ll want to have dinner. The beauty of the restoration started to tell us we should think bigger.”
By March 2010, the property — including a tasting bar, winery and gift shop — was open to the public.
Gervasi was popular from the minute it opened, in large part because it used social media to give the community a peek behind the curtain as the property took shape.
“There was no struggle for business in the beginning because the anticipation was big,” Scott says. “The excitement that the public showed right away told us we’ve got something here.”
Working in their own interest gave the family an advantage because the family didn’t need to appease a bank or investors. They were free to follow their own whims, or more accurately, whatever whims and wishes found their ears.
For example, Scott says before the winery opened, a young woman stopped by the property, asked what it was going to be and if she could get married by the lake. Weddings weren’t something Scott or the family had considered.
“People started expressing interest in that,” he says. “Then another one stops, and another one. Pretty soon we’re in the summer of 2009, just a few months after we started building, and these questions keep coming.”
With the prospect of people paying to use the space, the family decided to get into the wedding business.
They had a pavilion built near a patio outside the barn by the lake, and the property hosted some 40 weddings that first summer. As the wedding business grew, people wanted Gervasi’s food at their event, and they wanted to stay on the property overnight. Gervasi adapted the menu and increased its infrastructure starting in fall 2010, building six four-bedroom villas, the Villa Grande, the conservatory and the Villa Grande all just six months after opening. Weddings are now a huge part of its business.
Soon Gervasi was getting requests for private meetings, private dinners, rehearsal dinners and showers. They built Cantino in the barn — a semi-private room that holds 30 to 40 people — to accommodate the requests.
“I didn’t really know much about the private event business,” Scott says. “Personal celebrations are a huge market. People are hungry for cool places to do things like that. The demand for this little room was off the charts.”
Gervasi is now averages well over 200,000 visitors a year, mostly from Northeast Ohio — and that’s not including the 125,000 people who visit its other restaurant property, the Twisted Olive, an Italian-American kitchen in Green.
Given its popularity, it’s easy to forget that what really sets Gervasi apart is its vineyard.
“We call it Gervasi Vineyard because we wanted to actually have a vineyard, we wanted people to see that and the beauty that comes with that,” he says. “That will always be our core product. It’s our core identity. Now that we’re a resort, it makes us unique.”
About 20 to 25 percent of Gervasi’s sales come from wine, most of it sold on the property. Gervasi also self-distributes some online, and sells in specialty wine shops, restaurants and the airport. There are no plans at the moment to broaden its distribution business.
With the wine and resort business thriving, Gervasi is growing again, this time, in spirits.
“When you look at a business like ours, we certainly could have made a decision to just stay the course,” Scott says. “But when you look at the craft beer movement, you look at what young people are interested in. You can’t just look at your customer base today, you have to say, ‘Who’s my customer tomorrow and the year after that?’”
The Still House, a coffee house by day and a cocktail lounge by night, is debuting this year as a result of recognizing that young people — millennials — are interested in products other than wine. It gives guests more options during their stay, while further boosting tourism by offering another experience for guests. But Scott says even The Still House preserves the winery component.
“Some of the initial spirits have a wine component to them, and we’re doing that by design because we want to tie it back to the original product,” he says.
The coffee house component of The Still House is also an idea that came from outside the family … sort of.
Scott says employees approached Ted with the idea that Gervasi should have a coffee shop, so they put together a business plan that showed how it would be complementary to the overall amenities. The family liked it, and Gervasi was in the coffee business.
“We said, ‘Let’s go out and create a new product,’ which is our own brand of coffee, which now is served in all of our outlets, and even K-Cups in the hotel. We only serve our coffee product, and we just released that last year in preparation for the Still House Coffee House,” Scott says.
The sheer popularity of Gervasi has required that the property adapt in other ways. For example, the growth curve of its hotels flattened recently because the only capacity left is on weekdays during the winter. Most weekends in the peak season from May through October are booked months in advance.
“We’re barely touching the tourism business on the weekends,” Scott says. “We’re losing corporate retreats and guests because we’ve got the meeting space and we have all the experiences in dining, but they want 30 rooms and we have 24.”
Increasing the number of rooms to 48 has moved the resort to another threshold.
“Now you’ve solidified yourself as a real resort opportunity for a two-night stay. And (people) travel farther for that,” he says.
While the Gervasi property still has some green space left, Scott says he feels like the latest additions complete the estate. The opportunities now lie in how they keep it all interesting and create new experiences within the existing infrastructure, rather than keep adding more.
“One of the things that motivates me, I always tell our staff, is the fear of it all going away,” Scott says. “I never feel like we can just say, ‘Yeah, they’ll keep coming.’ I feel like we have to earn it every day.”
» Customer suggestions can yield profitable ideas.
» Understand your identity and build to suit it.
» Be willing to move quickly when inspiration strikes.