Roland Stanley never wanted to be in the food and beverage industry, but the day-to-day grind was his kryptonite.
“It’s almost like when someone says, ‘What’s your guilty pleasure?’ Mine would have been working in a restaurant, because I didn’t want to accept the reality that I was going to be in the restaurant industry,” he said. “But that’s what happened. I kind of absolutely fell in love with it.”
At 25, Stanley is the proprietor of Cork It Gainesville, which marks its third anniversary on the downtown square Feb. 3, and its sister location in downtown Buford.
He’s also co-owner of Peyton’s Pie Co. in downtown Gainesville and Flowery Branch and Chopblock in downtown Gainesville, and chief operating officer of RT Creative Group, which specializes in social media marketing, photography and graphic design for small businesses throughout the state.
“It is a lot of work,” he said. “People ask how (I do it) — I just don’t sleep a lot and I have an awesome team. Because at the end of the day, none of this would be possible without my business partners and our wonderful, incredible team.”
Stanley is an alumnus of West Hall High School and University of North Georgia, where he studied business management.
He gained his footing in the restaurant scene at Luna’s Restaurant at the ripe age of 16, working his way up the totem pole from dishwashing to serving and catering to general manager.
Also an avid traveler, Stanley spent whatever spare time he had abroad, becoming acquainted with cultures and cuisines around Europe and Central America.
“I worked to pay my tuition and I worked to save money to travel. I was always finding these fun, cool little bars and restaurants.”
At 21, he handed in his two weeks’ notice and bought a one-way ticket to Barcelona — he’s always traveled that way, he said — where he spent the next six weeks exploring before returning home to begin working under chef Nicholas St. Clair at Antebellum in Flowery Branch.
Stanley’s travels spawned the idea of bringing a hub for a diverse wine selection, charcuterie and cheese to his hometown square, and in February 2020, Cork It uncorked its first bottle inside the Main Street Market.
“Throughout the traveling experiences, I was able to try all these different wines, charcuteries and cheeses, and we wanted to introduce (that to) the community and the city of Gainesville — that was kind of the whole premise,” Stanley said. “(Charcuterie) was a really popular thing in bigger cities; we didn’t have anything like that here. I think it is cool to be one of the first to bring that.”
While Stanley couldn’t divulge further details at the time, plans for a third Cork It location are in the works outside of Hall County.
In the meantime, it will be business as usual at Cork It Gainesville, with more of an emphasis on events like wine expos and, now that the brick oven is up and running, pizza and wine pairings in partnership with Peyton’s Pie Co.
The wine bar also appeals to the auditory sense three nights a week, hosting live music every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.
Cork It, as Stanley aims to present it, “is very approachable; it’s not very snooty. You can be who you are when you come in here. We have taken all of our favorite pieces of different bars and restaurants from our different traveling experiences and tried to put them all in one place. We want Cork It to be a fun place with serious service.”
Stanley has no formal training or sommelier certifications, he said; everything he knows about wine is a result of his penchant for learning, travel and trying different things.
Of all the regions he’s tasted — France, Italy, Greece, Spain, California’s Napa Valley — Spanish wines are Stanley’s personal favorite, particularly Ribera del Duero.
“I just love the Spanish style of wines; I love the grapes that go into it, I love the winemaking processes that make it what it is,” he said.
Building a businessman
Although the first in his family to inherit the entrepreneurial gene, Stanley insists he isn’t self-made, crediting his father’s business acumen in the sales industry and his mother’s knack for nudging him toward independence with shaping the businessman he is today.
“(My dad) taught me formalities — how to look people in the eye, how to shake their hand appropriately and how to really handle talking to people,” Stanley said. “My parents always did a really good job of allowing us to be ourselves. They weren’t helicopter parents; they gave us rules and restrictions … but really did a good job of letting us explore.”
Stanley recalls his mom, a homemaker, sending him on a group mission trip to Honduras when he was 12 years old.
“That was a really eye-opening experience for me, because it really made me appreciate the things that I have on a day-to-day basis,” he said.
On other occasions, when calling his mom for advice, Stanley said he rarely got the response he wanted but often came away with exactly what he needed.
“I’d be complaining about something or ‘I don’t know what to do about this and that,’ and she wouldn’t give me any advice,” he said. “She would just say, ‘Figure it out.’ Because she knew that I could figure it out myself. I always thought that was really, really cool, and I have a lot of respect for her for that.”
Stanley also credits his mentors, Juan Luna, owner of Luna’s Restaurant, and Jim Tortorelli, owner of Tap It and Stanley’s business partner in both Cork It and Chopblock.
Luna, Stanley said, has been “a key influential person in my life and in business; he’s really the one who’s taught me everything about restaurants,” while Tortorelli, a “really, really incredible business leader” in Stanley’s eyes, has imparted valuable wisdom in business and finance.
For Stanley, the opportunity to serve others every day is the biggest perk of his trade.
“It’s almost selfish to serve other people and give them a good time because it really does make me happy,” he said. “The saying, ‘If you find something you love to do, you’ll never work a day in your life’ — I think that’s a very, very true statement.”
As he raises a glass to three years as Gainesville’s hometown wine bar, Stanley is grateful he didn’t scratch the initial itch to skip town upon finishing college, because Cork It and its patronage have given him the chance to work and grow “with those people around me that I love in the Gainesville community.”
“I was just hoping to bring a fun wine bar — something different, unique,” Stanley said. “There were no other wine bars, per se, in Gainesville, and it’s been really exciting to see how the community’s grabbed onto it. A lot of people made this their regular spot to come and hang out. I’ve met some of the best people ever through all of that. That’s what it’s about.”