Editor’s note: The Border Belt Independent published a story Monday about the state of the Bladen County economy. In this story, we show how one Bladen County businessman has taken an abandoned property and turned it into a thriving business.
For entrepreneur Alex Munroe, running Cape Fear Vineyard & Winery is more than a way to make a living, it’s a way to provide for Bladen County.
“They’re all my friends; I grew up here,” Munroe said. “I thought, ‘What does this town need?’”
About five years ago, Munroe often took his dog to the property near the Elizabethtown Industrial Park, which was vacant at the time, to run and play in the pond. One day while talking with his friend Chuck Heustess, director of the Bladen County Economic Development Commission, Heustess told Munroe that the property was being foreclosed on.
“The next day I had a lease option on it,” Munroe said.
Since then, Munroe has transformed the 13-acre property into a thriving business, with a vineyard, winery, distillery, lodging and restaurant that accommodate weddings, concerts and other events.
“I’ve been overwhelmed by the amount of local support and encouragement,” Munroe said. “They appreciate businesses that are doing something for the area and for the citizens that can improve their lives and put food on their tables.”
The importance of innovation
Since starting his first business at 22 years old, Munroe has been taking risk after risk to become a successful businessman. “You’ve got to strike out on your adventure,” he said. “You’ll find dragons, beat them, and win little wars.”
Munroe considers his first business venture, which was in ostrich farming, to have been largely a failure, and he ended up in debt afterward. That’s when he decided he needed a steady job in sales, which earned him six figures for a decade. He then didn’t want to work weekends anymore. Munroe went on to invent several products, including tiles that help with gripping on handicap ramps, exterior emergency strobe lights that activate when residents dial 911, and solar-powered car alarms.
Munroe’s latest venture, Cape Fear Distillery, is growing quickly. Each brand pays tribute to the Cape Fear River region in which Munroe hunted and fished with his father, brothers and sisters. There’s Cape Fear Rum, Frying Pan Lighthouse Bourbon, Maritime Gin (which has a hint of lavender), Solera Whiskey and his latest product, Gamefish Vodka.
To produce these different types of alcohol, Munroe takes corn from Evergreen, adds water and yeast for fermentation and then distills the broken-down corn to the desired alcohol level. “Each spirit has a federal regulation that it has to adhere to,” he said.
Munroe has sold many of his businesses over the years, but he doesn’t plan to do that with the vineyard or distillery anytime soon. “I think I’m done after this,” he said. “I’m having too much fun now.”
One of the most exciting aspects of Munroe’s current venture is that it supports his art collection, pieces that he once kept in his garage that now hang on walls across his vineyard. These boast signatures from Muhammad Ali and Johnny Cash and include paintings by Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali, as well as memorabilia like a Michael Jackson performance shirt and shoes that once belonged to Elvis Presley.
“It’s kind of a niche market now,” Munroe said. “You [don’t] have to go to Las Vegas or Los Angeles to get it.”
Munroe plans to sell some of his collection at the vineyard gift shop, which he started building during the pandemic. With increased sales of liquor and hand sanitizer that he produced for nine months during the pandemic, business has been good enough for him to expand.
“Fortunately we weren’t just relying on events or the restaurant,” Munroe said. “We had other legs to stand on.”
With ongoing construction in addition to the demands of running a vineyard, distillery, lodging and events facility and zoological garden with miniature horses and donkeys, Munroe decided it was best to live in Whiteville in the home he grew up in, about 30 minutes away in Columbus County. “If I lived here, I would be here [working] all the time,” he said.
Instead, Munroe argued that the key to managing all of his responsibilities was delegation. “You’ve just got to have good people working for you,” he said. “I always try to be nice, let everybody grow and fulfill their positions and not micromanage them.”
Munroe’s success, however, started even before he was able to employ around 50 people. It began at age 22 with only an idea and a piece of paper. “The most powerful thing I’ve ever done is have a business card with my name on it, my phone number on it and the word ‘president,’” he said. “The minute I got that, I was empowered.”