In October, Lemke signed a lease on a storefront, a former office just a few blocks from the ocean. The next day she headed to downtown San Francisco to begin the licensing process. She scrapped her favorite outfit of skinny jeans, T-shirt and boots and instead marched into the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control’s headquarters wearing a dressy shirt and pants. It was her 40th birthday. “I was thinking, Woo-hoo!” she says. “Let’s get this party started! And they looked at me and said I’d have to make an appointment for an interview—in a month! I had a complete heart attack.” It took three months to get her license and another three to complete renovations.
Throughout, Lemke struggled with worries that she didn’t know enough about wine to be successful. “A little voice inside kept bugging me: Who am I to open a wine bar?” she says. But she ignored the voice, visiting more than 20 wine bars in California, Oregon, Nevada and New York, pocketing their menus and talking to the owners, even pulling shifts behind one of the bars. She also took advantage of a free service offered at the San Francisco Small Business Development Center (similar agencies operate in all 50 states; go to sba.gov). Once a month, she met with a consultant who helped her figure out what equipment she’d need to buy and how much inventory she’d have to keep on hand.
Meanwhile, she took a seat-of-the-pants approach to designing her space and getting it built. To keep costs down, she relied on friends, but no one in her network had restaurant experience. Myriad electrical and plumbing problems cropped up. Unfazed, she invented solutions as she went along. She thought she could postpone buying a dishwashing machine, but after several months, she found that doing cleanup by hand was far too time consuming. “And everyone hated it,” she says. She ordered a dishwasher without realizing she’d also need a hot-water heater. The day the heater was delivered, there was nowhere to hook it up. So she asked her contractors to install it in a closet, next to the mops. “They looked at me cross-eyed,” she says. A plumber eventually tried her approach, and it worked. “I didn’t know what I was doing. Luckily, nothing fell apart,” she says. “I thrive in difficult situations because I’m resourceful.”
Lemke intended to pay for the initial rent, renovations, equipment and inventory with $23,000 from her IRA, but she hadn’t counted on the delay in getting her liquor license (and the contractor wouldn’t start work until that was settled). To cover the costs, she put on the market a five-unit apartment building she’d bought after her divorce. Two days before the sale was scheduled to close, Lemke was sitting in her truck outside the bar when she got a call from her real estate agent. “The buyer ran,” he said. Lemke froze. “I thought, What will I do for money? I have no safety net,” she says now. All her contractors were waiting to be paid. She maxed out three credit cards and borrowed from friends and her parents.
Lemke opened A Grape in the Fog (agitf.com) two months later, in April 2010, with two part-time helpers, a minimal menu—cheese, crackers, olives, nuts, salami—and a selection of basic varietals such as Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir. A week later, Lemke sold her real estate and paid off her debts. By August the bar was making money, with her busiest night, Friday, bringing in as much as $2,200 (her worst night drew only $60). As the numbers increased, so did her confidence. “I was able to quiet the negative, self--sabotaging thoughts,” she says.