Becoming a Wine Bar Owner

When Beth Lemke lost her tech job to the recession, she found the confidence to do what she’d long dreamed of: open a wine bar.

By Julie Halpert
wine bar photo
Beth Lemke, owner of A Grape in the Fog wine bar, in Pacifica, California
Photograph: Photo by Aya Brackett

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.
Today Lemke spends most waking hours at her wine bar. She lives in a spare, 500-square-foot one-bedroom apartment five minutes from work and shares it with her two cats, Queen Elizabeth and King George, and a Chihuahua named Daphne.
Lately, A Grape in the Fog has become a performance venue as well, with more than 20 music and comedy events a month. Lemke still meets with consultants from the Small Business Development Center. “They helped me become aware of the amount of work I was taking on and the need to create a team of professionals to help me,” she says. She has five part-time employees (“my extended family”), including a bar manager who helps with personnel. “That’s not my strong suit,” she admits. After a waitress failed to show up for work one day, Lemke received a text message from her complaining bitterly that the workplace atmosphere was chaotic. Lemke was furious. “I felt attacked,” she says, but she had no idea how to handle the situation. “I thought, How dare she pull a stunt like this? But I was also afraid that her criticisms were correct. I can’t allow myself to think that way. I have to keep up the optimism; otherwise I may doubt myself.” The bar manager intervened, and the staffer returned to work, eventually taking on more responsibilities.

Where Lemke shines is in the schmoozing. “Beth has a huge following, and her place hasn’t even been open very long,” says Stephanie Hamilton, a regular who likes to design jewelry while sitting at the bar. In December 2010, the mayor of Pacifica held a party at A Grape in the Fog, and mentions in Sunset Magazine, the San Jose Mercury News and the Pacifica Tribune, as well as on tablehopper.com, -sfgate.com and sfist.com, have brought in day-trippers.

On a chilly Thursday evening this past winter, Lemke sashays among customers, passing charcuterie, pouring wine. She greets a woman seated by the fireplace, knitting between sips of Chardonnay. Next she chats up a party of six friends—“moms breaking out of baby jail”—and asks after their kids by name. “I like your new hair color!” she exclaims. It could be a scene straight out of her living room, and in a way it is.

“The bar has been so much more than I could have imagined,” says Lemke. “I’m becoming who I’m supposed to be.” She’s glad she didn’t launch the business when she was in her twenties. “I am much more confident now. I have years of life lessons that provide a foundation for every decision. At this age, I say to myself, If not now, when? Go for what you want, or life will pass you by.”

 

JULIE HALPERT is coauthor of Making Up with Mom. She lives in Michigan.

 

Running the Numbers
$900 Cost of Lemke’s Vocation Vacation (excluding food and accommodations)
$140,000 Start-up expenses
$8,000 Cost of permits and ­licenses
$3,500 Monthly payroll (excluding taxes)
$20,000 Average monthly gross
$0 Lemke’s monthly salary in 2010
$2,000 Lemke’s monthly salary in 2011

This story ran in the October 2011 issue of More under the title Grape Escape.

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First Published October 17, 2011

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Comments

06.06.2014

Thanks for sharing this post. I appreciate the never say die spirit of Beth. Hat’s off.
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05.09.2014

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12.26.2013

This article gives the light in which we can observe the reality. This is very nice one and gives in depth information.

Scott Phillips02.23.2012

I'd love to have a wine bar.

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