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

ON THE EVENING of July 14, 2010, the customers at A Grape in the Fog, a new wine bar in Pacifica, California, were being treated to a live performance by singer-songwriter Kate Gaffney. As her voice filled the room, representatives of a French winery poured glasses of Bordeaux and Burgundy, and waitresses wearing peasant tops and berets (it was Bastille Day, after all) passed chocolate truffles, olives and nuts. The cedarwood bar, decked out in red, white and blue streamers, picked up the French theme. At the center of it all, Beth Lemke, the bar’s owner and host, chatted with her customers, making sure everyone had a glass of wine and a place to sit. Laughing and tossing her hair over her shoulders, Lemke floated around the room, her eyes lighting up whenever she recognized a guest. When Gaffney took a break, Lemke went to each table and whispered, “Shh . . . we’re having opera.” Within minutes the place went quiet, and a local performer, the soprano Elizabeth King, started singing a Puccini aria—for which she would later collect her payment, two bottles of wine. “The residents were already blown away that a wine bar opened here,” says Lemke. “To have high art was a double whammy.” Later in the evening, two guests with guitars launched into a spontaneous jam session. “People talked about the party for weeks,” says Lemke. “It was my hallelujah moment.”

Ever since she read Ray Oldenburg’s book The Great Good Place in college, Lemke had been dreaming of creating a friendly home-away-from-home where neighbors could gather to talk, listen to music, drink and snack. Lemke, then in her twenties, imagined a coffee shop, even though bars were something of a family tradition. In 1935 her great-aunt Mona Hood started Mona’s Club 440, a wine-and-beer joint in San Francisco. Lemke remembers at age 28 visiting Aunt Mona (“my kindred spirit”) around her 90th birthday: “She told me, ‘Don’t care what anybody thinks. March to the beat of your own drum.’ ”

Lemke didn’t have the confidence then to follow Mona’s advice. Instead, she spent the next several years in a series of managerial jobs, mostly at advertising firms and tech companies. On weekends she and her then-husband (they divorced in 2003) would drive from their home in San Jose into the wine country around Sebastopol, stopping at vineyards and learning about the different grapes. “We were happy, and our cares were far away,” she says.

At the end of 2006, she went to work for Cisco Systems, but was laid off in April 2008. The job market was bleak. “I had time to explore my interests and imagine owning my own business—which seemed like the only safe option,” she says. She took a four-month course with San Francisco’s Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center and learned how to put together a business plan. She also signed up with Vocation Vacations, a company that links people who want to change careers with mentors in professions they’d like to move into. The company matched her with Beth Boston, who owns Every Day Wine, a bar and wine shop in Portland, Oregon.

One Friday evening in February 2009, Lemke arrived at Every Day Wine to begin a weekend shadowing Boston. Customers sat at antique tables under high ceilings and unloaded their picnic baskets (it’s a bring-your-own-food place). Wine reps offered samples in a small tasting room while Boston circulated among her clients. Many of them came as much to talk with Boston as to drink wine. “The business was personality driven,” says Lemke. The trip sealed her decision to open her own bar. “For years I believed I couldn’t do this because I needed to learn more about wine,” she says. “But watching Boston allowed me to think that even with my goofy nature, it would be OK.”
Pacifica, the seaside town where Lemke had lived since 2006, seemed like the perfect location for A Grape in the Fog (she’d come up with the name while preparing her business plan). A 15--minute drive from San Francisco, Pacifica had just a handful of restaurants and hotels and no sophisticated hangouts.

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.
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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Read about another reinventor who got into the restaurant business here.

First Published Wed, 2011-09-14 15:27

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