Whether drinks professionals or professional drinkers, we all have our ideas as to what makes a bar or restaurant great. Some of us even go so far as to flesh out the fantasy, ruminating on the ideal location, décor, wine list, and preferred clientele. Far fewer execute on such a vision, and for good reason—as glamorous as opening your own business may seem, the reality is often far more tedious. For those that are seriously contemplating such an endeavor, three sommeliers turned wine bar owners, operating in four distinct markets, share their wisdom and show their scars.
In the decade between 2000 and 2010, Laura Maniec, MS, graduated from sommelier to corporate beverage director to partner of the B.R. Guest Restaurant Group. At its height, this hospitality giant counted 20 different restaurants across the United States, with all of the beverage programs overseen by Maniec. When the company sold in 2010 to Starwood Capital, Maniec seized the opportunity to venture out on her own. She took her share of the sale money, partnered with her uncle and fellow oenophile Frank Vafier, and opened the Union Square location of Corkbuzz in November of 2011. Part wine bar, part education center, part corporate caterer, it stood out immediately in the wine-soaked New York City market for both the breadth of its services and the creativity of its wine program. Innovations such as Maniec’s “Champagne campaign,” wherein all bottles of bubbly are half off for select periods of time, and her “blind tasting happy hour” have been copied relentlessly across the US and abroad. Based on the success of their debut location, Maniec and Vafier have since opened several more Corkbuzz outlets, including a restaurant and retail space in North Carolina.
Meanwhile, down in Austin, Texas, the effervescent and whip-smart Master Sommelier June Rodil has done much to raise the bar of wine service in her small but enthusiastic community. Like Maniec, Rodil has spent most of her career treading in corporate waters. After jumping from server to beverage director for the Uchi Restaurant Group (Hai Hospitality) in the span of six months, Rodil worked as wine director for the La Corsha Hospitality Group. From there, she transitioned into management, becoming first the general manager and then the director of operations for Chef Paul Qui’s restaurants. Over the years that followed, Rodil grew increasingly displeased at her position’s distance from wine, and she began putting out feelers. Soon, the McGuire Moorman Hospitality group (MMH) came calling. They not only created a corporate beverage director position just for her but also sweetened the deal by agreeing to make her a partner in their next project, which they left to her to sculpt. Two years later, in July 2016, Rodil and her colleagues opened June’s All Day, a wine bar/restaurant on the edge of Austin’s trendy South Congress neighborhood. Though Rodil is often found at her namesake establishment, she faces the challenge of balancing her ownership obligations there with her professional duties to a group that includes six restaurants, two designer clothing retail stores, a catering company, and an as-yet-unopened hotel.
Master Sommelier Matt Stamp grew up working in his family’s restaurant in Omaha, Nebraska, secure in the knowledge that it would one day be his. But while Stamp was busy pursuing his MS and taking a few spins around the floor of California’s Farmhouse Inn and The French Laundry, his parents—with his blessing—sold the business. Though he ended up making Napa, not Nebraska, his home, the idea that he would one day run his own establishment never truly left him. After six years of writing for GuildSomm, Stamp tapped fellow sommelier Ryan Stetins to co-open a wine bar, and the pair began the process of writing a business plan and raising capital. In the time it took to finalize their vision, however, two wine bars opened in close proximity to the location that Stamp had selected. In response to both the unexpected competition and the physical possibilities of his space, Stamp transformed his imagined wine bar into a combination restaurant and retail outlet. Named Compline—pronounced “com-PLEN”—Stamp and Stetins’ much-needed contribution to downtown Napa is slated to open in late summer 2017.
Stamp wasn’t alone in having to tweak his vision during the span between conception and opening. Rodil recalls, “I wanted to open a bar—no food, just booze. But then this space became available, and it was too keen to pass up.” The location in question was already a functioning restaurant, so the presence of appropriate plumbing, HVAC, and parking spaces proved irresistible for Rodil, who had opened enough restaurants in Austin to know the value of such things. That said, though June’s All Day is legally a restaurant, inside its chest beats the heart of a wine bar. The menu, which Rodil describes as “stuff you want to eat when you’re drunk,” is specifically designed to complement the ever-evolving wine list, which changes dramatically every month. They sell so much wine that it’s almost a problem—to meet the Texas required minimum of 51% food sales for restaurants, they had to open for breakfast.
Maniec’s original idea was for Corkbuzz to be a “wine studio” offering a revolving series of daytime classes, not unlike a gym or a yoga studio. “The original concept was to teach, not to open a bunch of wine bars,” Maniec confesses, “but it was cost prohibitive to close after a class and send people to eat elsewhere.” Though today Corkbuzz is probably best known as a wine bar, education is still an important part of the business, and the classes are essential to their bottom line. “People seek us out for the classes; many stay and become regulars. Attracting new guests is hard, especially on slow nights of the week like Sunday or Monday. Keeping them is even harder. If you can do that, you know you’re really doing your job well.”
In addition to the concept, Maniec and Vafier also had to adjust the scope of their enterprise. Maniec explains, “We always had a mind to expand. At one point, we said we’d open 10 places in five years. Now I think that would have killed me.” She pauses and adds, “Opening a business is so much work, and I understand now that quality of life is also critical to success. I still plan to expand, but not at a rate that is detrimental to my health and happiness.”
Stamp elaborates on the evolution of Compline. “When I started thinking about opening a wine bar, I approached it in the same way that a lot of beverage people do. I said to myself, ‘I have a good idea, a place in mind that doesn’t currently exist, where both I and other people would like to drink.’” But when the concept shifted to a restaurant/retail model, Stamp saw further opportunity to address the needs of locals like himself living in a place that too often prioritizes the desires of tourists. “At some point, I realized that you could no longer find a plate of pasta in Napa for under $20, nor could you get a great $15 bottle of wine to take home on a Tuesday night.” The retail space, along with daytime classes in the restaurant’s private dining room, were conceived to help keep the business both versatile and financially healthy. “Adding the retail and education spaces came from asking ourselves this basic question: ‘We are paying a certain rent no matter what. How can we maximize the use of this space?’”
While many sommeliers have worked restaurant openings, few have actually opened restaurants. The difference is months, if not years, of paperwork, lawyers, and dealing with the mind-bending bureaucracy of city boards and planning commissions. But before even fundraising can begin, it’s important to determine the underlying structure of a business—percentages of ownership, profit sharing, creative control, division of labor, exit strategies, and so on. This is especially important if you plan to have a business partner or need to borrow the majority of your capital; a little extra diligence up front can protect your business in the long run. For Matt Stamp and Ryan Stetins, this first phase took around three months.
“Step one is call a lawyer,” Stamp advises, “which you can expect will run you around $10,000 to 15,000 of your own, pre-fundraising money.” Once he understood what legal challenges lay ahead, Stamp shared the first draft of his business plan with trusted wine industry friends, who helped him shape and refine his vision. He also chatted up local business owners, which allowed him to sidestep, or at least brace for, certain expenses. For example, if a Napa space was not formerly zoned for high occupancy (restaurants are automatically included in this grouping), then the city charges a one-time fee of around $30 per square foot just to turn the water on. To do some easy math, a 1,000-square-foot restaurant might find itself paying an unexpected $30,000 tab right before opening. Learning this information meant Stamp could scale the fee to his space and build it into his budget before he ever approached an investor.
As Stamp and Stetins needed to raise nearly all the capital, the fundraising process took the better part of a year, and it was full of frustration. “Over the course of probably any sommelier’s career, you get a lot of people taking you aside, promising you money should you ever elect to start your own thing,” Stamp says. But when he and Stetins began approaching those big talkers, the offers evaporated almost immediately. Widening the net, the two sommeliers intensified their campaign to the point where it became a full-time job, which was both physically and emotionally draining. “We spent a lot of time having meetings, sometimes two, three, four times a day, taking people out to dinner, and repeating ourselves ad nauseam. It becomes very difficult to sustain [that] energy, realizing that that most people will say no.” Almost for this reason alone, Stamp was grateful to have a partner, “Of course I was a bit hesitant to partner with a friend; I’d heard the horror stories. But raising the money, arguing a lease, etc.—I don’t know that I would have had the strength to go through it without a partner.”
Maniec agrees. “You need a great partner. It’s my number one piece of advice. Even if you’re smart enough [and] talented enough, and have the money, you still need a partner to lean on.” Maniec also strongly believes in a board of directors. Even though she and her uncle could have provided the required capital for the initial Corkbuzz, they raised a minority percentage of investment for two reasons—one, they didn’t necessarily want to rely solely on their savings, and two, they believe that shareholders are a valuable source of business advice, customer referrals, and general guidance. “We drew up a great operating letter that stated [that] until the investments are paid back, all profits go to the investors. But once that happens, the arrangement flips, and the majority of the profits are reinvested into the business.”
Rodil’s business arrangement is simultaneously more simple and more complicated, as her partners are also her employers. She collects her beverage director salary from MMH, but at June’s, she gets paid in equity. And as she didn’t pony up any of the cash for the venture, her piece of the pie is what’s known colloquially as “sweat equity,” a set percentage of ownership that vests after an agreed upon number of years.
The origin story of June’s All Day is equally unusual. A year and a half after the partnership idea was floated, the landlord of the building that is now June’s called MMH: an operating restaurant was planning on closing, and he wanted to offer the space to the group. Rodil and her soon-to-be partners acted fast. To avoid the long process of opening a brand-new restaurant, they acquired the existing business, and then “closed to renovate.” This meant they automatically acquired things like the occupancy permit and the liquor license, both of which can take a long time to wrest from a city. “In the end, this strategy saved us money because it saved us time,” Rodil recalls. “You have to be able to finesse whatever situation you find yourself in. You have to game the system.”
That said, despite such advantages as the existing restaurant-grade plumbing and fast access to MMH’s dedicated architect, it still took seven months for June’s to open. Compline’s timeline, by comparison, is significantly longer, partly because they selected a raw space that required a total buildout. Stamp and Stetins established their LLC in December of 2014; it was a year and a half before they were ready to sign their lease, and another year and a half before they will be able to open. Why? Business strategy and fundraising aside, it took them several months to negotiate the lease, several months of working with an architect to design the space, several months to obtain a permit to build, and then several months of actual construction. As Stamp elaborates, “Consider this: you can’t hire an architect before you sign the lease, because you want your architect to design according to the exact parameters of your space. Depending on the relationship you have with the landlord, he may need to approve the architect’s plan, which takes time. Then, you hand over $500 worth of architectural drawings to the city. They send copies to [various departments], who submit comments back to you. You respond to the comments, which means you take the plans back to the architect and all of his consultants. You then take another $500 stack of papers back to the city. At this point, you either face another round of comments or, if you’re lucky, are granted permission to pay $4,500 for your building permits. Ideally, you’ve arranged for your general contractor to start that day, but as you can’t predict when you will be greenlighted, he might have lined up other jobs by then.”
Though certainly daunting, there are benefits to starting with a raw space. Maniec chose a blank slate for her first Corkbuzz and highly recommends it. “Building out an empty room requires a lot of upfront capital, but your rent will likely be less, so you’ll save money in the long run,” Maniec advises. But she, too, had her fair share of headaches. Sixteen months after quitting her job, Maniec was antsy to open. “It was the day before Thanksgiving. We were supposed to have our final walkthrough for our certificate of occupancy, and the building department decided to have a half day. I ran to the department office and fake cried until some guy finally agreed to check out my space. He issued me a temporary [certificate] so that I could obtain a liquor license. The Friday after Thanksgiving, I walked it up to the liquor board in Harlem. That Monday, everything—all wine, all food—was delivered between 10am and 2pm, and we opened at 4pm. It was the hardest 24 hours of my life, but it was so worth it.”
Congratulations, you’ve opened your wine bar! Unfortunately, the contortions don’t stop there. Staying open requires just as much flexibility and humility as getting open, if not more. Though on paper your hypothetical customer drooled over your wine list, exclaimed over your menu, and treasured every thoughtful detail of your décor, your actual customers may not be so easily won over. Paying attention to the reactions of your guests and responding in real time requires some serious fortitude and can add a few more bruises to your already tender ego.
In the seven months since June’s opened, Rodil has made both large and small adjustments. “Once we understood the volume of business, lots of steps of service had to be altered. Can we decant tableside? No, this restaurant is way too tiny and packed. Do we wait until the entire table is done before we start bussing? No, we ask first, because the casual setting allows such time-saving measures. Do we put the candles out at 5 or 7:30pm? These may sound like small things, but each decision changes the vibe and feeling of the space.” Much to her chagrin, Rodil also had to scale back on the number of high-end wines. “It turns out only wine industry people want to drink fine wine in a casual setting. Normal people want to drink fine wine in a fine dining setting. So, I learned to stop hoarding my Selosse allocation and to share it with the other restaurants in the group.” It wasn’t long before Rodil found the silver lining: “We change the wine list so much that people keep coming back. They may spend less per visit, but because they return so frequently, they end up spending more in the long run.”
Though Maniec has her own idea of an ideal wine bar menu, she has learned to listen to her clientele, which means listening to the numbers. “I love being a wine bar because the profit margins are better with a smaller menu and reduced labor,” she admits. But she found that her Union Square and Charlotte patrons expected a full meal. There were also challenges at the Chelsea Market location, which was initially designed after the Union Square model. “We opened Chelsea with the incredible Chef Missy Roberts as consultant. She created this amazing menu, and no one wanted it. They didn’t want three different types of sardines; they just wanted a cheese plate. We ended up with a 70% food cost and were losing money every month. It was heartbreaking, but we finally had to change course.” Within four months, Maniec turned it around, and the business became profitable. Though disappointed, she saw this as a lesson both in humility and in good business practices. “You have to look at your numbers and say, if 80% of our clients are gluten free, we need to have some gluten-free options. I had to remind myself [that] this is not about what Laura Maniec wants to eat. Not that you should completely sell out your vision, but you have to be able to bend when required.”
As far as final words of wisdom go, Rodil’s advice is pragmatic. “Fight for your storage, man! Seriously, design and function do not always meet, so you need to be smart about what you need and then hold on tight, as boring as that sounds. Office space and wine storage are the first things to go when the kitchen needs a new combi oven or something.” Laura Maniec counsels legal vigilance. “Regarding the law, you can never take shortcuts. Whether it’s labor, mandatory gratuities, hanging posters, or paid time off, policies change all the time, and it’s your obligation to stay on top of things.” Stamp’s advice is largely financial. “Budget and then budget again,” he recommends. “The worst thing you can do is go over during your opening and then eat into your working capital to cover it. Then, all it takes is one bad month to kill you.” Should you find yourself needing more cash than you initially raised, Stamp offers the following solutions: “A bank loan, though rarely awarded to restaurants, might be a possibility. Beyond that, there are lots of micro-lending options for small loans of $20,000 to $40,000 if you do your research. Also, your landlord should provide some tenant improvement dollars. There are many ways to raise capital, but some require you to give up equity. Build in extra equity for yourself up front so that you can retain control over the business should you need to swap some for cash.”
Though all three sommeliers faced great hurdles opening their establishments, not one of them regrets their decision. Maniec remarks, “There are so many positive aspects to owning your own business and wine bar, but the best is the satisfaction of having developed something from a plan on a piece of paper to an actual profitable business that has connected people to the wine industry and created jobs.” Rodil’s excitement is more intimate: “While it’s really rad to see my vision playing out in the numbers, the most touching part of this whole thing is being able to take care of my friends.” Though Stamp’s facility has yet to open, he’s looking forward to returning to the floor, as well as training the next generation of hospitality superstars. “I’m excited to get back to that sense of immediacy that you get working on a restaurant floor, where you know whether you’ve succeeded or failed almost instantaneously.” He continues, “One of the things I liked most about GuildSomm was that I felt I was helping to shape and create excellence in a new generation of sommeliers, and I’m looking forward to continuing that work at Compline.”
Clockwise from top left, Corkbuzz, MS Laura Maniec, MS Matt Stamp with partner Ryan Stetins, MS June Rodil, Corkbuzz, June's All Day. At center, June's All Day.
Great article. I now have a better understanding of how to strategize and plan before the dream gets out of control. Makes me glad the "perfect space" in my town got snatched up before I could do something foolish!