ABERDEEN, Wash. – Wine bars are a risky business, especially in a small town. When the local supermarket has a good selection of decent wines for under $15, wine bars have an uphill battle to bring in sufficient customers to pay the bills.
That’s why Erik Stewart, a certified business advisor with the Washington Small Business Development Center (SBDC), was thrilled when he walked into GH Wine Sellars on Broadway in Aberdeen recently.
“It was standing room only,” he said. People were elbow to elbow at the bar, where patrons are offered sample tastings of several wines before they make a selection.
‘Feels like home’
It’s not standing room only every night, but owners Karen and Ryan Rowe have created a community gathering spot since they opened for business in June 2013. During the Christmas holidays they booked nearly a dozen private parties, and GH Wine Sellars continues to be a go-to location for meeting a friend or celebrating a special occasion.
“The reason for their success is their personalities,” Stewart said. “They are the most wonderful hosts. You walk in and you feel like you’re getting a hug.”
The Facebook reviews are glowing as well: “Feels like home.” “Amazing atmosphere.” “OUTSTANDING!”
That feels-like-home ambience was the vision from the start, Karen Rowe said, because Aberdeen is home for both her and Ryan. Many of their customers are longtime friends or friends of friends.
The way they are treated at the wine bar is pretty much the way they’d be treated if they were at the Rowes’ home: “We want people to come in and sit, relax and enjoy a nice glass of wine,” Karen Rowe said.
Start with market research
The rustic interior features a fireplace, couches and armchairs arranged for intimate tête-à-têtes as well as after-work happy hours. Those who choose to stand can enjoy the craftsmanship of the mixed-wood bar that Ryan Rowe made.
Open 3-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday and noon-9 p.m. Friday-Saturday, GH Wine Sellars serves more than 80 wines, including a large selection from Washington state. The wine bar also offers limited food service, focusing on simple but tasty appetizers.
While Stewart has become a fan of the business as well as a customer, Karen Rowe enjoys joking with him that he started out as a skeptic. The Rowes first contacted the SBDC in 2010 when they were considering a shop at Westport, Wash., and thought they might need an SBA loan. Karen Rowe recalls Stewart saying, “Yeah, that’s not going to work at all, but I’ll help you any way I can.”
She laughs when she tells the story – and Stewart laughs when he hears it – but he insists it is an apocryphal tale.
“I would never tell a client that their idea won’t work,” Stewart said, “but I did urge them to do extensive market research into wine bars in general and wine shops on the Olympic Peninsula in particular.”
Small town, large volume
While many clients first contact the SBDC for help with loan applications, the SBDC provides confidential, no cost, one-to-one advising on just about any issue critical to starting, growing or transitioning a small business.
The Washington SBDC (www.wsbdc.org) is hosted by Washington State University and receives support from the U.S. Small Business Administration. Additional support comes from local economic development agencies and institutions of higher education.
In fact, opening a wine bar is a difficult proposition and Stewart knew it. He ran one of the largest retail wine programs in Tacoma in the 1980s.
The problem, he said, is that wine bars typically have limited seating and often depend on high volume to cover the costs – volume Stewart was concerned could not be generated in a small town.
Right location, careful accounting
The Rowes decided to skip the Westport deal because of a family crisis, but they continued to explore other wine bar opportunities over the next two years. For one reason or another nothing panned out.
But in March 2013 Karen Rowe was driving through downtown Aberdeen and saw a “For Rent” sign on the corner of Wishkah and Broadway in the old Elks Building. That changed everything. The sign, she said, was a sign.
“I had told Ryan, if we are doing it in Aberdeen, it had to be in that building,” she said.
Stewart was still skeptical, Karen Rowe said, but she appreciated his playing the devil’s advocate.
“Having your own business is not easy,” she said. “It takes all of your days and all of your nights.” The fact that Stewart wasn’t simply a booster who downplayed the risks helped them strengthen their business plan, she said.
Stewart stressed that since their margins would be thin, they needed to account for every penny, a concept well known to Ryan Rowe, who is an accountant by trade.
“He got it,” Stewart said.
Dream come true
With Stewart’s background in wine, he was a great resource for everything from how to talk about wine to how to pour it to how to price it.
“Erik gave us things to think about that we would never have thought about,” Karen Rowe said – “some of the little things that can make or break your business.”
There were little things (that can easily become big things) like having to pay an ASCAP licensing fee if they wanted to play music in the bar. And there were big things like how to manage their inventory so they weren’t leaving wine in bottles that eventually would be discarded.
Stewart is thrilled that the Rowes are off to a great start. Detailed and rigorous accounting systems coupled with outstanding customer service are making the difference, he said: “They are doing a lot of things right – and they are happy.”
Karen Rowe agreed she and her husband are happy – happy to be back in Aberdeen and happy to be the owners of the wine bar they first dreamed about nearly a decade ago.
For more information about GH Wine Sellars, go to the Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/pages/GH-Wine-Sellars/135449866661036.
Find this news release at WSU News online at http://bit.ly/1g56N4O.