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Uncorked owner Michael Amador on the future of the wine tasting business. Credit: Charles O'Rear / Corbis Documentary

How the COVID-19 pandemic helped one Santa Barbara Calif. wine bar climb out of financial trouble

Before the pandemic, Uncorked Wine Tasting and Kitchen in Santa Barbara, Calif. was struggling financially, but learning to pivot their business from wine and appetizers to three-course meals to-go over the past seven months has been a lifesaver. Here’s the story from Uncorked owner Michael Amador:

"We opened two years ago as a wine bar with our focus on [selling wine from] small boutique wineries from the Santa Barbara area that didn’t have their own tasting rooms, and we had small bites as well.

Our first year was a struggle to get out of that hole and in January 2020 I wondered at that point if our place was going to be viable. I didn’t know if we’d hang in there or not; the cashflow just wasn’t there. Then March comes along and we got scared because all tasting rooms and wineries had to shut down. So the next day I said, “let’s start doing food to go and keep it simple. We can run the food out to peoples’ cars or they can come in and pick up a bottle of wine too.” We started doing these price-conscious three-course dinners at $18 per person that change daily. I would email out what the specials were every day and people would start ordering online for that evening to pick up. And that just changed everything for us.

My staff that I initially let go, I was able to bring them back on two days later with even more hours than we had before. Our email list grew and doubled in size. Our wine club almost tripled in size; we had a lot of people taking advantage of the comfortable and familiar food we were putting out. It became less of a focus on the wine part, yet I sold more wine in the past six months than the past 12 months before that.

I almost thought we’d close in January and we turned it around and paid off almost all of our debt. We pivoted our business 180 degrees from this wine bar with very little to-go food — about 1% of our food sales — to 99% to-go food sales. Even now that we can allow people onto our patio and a small percentage inside, we’re not getting much of that. It’s a lot of to-go still.

As soon as I started doing daily specials, 99% of our business went that way. People didn’t want to think too much about their dinner for the night. At first, we were just offering one special and now we started offering two as people want more choice. It’s money-saver too because we used to need three to four people in the kitchen but now, I’m able to have two people in the kitchen on a busy night. We were able to cut labor costs and food costs since the menu is so simplified. Let’s say our special of the day is an Osso Bucco, we’ll know ahead of time we need to make 60 Osso Buccos so it’s nice and simple, even though we still offer our small plates menu.

I don’t see this changing any time in the next six months or more. While our food in the beginning in pre-COVID times was light bites and simpler fare, our food now is comfortable and familiar, like Beef Wellington, paella, or lamb chops. It’s stuff that makes for a nice quality restaurant experience and will keep well in a to-go setting. We’re still not quite like a restaurant, but really close.

Our demographic has also totally changed from 25-45-year-olds coming in to taste and nibble before going somewhere else for dinner to 50-70-year-olds from a different side of town. Our customers are now a little more affluent and will dine with us more regular than the younger demographic. Our regulars come in multiple times a week. So, because of that shift, that’s another reason why we’ll be slower to venture back out again [into our old wine bar business model].

The next thing we’re trying is opening up two ghost kitchens. We’ve noticed some food options lacking in our town like a good dedicated wings place. I’m working with suppliers right now to run a virtual wing spot out of our restaurant, and we’re hoping to do the same thing with a barbecue place. Both will be open by November as things start cooling down a little.

As people get more comfortable with going out, now I will have to work that much harder to stay relevant. Now that we’re doing okay and have caught up, it’s truly about managing finances and cash flow. Before the pandemic I was reactive and now I’m committed to being proactive."

Contact Joanna Fantozzi at [email protected]

Follow her on Twitter: @JoannaFantozzi

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