A wine dynamo whose cork is stuck in the bottle

For budding wine-bar owner Brad Conley, opening a business in Southwest has been anything but an entrepreneur's dream

For budding entrepreneur Brad Conley, it's back to square one.

For the past year, Conley, 29, has tried to satisfy his passion and open a wine bar -- a place to serve wine and teach people about it, he said. He wants to offer the widest variety of wines at affordable prices -- $8 a glass max.

Conley had looked at spots in the Warehouse District, Loring Park, Lyndale and CARAG, he said. He even had a name picked for a space at Nicollet Avenue and West 34th Street. It was going to be Morpheus -- "a blue-tone lounge," he said.

The landlord decided on a coffeeshop instead.

Most recently, Conley eyed the vacant space at 3505 Hennepin Ave. S., the former home of Play It Again Sports, that featured picture windows and an 18-foot-tall ceiling. He was going to call this one Cpage (a generic term for variety of wine).

He got further than his prior efforts, but it was still a nonstarter.

Like many who try to open their first business, Conley is bruised from the School of Hard Knocks. Without benefit of consultants, he has to learn to negotiate the process -- going to the city's zoning inspector, licensing inspector, neighborhood groups, Councilmember and Planning Commission to get needed approvals.

After hours of dreaming big dreams and banging out business plans, the whole thing can implode when regulatory and financial realities set in -- especially if you don't ask the right questions to the right people at the right time.

An attractive idea

Conley knew how he wanted his last idea, Cpage, to look. "There would be a couple of different rooms, one with couches, a lounge area with a modern feel," he said. "The back half would be a library with one big table. That is where the course would be offered. It would have more of an antique feel."

The idea had momentum.

He made a pitch at a CARAG neighborhood meeting, and residents seemed amenable to the parking variance he needed. (One person joked Conley should call it "The Play It Again Sports Bar.") City Councilmember Dan Niziolek said when he told the East Calhoun Community Organization about Conley's plans, "I had three people stand up and cheer."

Conley had taken investors on a property walk-through, he said.

Then Conley discovered the big problem after three weeks of trying to get through to a licensing inspector (whose voicemail was too full to accept messages): city law requires most of his sales to come from food or non-alcoholic beverages. He had planned on appetizers, not full meals.

"Things are at a dead end," Conley said. "I was hoping to be more of a quaint type of thing. It was perfect for that. Once it turned into a thing that I would have to push more [food] product, it was too much of a risk."

Saving up

Minneapolis zoning inspector Emily Knox said she talks to roughly 10 people a week who want to start a business; she met with Conley to explain requirements, such as the site plan review and parking variance. Three out of four people she meets are small-business people like Conley.

The city does not keep tabs on the success rate of those who inquire about opening a business. If she had to guess, she would say half those who ask don't make it to opening.

Since Cpage's demise, Conley has started a small business giving at-home wine seminars, with wine tasting -- $35 to $50 a head, depending on the wine, he said. He gave his first trial class Feb. 1 and had another one scheduled in an Uptown residence focusing on "six great Italian wines."

He's still looking for a wine bar space and wants to stay in the Uptown area, he said.

"At least I know what I am doing this time."

Conley recently moved from Lynnhurst to a tiny apartment near 24th and Hennepin to save money to start his business. His rent dropped from $690 a month to $500; the kitchen is so small that the refrigerator sits in the living room.

The first move-in possessions include a bicycle, a few strings of blue holiday lights and several boxes of wine-related books and magazines -- including his first copy of the Wine Spectator, November 1999.

He needs to save for things like the $500 liquor license application fee, he said.

But $500 is a foothill of the financial mountain he has to climb.

Friends -- designers and chefs -- helped him estimate the cost of goods and equipment he would need, Conley said. He has a couple of notebooks of hand-written business plans, ideas and calculations.

He estimates he needs a bare minimum of $200,000 to start -- maybe $300,000, "but that is getting out of control," he said.

He built the Cpage budget knowing he would not bring in much money in the first year, he said. The budget is:

  • $43,000 (one year's rent)

  • $55,000 (six months' wages)

  • $40,000 (build-out of restaurant and kitchen)

  • $45,000 (stock the wine bar, coffee bar and kitchen with equipment, food and beverages)

  • $5,000 (legal fees)

  • $5,000 (publicity)

    Conley would not provide his investors' names, offering to have them call a reporter. None did.

    'The Winamo'

    Conley grew up in Burnsville, graduated from high school in Owatonna "and didn't quite make it to college," he said.

    He worked as a computer programmer, he said. For four years he has worked at Hennepin Lake Liquor Store, 1200 W. Lake St., starting as a stock boy and moving up to the wine department.

    He was (still is) a beer drinker, he said. But two weeks after he started at the store he tried a sip of 1995 Raymond Generations Cabernet Sauvignon after a store-sponsored wine tasting.

    "I went, 'Wow, that is really good,'" he said. "I picked up a book and started reading."

    People started asking him for wine recommendations, he said: "I got a good reputation."

    The store carries roughly 1,000 different labels, and he has tasted roughly 3,000

    different wines, said Conley, standing amid the store's narrow aisles and tightly-packed shelves.

    Several people pass by and greet him. He exchanges pleasantries with a woman who asks him whether a particular label is any good. Without answering her directly, Conley darts off and brings back a bottle of 2000 Norton Malbec, $5.99.

    "I know people's tastes and price point," he said as she leaves. "She wants a wine to sip. No need to spend a lot of money."

    Tama Burke, owner of 3 Muses, a wine bar and bistro at 2817 Lyndale Ave. S., said she consulted with Conley when she opened and considers him a neighborhood fixture.

    "Pretty much every customer I know that comes in who is into wine refers to Brad when they go to Hennepin Lake Liquors," Burke said. "They are like, 'Oh, that tall guy with the short hair and a real nice disposition. He always helps me choose my wine.' "

    As someone who opened her own establishment 18 months ago, Burke said she knows that Conley is in for a battle to open his own wine bar.

    "It's a big process," she said. "You have to have a lot of tenacity to pull it off. You can't know it until you do it. Once you're in, you're in deep. You better know it is something you want to do."

    If the wine bar never uncorks, however, Conley said he would work on his wine classes. ("I have always wanted to be a teacher. This is a casual way to do it," he said.)

    He would also like to develop a consulting business, helping restaurants with their wine list, he said.

    He is getting his business registered, and while he hasn't picked out a name, he has some ideas.

    "People call me 'The Winamo,'" he said, rhyming it with dynamo. "I like that."