Owners: Bodega Wine Bar
Santa Monica, CA 90401
Yelp: 3.5 stars
Interview Date: Thursday, May 20, 2010
Jason McEntee and Greg Seares were both in the advertising industry and were both getting ready to move on in 2001. Friends since college, they had previously both worked in cities that had great wine bars, and one night (over a glass of wine) they bemoaned the fact that Los Angeles didn’t have a great wine bar at which they wanted to hang out. There and then, they decided that if they couldn’t find one, they would build one. Within a few days, Greg was driving through Manhattan Beach, where both of them lived, and saw a location. He called Jason and the two began working with a Realtor. A few weeks later they realized that the initial location wasn’t going to work, but they were still committed to the idea.
Greg grew up in San Marino, which is right next to Pasadena. He and Jason, who grew up in Arcadia (also by Pasadena), were having a glass of wine (there’s a lot of that in this story!) with Jason’s cousin, who told them about the new Paseo Colorado outdoor mall that was being built in Pasadena. When they called the developer, he said “we have been looking for a wine bar,” and Greg and Jason jumped on the opportunity. “So much of our business feels like it happened a little bit by fate,” says Greg. “Within a couple of days, we had both given notice at our jobs, and figured we would be able to raise the money to open somehow.”
To save money, Greg and Jason moved in with Greg’s parents. “We figured it would be for 3-4 months,” says Greg. They held investor parties and had verbal commitments for the funds they needed within just one month. Then 9/11 happened, which shook everyone and derailed the plans. It took about six more months to actually pull in the money they needed, but they had it by Spring 2002 and signed the lease almost immediately. After getting the space up to their standards, the first Bodega Wine Bar opened at Paseo Colorado in December 2002. Greg and Jason ended up living with Greg’s parents for a total of about 18 months.
Within a few months, the first location was a success, and two years later they found a new location in Santa Monica – the Club Sugar. Raising money for the second location was easier than the first – all of their previous investors were eager to support them. They purchased the Club Sugar, took over the lease, and began renovations that were meant to last three months but extended almost 12 due to city restrictions.
“We’re business people, not restaurant people,” says Jason. “I went into this with the most significant restaurant experience, and I was a host at Islands (I didn’t make it to server) and delivered pizza for Pizza Hut.” Rather than rely on their restaurant experience, Jason and Greg set out to create a business that met their needs as consumers. Their background in advertising served them well in creating a brand, while their deep roots in Southern California and proclivity for networking supported all of their marketing efforts. As partners, they have been able to complement each other’s skills. “He’s great at Excel; I’m great at Illustrator – it works out well,” says Jason.
Jason and Greg have focused much of their energy on hiring and developing a team of employees that reflects their values and, importantly, with whom they would personally like to hang out with. “A Bud Light tastes the same everywhere,” says Jason. “It’s the people who work at a restaurant that make you want to come back.”
“I was the guy who was always throwing parties in High School,” says Greg. “As soon as my parents left town, I was inviting my friends over. Now I tell my parents that such parties were actually great experience for running Bodega.”
It can be difficult to find employees who fit into a restaurant’s culture, but Greg and Jason appear to have it down. They told me that of their 25 employees, many have been with them since the beginning, including their general manager, Linda Baffa, who was their first employee. Interestingly, within a week of being hired, Linda met the friend who introduced Jason and Greg, and they married last year. The most telling statistic for me, however, is that they told me they only hire about one person per year. In an industry that typically has trouble retaining employees, that fact is pretty amazing. “We truly have created a family here,” says Greg. “In fact, another good friend of ours is marrying another one of our waitresses this year. We’re not going to hire someone who we don’t want to hang out with.”
Jason and Greg are opening their third Bodega Wine Bar location in July in Hollywood at Sunset and Vine. As for further expansion, they’re taking it one place at a time. “It’s tempting to open more – to go big and get corporate,” says Greg. “But that’s not the life that we want.” Instead, they are working to make each location unique, to fit the local needs, and to hire people who make their customers feel welcome.