Owner: Pourtal Wine Tasting Bar
104 Santa Monica Blvd
Santa Monica, CA 90401
Yelp: 3.5 stars
Interview Date: Tuesday, August 3, 2010
Stephen Abronson, owner of Pourtal Wine Tasting Bar, was in the film industry before making the leap to become a restaurant entrepreneur. In the late 1990s, while pursuing his Masters in Film, he was always looking for good places to go to write. “I wondered why there wasn’t anywhere that I could go to write that served wine – the coffee shops obviously didn’t serve wine, and the restaurants weren’t really open to having you go there to work on your laptop,” he says. “And that was really the beginning of Pourtal – though I didn’t know it at the time.”
He worked in film development for several years. “The industry was – and is – going through a transition, and I decided that I wanted to go into a different direction altogether,” says Stephen. “It just became too hard to do the projects that I really wanted to do.” So in 2005, Stephen decided to open his own casual wine bar where he imagined he would have been able to go with his laptop and enjoy a glass of wine.
“I started researching wine bars and found out about the machines available,” says Stephen. “My vision was to provide a light form of edutainment – a place where you can come to learn about wine and drink wine in a casual, comfortable and fun way. It took about 2 years to find the right location. “I looked around Los Angeles and considered Culver City and West LA,” says Stephen. “But I really wanted to be in Santa Monica since I live here and it’s great not to have a commute.”
The City of Santa Monica clearly preferred that the business be located downtown by the Promenade, so Stephen focused on that area. “The landlords made it hard – they were skeptical about whether I could get a permit but were inflexible about creating an agreement that would allow me to get out of the lease if I was unable to get the permit,” says Stephen. “I spent a lot of time walking around and calling every landlord in town I finally found this place, where the landlord was more flexible.”
After about a year of permitting and construction, Pourtal opened on April 29, 2009. Before opening, Stephen churned through four chefs before finding Chef Sean Takaki right before the door opened. In the beginning it had a very limited food menu, but that changed quickly. “We noticed that our guests really wanted more food to go with their wine,” says Stephen. “We have been experimenting in the last few months and the food has become more integral to our operation.” This can be a challenge given that the kitchen was not designed for heavy preparation work. “We’re adjusting to fit the needs and are figuring out the best way to increase our menu by increasing efficiency.”
The best part of owning a restaurant and bar, says Stephen, is that “even though it took a long time and was hard, we did it. In this economy, every day that we’re open is an accomplishment.” Beyond just being grateful for every day of operation, Stephen has found the overall experience very rewarding. “It’s a lot of work, and can be very stressful and require a lot of hours,” says Stephen. “But it is also very rewarding – you pour so much of your heart into creating the right concept, and it’s great to see it in action.”
“It’s a challenge to maintain the combination of high-quality with a casual atmosphere,” says Stephen. “I think we are still trying to set our guests’ expectations. It’s really about finding the right employees to convey the concept of the bar.” In addition to setting expectations, the staff also needs to be able to educate guests about how to order and operate the wine tasting machines, which offer a broad selection of wine by the ounce. Because some people are looking for a simpler experience, they can also order wine by the glass. “We’re trying to teach people a new concept,” says Stephen. The Italian-made machines not only serve wine by the ounce, they also preserve the wine so that Pourtal can offer wine by the glass that normally wouldn’t be available.
To promote the restaurant and bar, Stephen has made the patio section “dog friendly” and on Wednesday nights offers free dog walking services so that people can still circulate inside around the wine tasting machines. “We try to think of all kinds of fun events,” he says.