Friday, May 20, 2011

Toast: How To Start A Wine Bar

Many of us dream of doing up an old villa in Provence, learning to surf in Hawaii or starting a wine bar. Which are you?

Kristen and Heather, co-owners of Toast Wine Lounge

Do you want to open up a wine bar enough to scrub toilets after they've been used by builders for three months? Nooo? Well think again about the last one.

Because that was the unenviable task undertaken by Heather Sittig, co-owner of the new Oakland wine bar Toast.  Who, by the way, is a self-confessed clean and neat freak, her c-owner Kristen Policy simply a clean freak.

Toast crew meeting 
Heather and Kristen, both 36, met ten years ago while walking their Labradors down the road at Hardy Park. They became immediate friends, both considering food and wine a "necessity rather than a hobby".

Time went by and Heather, a local realtor and Kristen a photographer, found themselves wheeling babies around the streets lamenting the need for a comfortable wine bar where they could chat with babes in tow. They spent many hours dreaming, plotting and planning this imaginary bar while sipping wine and conferring with their trusted friends, whom they call their "Board of Directors".

When San Francisco Dancewear moved out of its storefront at the corner of College Avenue and Chabot Road after twenty years, the women saw potential in the bright space and outdoor seating area and secured the place last December 1.

Their aim was to make Toast a comfortable community space that welcomed children — a wine bar to impress the keenest oenophiles, but with no pretentiousness. The wine -  chosen to go with the food - is sourced from small producing vineyards, the limited production meaning that wines would be constantly rotating with a sense of newness and adventure. Their slogan: Drink More Wine.

The outside street-side patio has high chairs and dog bowls and inside are industrial lights, swervy wood tables, benches salvaged from Richmond High (with naughty graffiti removed) a blackboard drawing of a huge corkscrew and wild flowers.


Six Start-Up Tips from Kristen and Heather:

1. Get feedback from your community. 
They canvassed everyone they knew and created a "board of directors" from trusted friends with lots of evenings sharing wine, ideas and advice.

2. If you're not naturally optimistic, don't open a business.
Kristen:"Since we didn't have experience in wine bars we didn't know what was not possible and we just assumed it was."

3. Assume everything will take twice as long and cost twice as much.

Opening: They signed the lease on 1 Dec and their planned opening date of Feb was delayed two months because of stipulations about a grease trap and hood.

Cost: They assumed it would cost $500,000 to open and it cost half that! They pre-sold 2000 wine vouchers for a total of $50,000 and raised $16,000 in 90 days through the website Kickstarter where you state the amount you need and the time frame. The owners invested $15,000 and the remainder came through three investors, one who walked in off the street.

4. Be prepared to do everything yourself.
Heather: "I have polished the floor and cleaned the fridge." And of course scrubbed the toilets. During our interview they were folding napkins and linens which they'd washed themselves.

5. Know your market.
Both women have lived here for ten years and Heather has sold "half the houses in this area". They saw residents as sophisticated foodies with high standards.

6. Be honest with your partner at the onset:
Heather: "You are gambling with your friendship and that often doesn't go well. We got together one night and laid out all our flaws. We agreed Toast wasn't going to bring us down. " Kristen: "I'm clean but not tidy. There can be piles of papers everywhere, but it drives me nuts if things are sticky." Heather: "I'm a real control freak and I have a hard time when things are not done by the deadline."

You can read my review of five Toast wines in the East Bay Express.


  1. I am so THERE. That sounds like a fab place, and some biz great tips, thanks.

  2. Jody, I love this post! I'd probably fall into the wine bar category, although I know it is as much work as what I've already got going, so probably would just come in and patronize it every evening. {Oh the address makes me nostalgic! I'm pretty sure I've bought dance tights there in college}. Anyway, I love that they are so committed to this venture, it no doubt will do well and they seem to have pin-pointed a need in the market. Wishing them the best! Fabulous post!
    xo Mary Jo

  3. No question about it. A wine bar kinda gal- for SURE. This is such a cool story. I love the fact that they are *both friends and business partners. Wish I lived closer!

  4. looks like a gorgeous bar and I love a story about people with get up and go

  5. I think I could see myself wanting to do all 3. And love these pictures!

  6. What a gorgeous space! I fill like I need to plan a trip to the Bay Area soon!

  7. What wonderful tips for starting a business! I love the look of their place! And the name... Toast- is great! Looks like so much fun to be there and stay a while.
    I am passing the Liebster Blog Award to you! Stop by my blog for the details. :)

  8. Hi There, wonderful words on wine bar... !Have a great day….Sonia !!!

  9. I can't wait to try Toast - I met Kristin this week at my shop and now I'm reading your post. I HAVE to get in here ASAP

  10. lovely tips
    i always dreamt of opening a small cafe
    later maybe :)

  11. jody- "3. Assume everything will take twice as long and cost twice as much.

    " Noooo! And you have to be optimistic, to boot?

    Seriously, what a wonderful business these two dreamed up and worked hard to make real!


  12. I just like visiting wine bars. If I owned one I'm sure the stress and obligations would ruin it for me.
    But that's just me - I can't make my passion my work because the commercial aspect would take away the pleasure.

  13. When and if I ever get to Oakland, I'll definitely be popping in. They don't want to open a UK branch in a small English market town do they? (I wish.....)

  14. This is truly such a beautiful post. I love the idea of a wine bar - it sounds so glamorous and sophisticated! :)

  15. What a fantastic place! If I'm ever in the area I would love to visit, and the decor is lovely! :)

  16. I've never even heard of this place! Sounds graet. I must check it out soon.


  17. Those are excellent tips! And I admire anyone with enough guts and stamina to pull something like this off. Good luck to them--it looks like a fantastic idea!

  18. What a fun looking place! I love it. And great tips from the owners too!

  19. i would love a toast in my hood! love the start up tips!

  20. This was awesome, Jody! I'm thinking about opening a store here (at some point!) so the advice was perfect. Thank you!

  21. I am wanting to create a wine bar from all salvage materials. The ladies at Toast have inspired me even more!!
    Yogi Milsap


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