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A selection of wines at Coast and Valley / Photography by Liz Clayman

A California-Inspired Wine Bar Embraces Uncertainty

COVID-19 #SmallBizSpotlight | At Coast and Valley in Greenpoint, the road to recovery drags on. Published: November 23, 2021

Programming note: This article is part of a weekly column on small businesses in New York during COVID-19. To get #SmallBizSpotlight articles straight to your inbox, sign up here. You'll receive one email every Tuesday. Thanks for reading!

In 2020, I spent a lot of time fantasizing about what I’d do when the pandemic was over: immerse myself in the city’s infinite cultural institutions; host regular group dinners that call for large-format crockpot recipes; throw a ginormous wedding party with my husband to make up for our tiny Zoom wedding; throw an obnoxiously extra birthday party for myself and my fellow Aries friends …

Well, 2021 is almost over, and the pandemic is decidedly not. Infection rates are spiking, yet again, in parts of Europe and the United States. Worldwide, the distribution of vaccines continues to be a story of the haves and have-nots. Oh, and that list I mentioned above? Haven’t made a dent in it. I keep listening for this global nightmare’s macabre swan song — and every so often, I think I hear a tentative verse — but most of the time, it’s just crickets.

Thanksgiving, the harbinger of the holiday season, is a couple days away, and it tends to put me in a reflective mood. This year, I’m letting go of my impulse to superimpose three-act structures onto the very random shitshow that is life. The only grand plan I’m making is to show up for myself and my people to the best of my ability, and that’s going to have to be enough. And my conversations of late, with friends and for this column, have made it clear that I’m not alone in this resigned embrace — grounded in equal parts cynicism and pragmatism — of whatever Fortuna has in store. (I’m reminded of that iconic line from Connor in season one of Succession: “I’m water, I flow.”)

We’ve all been humbled, to put it lightly, by this pandemic, and many of us are acutely aware that it’s far from over ... And that maybe, it won’t ever end. For this week’s feature, I interviewed two business owners who are still actively battling to make it through, and who accept that they simply might not. Eric Hsu and Stephanie Watanabe, partners in life and work, run Coast and Valley, a mission-focused bar in Greenpoint dedicated to California wines. Though the pandemic has propelled their progressive people-first mission forward (more on that below), it’s also thrown them into a tenuous financial position that has yet to stabilize. Keep reading for our conversation.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Tell me about your personal backgrounds and what brought you together.
Eric: I spent 25 years in tech, and 10 out of those 25 were in technology around the wine industry. I started a tech company in New York, and then the investors moved us out to Napa, California ... That's when I started going wine tasting every weekend. The Bay Area is also where I met Stephanie. We learned about wine and fell in love with wine together. We decided that we wanted to move to New York, and I wanted to change up my career, and naturally, I fell back on wine. Our entire relationship is all about food and wine, so we figured we'd open a wine bar with really delicious food.

Stephanie: We've been together for almost 15 years, and since we met, Eric had talked about wanting to own a bar. I was like, A lot of people say stuff like that, but aren’t actually going to do it. I'm super entrepreneurial — I was a film and event producer — and I'm really good at bringing ideas to life. Once he was really serious about wanting to do it, I was like, Let's do it.

How did you decide to launch a California-focused wine bar?
Stephanie: We looked at the wine landscape of New York City and noticed that it still had a stigma against new world wines, especially California wines. The [wine bars] were really into French, Italian, and Greek wines, and they had this perception of California wines that was completely incorrect. [California wines] aren’t limited to Cabs and Chardonnay. There's a lot happening there that is really exciting, maybe even more so than in other places, because California has always embodied a spirit of no limits — it’s the wild west [ethos] of throwing caution to the wind, planting grapes where you're not supposed to plant them, doing things differently — and we wanted to showcase that. Also, since we opened, we have categorized our wine so that people can drink based on their value system. We notate whether it is woman-, LGBTQIA-, BIPOC-, or POC-owned. [We label] if wineries are organic, sustainable, or follow other environmental initiatives, so that people can understand who's behind the wine.

Eric: We're trying to convert the list so that eventually, it will be one hundred percent women, POC and LGBTQIA winemakers. Right now, we're almost 70 percent there.

Can you explain your progressive pay structure?
Stephanie: We started it pretty early on in the pandemic, though we had been talking about how tipping was a problem from the get-go. But we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into, and so we didn't have the time to think about that stuff when we opened. In many ways, the pandemic was a bit of a blessing in the sense that we were closed for two months, and so we could ask questions like, If we're able to open again, what do we want to do differently? We decided to [institute] a universal wage, so every single person on the team makes $25 an hour, no matter what they do. And everyone's cross-trained.

Eric: The $25 universal wage is a floor, meaning that no one will ever make less than $25. How we achieve that is by adding an automatic 20 percent admin fee. And then when we calculate the 20 percent admin fee for the month, if it comes out to be more than $25 dollars an hour, everyone gets a bonus. We don't pocket anything extra for the business; it all goes directly to the team. During the summer, people were making anywhere between $27 and $30 an hour.

Stephanie: We're not busy 24/7: the winter is slow for a lot of [businesses], and it's definitely slow for us. We never felt good about the fact that [employees] would come to work during the winter months and make $15 an hour — how can they live off of that? Everything used to depend on how busy we were. Another reason we [launched the universal wage] is because we don't like the discrepancy between servers making bank and then the kitchen team making $15 an hour. That is just not cool. We wanted to level the playing field, and luckily, our servers are all on board. A lot of business owners have tried the no-tipping [model] and then rescinded it. We're not into tipping; it stems from the slavery time. We need to do away with it as an industry and stop making excuses for why we can't do it and find creative ways to do it.

You opened in May 2019 — less than a year before the shutdown. Were you starting to establish a niche in the community before everything ground to a halt?
Stephanie: Yeah, we definitely were. Interestingly, we were becoming really well known for our food.

CoastandValley 0719 LizClayman 0021 (1) The beloved poached chicken / Photography by Liz Clayman

I know! Your poached chicken is famous.
Stephanie: Even people in other countries have read about it, which is really weird. The food got us a lot of attention in that first year, so people were coming in because we were an interesting [combination of a] wine bar with great food. Our repeat customer base was really high and we were starting to come out of that startup place where everything is completely haywire. It felt like in year two, we might hit a stride, and then we had to shut down. We lost a lot of momentum. It was like letting the air out of a tire.

You closed completely for a couple of months at the height of the shutdown. How did you recuperate from that?
Stephanie: It was very slow. It's funny: I'm a huge risk taker, but on this particular thing, we were both in no hurry. Honestly, we were exhausted, and this was so stressful. It took at least a couple years off of our lives. On top of worrying about ourselves getting sick, we were worried about our team getting sick. We started a GoFundMe to make sure they had groceries. It felt like taking care of our family members, and we wanted to make sure they were okay.

Eric: After two months of being closed, we had a discussion with the team, and at the time no one felt safe riding the subway. We realized we needed to start opening up, so we started by selling wines and meat and cheese boards to go. I was the only one working for a little while, until slowly, one server came back and then we started to do delivery; after a little while, another server came back, and then a cook. The whole time we were having conversations with the team, [checking in on] who felt comfortable coming in. If they didn’t feel safe, there was no pressure. We took a very long time reopening. If you don't have your life, what's the point?

When did you start offering outdoor dining?
Eric: We were a couple months behind the outdoor seating [transition] … Once we got one or two servers back, we put a few tables out, and then when more servers were able to come back, we built the street dining [structure] and put extra tables out there. That was the only [sit-down] option for many months.

What about indoor dining?
Eric: We waited for about a month after we were allowed. We wanted to see how things went first, because we didn't want to reopen right away and then, say there was a spike in cases, have to shut down and lay everybody off again. We didn't want to get into that cycle, so we were pretty cautious the entire time. We were always a couple steps behind everybody else.

What did it feel like when you finally had people inside?
Eric: It was scary.

Stephanie: Everyone was on edge, even the people dining. The entire facade at the front of our wine bar opens up, and even when it was pretty chilly, we had the doors and windows open. It made people feel a lot better because air was flowing in constantly. We did that for a long time.

How has the community responded to your various efforts to reopen?
Eric: Amazing. We’re right around the corner from McCarren Park, and pretty much anybody who was heading to the park for an afternoon would come by and get wine to go. Once we started delivery, we had regular customers who would order two or three times a week.

Stephanie: We have a core contingent of people who have been supporters since day one, and they've tried to help as much as they can. But here's the thing, and I would say this to them, too: they've been so supportive, but honestly, it doesn't matter in the big picture because it’s not up to customers to save businesses from a global pandemic. The real issue is the lack of coordination between all of the government systems that should have been helping us, but failed us. We appreciate and love our customers so much. I think they think that if they come enough, maybe it will save us. What I want them to understand is that it doesn't matter if they come five days a week — even if we were packed to the gills, we lost two years of revenue that we can never get back. It's not like we can make that up.

Did you get any government loans or grants?
Stephanie: We did. We got the first PPP and the EIDL loan, and we did get approved for the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, but we did not get the money, along with about 3,000 other people. We're in a potential class action lawsuit with the SBA. Basically, [the SBA] told a bunch of us that we were getting our fund — and it was a lot of money to us, enough to start hiring more people and buying more wine inventory — and then six weeks later, they said, “You're not approved now.” It was because they over-promised and ran out of money. It's not surprising, though; nothing is real to me until it's in the bank account. It threw a wrench in our plans because we had already started hiring and all these other things, so we had to rethink the strategy going forward.

I’m so sorry that happened. When you reflect on the government’s overall crisis response, what are your major pain points?
Stephanie: I think the biggest thing for the hospitality industry is that there wasn't enough funds to go around. And we're saying that as people who did get something, at least, so we feel really lucky, but there just wasn't enough. Why were franchises and chains that were still profitable getting anything? It felt like there wasn't a lot of thought that went into the whole program.

Eric: The criteria [to qualify as a small business] was outrageous. When the threshold was 500 employees or less per branch …

Stephanie: That's not a small business. Frankly, it was a shit show when they rolled it out. Clearly, no one there is a project manager or producer. Hire a bunch of us and we'll get it done!

Did you get any rent relief?
Stephanie: We have a big balance with our landlord.

Eric: We're unlucky and lucky at the same time: unlucky that we didn't get any rent relief, but we're lucky that our landlord is like, Well, let's figure out this huge bill later.

Was there ever a point when you felt like you weren’t going to make it through this?
Stephanie: I don't know that we're out of that dark place. I don't think we've seen the closures that are going to happen en masse, yet. Right now is the hardest time because we've blown through any government funding that we had, it's about to be winter, and things are slow. We can't do outdoor dining anymore [due to cold weather] and we can't sell alcohol to go anymore because they took that law away. We have our hands tied. At this point, we've become kind of zen about it. We're going to do our damnedest, but we may not last forever.

What has the pandemic taught you about running a business?
Eric: It gave us a bit of a break to think about our values and put them into practice. If the pandemic hadn’t happened, I don’t think we would have implemented the universal wage.

Stephanie: There have been a lot of personal lessons. I think we’ve both become better leaders for the team, to show up in ways that we're proud of. At the end of the day, if we don't make it, at least I won’t have personal regrets about anything that we did. I will know that we did right by our team, by our guests, by the vendors who we work with, and by our community. And hopefully, if nothing else, we can incite some other local places to try some version of what we're doing. There's a lot of talk and theorizing on panels and workshops and Zoom, but we need to stop talking about it and try doing it. There's no foolproof safe thing in business; everything is a hypothesis until you test it out. Being an entrepreneur is putting yourself at risk every day. The fact that people are so scared to make changes makes me giggle a little bit because I mean, you're a business owner, you're an entrepreneur — it's built into your ethos to be a risk taker. Why are we so scared to take risks that benefit the people who we employ and work with?

Eric: That's something I did in tech for 25 years: put it out, test it, and then pivot right away if it doesn't work.

Stephanie: I think it's cool that we don't come from the hospitality industry because we have less fear about pivoting. It's still scary, but it's fun. If there’s a problem, let's fix it.

How to help:

Until then,

Curated By

Frances Thomas

Quiddity Content Editor

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