Viticulture Wine Bar Owner Takes a Winding Route Straight to Success in Business
Women-Owned Business Series
As part of March's Women in History Month, Paychex celebrates the customer journey — challenges, inspiration, and successes of women entrepreneurs — in our Client Spotlight.
Attending nine schools before the seventh grade and then four colleges in four-plus years provided Courtney Benson with more than a classroom education. It ensured that she was schooled in flexibility and resilience, able to roll with every change that followed the government-ordered closure of her then four-day-old business in March of 2020 due to COVID-19.
Despite multiple moves as a child to new communities and schools, plus the traditional tumults of growing up, Benson chose an unusual focus to keep grounded: she’s fascinated with roots.
However, mirroring a childhood of ever-changing paths, she also appreciates vines.
“I was poolside with the kids [daughter, Juliana, and her teenage brother and sister], thinking what I would do going forward,” said Benson, who at 29 has already opened up two restaurants in the city of Rochester, NY. “I started googling different phases when it came to wine … I was thinking of the vine side and that led me to [the word] viticulture.”
Viticulture Wine Bar was Benson’s first foray into owning a business. She always dreamed of going in that direction but came into it after her path took a few turns. In full disclosure, she started at Paychex and worked in insurance before pivoting toward being an operations manager for LA Fitness, and then she decided to get her real estate license.
It was that taste of real estate that whet her palette for wine. She started seeing properties she wanted to buy — all restaurants — but didn’t want to dive headlong into that field. She wanted to be in the hospitality business.
“Opening a wine bar seemed scalable,” Benson said. “It was an entry-level way for someone who’s never worked in a restaurant to gain that experience.”
So, how does someone with no restaurant experience and no ownership experience make that leap, especially, according to Benson, as a “woman in a masculine-energy” industry?
“I just made sure I was resourceful and made sure I used all the things that I had access to,” she said. “Surrounding yourself with people who know things that you don’t is probably the best thing you can do as an entrepreneur because … when it comes down to actually getting it done, you have that advice and experience of that person to lean on.”
Benson lists off the people to “lean on”, especially an accountant, lawyer, family, staff, and even herself and her own experience.
“People think you need a ton of money to start your dream [business],” Benson said. “(It’s important) just knowing real estate and educating yourself on how to work a deal that is beneficial to you when it comes to finding the right location and signing that lease … being prepared to understand what that lease is supposed to look like. All these things help.”
She also has a knack for design and visuals, so when it came time to decorate the three-room, three-themed space, she took her bar manager and a friend out to select furniture, light fixtures, artwork, then they painted and stenciled each of the rooms to reflect the Old World wine regions of Spain, Italy, and France.
Benson then turned to another friend of hers, a sommelier who took her to tastings and helped develop her wine list. She opened the doors and four days later the pandemic hit, and everything changed. For three months the business remained closed. However, she wasn’t idle, using that time to engage potential customers on social media and create a buzz for when they could return.
Benson also continued to be resourceful, taking advantage of the curb-side pickup orders for wine that the state allowed businesses to carry out. However, she did have to lay off staff, including her bar manager.
“When you open a business, you don’t expect to make money right away yourself. I just didn’t anticipate needing to have a certain amount of income to keep an employee on (without bringing money in),” Benson said.
She pivoted again when she was allowed to re-open, using her outdoor patio to serve customers. Benson put a high priority on customer safety. “A good business makes sure that they’re keeping the customer safe. You need to put safety before money,” Benson said.
Money. Although she indicated one doesn’t need a substantial amount to start their dream (business), it still is necessary. Benson reads a lot. She found grants and applied for them. She took full advantage of every piece of funding she was eligible for.
“I’m a woman. I’m a minority woman. There is money available to help,” Benson said. “And again, being resourceful helps. I filed my own liquor license and health permits with the authorities.”
One more resource, more knowledge, another experience and path to take. Benson relied heavily on the Small Business Administration website to search for funding opportunities, as well as to gather more information about the frequent changes the pandemic was creating for businesses to operate.
She also benefited from her Paychex representative reaching out to her to see if she was aware of the Employee Retention Tax Credit. To her surprise, she learned she was eligible for the tax credit because she had rehired employees and had been paying them for nearly a year and a half — and not just the handful at Viticulture but also 15 at the restaurant she opened during the pandemic. She expects to get nearly $60,000 refunded to her, and she has plans.
“I am going to use the funds to help promote the business and make changes like more hours for the staff and additional income for them, plus more open hours for the business and some patio enhancements so I can do more with the bridal showers and birthdays,” Benson said. “We’re also going to do a Coffee Culture and a shared workspace during the day.”
She continues to learn and use her business to provide education on wines to patrons, including a recent celebration of Black History Month that featured selections from multiple African American-owned or operated wineries and vineyards. Her efforts have resulted in Viticulture Wine Bar being voted one of the Top 30 Coolest Spaces in Rochester, and she said that makes her feel good.
Recently, Benson was approached about being a consultant — a new path — which coincided with her selling the other restaurant. She paused to think about that when asked what’s next for her.
“I’m just trying to figure it out. I might have an option to open another place or do something more with wine,” she said, but repeats one word with just a hint of questioning curiosity. “Consulting?”
The vine continues to find new paths while staying firmly rooted in who she is.
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