Thursday, November 26th, 2020

Swirl: The little wine bar that could

By Cathy Watters on Feb 01 2010 • Filed under Business

$10,000 monthly sales in just six months

Swirl, a small wine bar in Toronto, opened last summer to rave reviews. The Toronto Star, Martini Boys and blogTO are just a few of the publications to wax on poetically about this new addition to the Toronto food scene. 

“I was amazingly lucky to have gotten a lot of positive media attention,” says co-owner Janean Currie. She hadn’t done any specific marketing, so most of her clients were coming by word-of-mouth. 

Part of Swirl’s allure is its unique character. Converted from a small, 600-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment, the bar has been decorated with eclectic flair and reclaimed furniture. One table is made out of a door – complete with doorknob – while another has the base of a sewing machine. Food is served in small mason jars, so if you need to take home leftovers, you just take the jars with you. And when you go there, you feel like you’re ‘in’ on some special secret. Because it’s been word-of-mouth marketing so far, you only really find out about it if someone tells you. Located above a pet boutique, Swirl’s entrance, 946 ½ Queen St. East, can be easy to miss.

Although Janean has no formal business training, she’s been bartending and waitressing for about 14 years. She put herself through university this way and on graduating, became a medical receptionist. However, she missed the food services business so she eventually went back to it.

While she daydreamed of someday opening her own bar or restaurant, she had no firm plans and “wasn’t looking to take on such a huge venture” at the time the space became available. “I like to say, this space found me!” she adds.  

“What made this space so appealing was the fact that it was already licensed,” she says, and, being in Leslieville, “it is also nestled in the heart of a great neighbourhood.”

She and her partner first saw the space in April, 2009, and after a flurry of activity that ranged from paperwork (such as registering the business, applying for various licenses, setting up a proper banking account, signing the leasing agreement, and meeting with their lawyer) to “strenuous renovations,” they opened just a few months later in July, 

One the one hand, everything seemed to flow smoothly: Janean was able to finance the restaurant herself so she didn’t need to find angel investors or bank loans, and her friends and family thought her idea was great.

“I’ve had nothing but 100 per cent support from everyone in my life since I started,” she says. “In fact, if it weren’t for family I would never be where I am.”  

However, they also had a few bumps that needed innovative solutions: they needed quality wines at a good price, and they had to find a way to serve food with no kitchen or storage space. They asked sommelier Trisha Molokach to create the wine list – which they love – and asked chef Joan Olsen what she could do with mason jars and an offsite kitchen.  

“She blew our minds with fabulous pâtés, rillettes, marinated olives and cheeses,” says Janean. Some of the other choices, available at $6 per jar, are: Upside-Down Pineapple Cake, Marinated Goat Cheese, Pickled Quail Eggs, Duck Liver and Pork Pâtés, and Crème Caramel. 

Janean admits there are times when she second-guessed her decision, but she says that’s normal for any entrepreneur. When you run your own full-time business, you are completely responsible for all aspects of it, and it can be difficult to trust that there will be enough money in the bank to pay the bills. It also takes a lot of time: Jenean works nine to 14 hours per day, and on her days off, she still works for the business with shopping and overall maintenance. This, in addition to taking care of her 7-year-old daughter. 

“It can be very stressful, but also incredibly rewarding,” she says. “I believe it was the right decision for me.”

In fact, the business is doing quite well: she’s just hired two part-time employees, and is currently grossing about $10,000 a month in sales, which is reinvested back into the business. 

“I am currently making less [salary] than I was while I was solely bartending,” she says, “but I expected that and am truly happy with how quickly the business is growing.” 

MARKETING 

Janean says she didn’t have a specific marketing plan when she opened just over six months ago but relied on word-of-mouth. She did, however, put up a website and Twitters about Swirl’s most up-to-date news. She plans to step up the marketing by distributing some flyers in her neighbourhood, and advertise some nightly specials.  

TIPS:

1. Trust yourself and the people around you.
2. Take a chance.
3. Plan it out well.
4. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
5. Do what makes you happy.


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