When we opened Vagabond Kitchen on June 8th of last year, some things were still a little rough around the edges. We were figuring out a new menu, with new staff, in a new location. I don’t mind telling you the learning curve was a little steep.
As most of you know, one of our main concerns was the situation with the liquor license. We were told by hotel management that we would be able to get our own license in July.
“OK,” I thought, how does a restaurant in Downtown Wheeling survive for a month without a liquor license?” Simple. Pull a feather out of the hats of bigger cities across the country and do a BYOB establishment. We checked with the city. They were OK with it. We checked with the state. They definitely weren’t psyched, but the ABCA in Charleston told me that if we didn’t have a license, then it would be up to local law to enforce the violation. And there are, in fact, several BYOB places in the state of WV. Since local government had given us the greenlight, we went with it.
The red light came on the day of Halloween. The owner of the bar next door, Robert Weimer, had tried several times to either get me to buy him out, or get us to work for him. He reached out to me through channels in the beginning, offering to sell me the bar for $60k ¬ The bar that he does not own, the bar he rents from the McLure, the bar in which he owns no equipment, and the bar most people don’t even know exists. He indicated to me that his price was extremely reasonable. I would be getting name recognition … and the license.
His response to my disagreeing that buying his bar would be sound business was to instead have my servers run back and forth to his bar to serve his alcohol to our guests.
So we could work for him for free? That also does not seem like a sound business decision to me.
This all came to a head at the end of October leading up to our now famous Halloween Bash. I received a call from Shawn Smith of WV ABCA. We had already spoken several times, and on this call he informed me that if we did not cease doing BYOB, we would jeopardize our possibilities of ever getting a liquor license in this state. Since I plan on being in business in my home state for the rest of my life, I pulled BYOB from the event and ever-after from the Kitchen.
The Halloween Party was an amazing success, nevertheless.
Since that time, we have been trying unsuccessfully to work with the hotel and Mr. Weimer to reach an accord. Hotel Management has admitted to me that when they made the deal with Mr. Weimer to remove the banquet hall and restaurant from his liquor license in exchange for a thousand dollar decrease in rent, they “made a big mistake,” and didn’t get anything in writing.
Throughout this struggle with “the booze situation” we have been trying to build our dinners. We began offering nightly features, then added a special features menu, all along staffing and buying food for dining rooms of guests who just weren’t showing up. And I totally understand.
When I go out for dinner, especially a nice dinner, I want to enjoy a glass of wine or a craft beer. We kept holding on, hoping that “any day now”, we’d be able to get our license. When that dream was finally, seemingly squashed a couple of weeks ago, I had to take stock as a business owner.
I want to give Wheeling a dinner crowd. I want to get people to come back down here after work. I want them to take advantage of Heritage Port and the Capitol and the Arena. If we’re going to grow as a downtown and a cultural center, a night life is instrumental …. I just don’t know if we can get there without some booze.
For those reasons, it looks like the smartest decision at this point is to restrict our hours and remove dinner from our schedule on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. We will still open by appointment for catered events, but I can’t keep staffing an empty restaurant. This will give us the opportunity to focus on what we’re good at, grow our menus and techniques, stay an active part of our community’s events, and build towards a long and prosperous future. I may also get a full night’s sleep, which would be awesome.
I’m sure some people will say that this is the beginning of the end for the Vagabond Kitchen. Those people will be dead-ass wrong. There are huge things on the horizon, things that will change the very landscape of our city, we just have to survive as a business until the right time.
Reinventing Wheeling will not be easy, it will not be overnight, and it will take our whole community’s focus and energy. And it will happen.
Last week I was offered an amazing position out of town to run my own kitchen, make twice as much as I’ve ever made in my life, along with 401k, PTO, and a three-story house to boot. This position is in a great place in the state of West Virginia, I love the owners, they do amazing business, and there are always butts-in-seats. When they asked me to come on, I had to sit down with a glass of bourbon and really think it over: Katie and I have moved back into our RV, our financial statements are aren’t as much statements as they are questions, and we’ve been working seven days a week for over a year.
I turned that position down.
I turned it down because I really do believe in Wheeling. I believe in Vagabond Kitchen. I believe this struggle to be worthwhile. Besides, taking the easy way isn’t the #vagabondway.