Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Get in the Thanksgiving Spirit

The last few weeks have been great at the store.  We've been busy, and foot traffic has picked up tremendously.  This is the time of year retailers live for.  When I opened Host & Toast, I was a complete amateur in retail sales.  I had never even had a part time job in a retail store.  Somehow I thought my shopping addiction and my constant quest for bargains qualified me to work in the industry.  I soon realized how little I knew, and I've spent lots of time being very conflicted between what I feel I should do versus what everyone else does.

I spent last week feeling really guilty that I had not decorated the store for Christmas.  Everyone else decorated weeks ago.  It's just what retailers do, right?  Yet I could not bring myself to get into the holiday spirit.  I need to celebrate Thanksgiving before I can even think about Christmas.

It's a shame people tend to skip over a holiday that's all about gratitude to go straight to the holiday that too often becomes all about receiving instead of giving. I wish people spent more time reflecting and being thankful for all the wonderful things they have rather than worrying about what they don't.  Gratitude works wonders on mood and attitude.

I made a list of things that I'm thankful for to help me get in the spirit.

1.  I have an amazing husband who supports all my crazy notions, including opening a wine store.
2.  I have been blessed with an adopted son and a biological daughter who love each other most of the time.
3.  I live in a country where I am free to express myself as I choose.  I am also free to listen to or ignore people who express themselves in a way I may disagree with.  But it's hard to ignore it when it's all over Facebook.
4.  My home is safe, comfortable, and great for throwing parties.
5.  I can go to church anytime I want to.  And I can feel really guilty when I don't.
6.  Drinking wine is one of my job requirements.
7.  I get to spend Thanksgiving exercising my right to add another deer to my trophy wall.

I could go on, but enough is enough.  So this Thanksgiving, I'll raise my glass and toast to all the wonderful people and things I am thankful for in my life.  And then I'll get around to decorating for Christmas.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Building a Community Around Your Business

For those of you who caught me dancing to the Spice Girls in the store the other day, please accept my apology.  Whether you believe it or not, two very indisputable facts exist in my life:
  1. I like to have fun.
  2. I'm not a very good dancer.
But I can't help and be a bit elated about the cool little community that has popped up around my little project I call Host & Toast.

This week I am celebrating an odds-defying milestone:  one year of a completely cash-draining, energy-sucking, headache-inducing little business that has made me pray harder, hustle more, and think faster than ever before.  And in this year, Host & Toast has in many ways transcended just a transactional business.  A relationship has developed in the store and among our customers.  In some ways the community was manufactured by me, and in some ways it grew organically.  I have reflected on what I did to catalyze the growth of the community around Host & Toast, and my hope is some of my experiences help other business owners develop closer relationships with their clients.

Opening Host & Toast just as the shop local movement is gaining popularity around the country was fortuitous.  I have been the beneficiary of those who value the idea of supporting local businesses, and it gives hope that in spite of a slow economy, being successful in a small business is attainable.  I am so thankful for my fantastic customers who choose to shop small and realize that small businesses help shape the culture of a community.

I refer to Host & Toast as a community rather than a wine store because the interaction between our employees and customers is so much more than a transaction.  It is a relationship that has developed over a love of one thing:  wine.  The store has served as a place to meet new friends, a place to practice for med school exams (you know who you are), a dating service, and a job placement service.  I've heard stories of customers meeting each other at community events and realizing why they seemed familiar to one another was because of time spent at Host & Toast.  Who can say that about a grocery store or a department store?  But it happens all the time at Host & Toast.

The first and most important factor in business success, or success in life or anything,  is learn to be a good listener.  We are all self-centered creatures, and we like to be heard.  In regard to sales, taking time to stop and listen exemplifies a good sales person.  Only when you have truly heard a person’s words can you create a quality buyer/seller relationship.  If you don't hear someone's needs, how do you know what to sell them? Listening helps a seller gain a buyer's trust.  Without trust, it's hard to achieve loyalty and repeated sales.  

As a business owner, asking for, being open to, and really listening to feedback from customers is so important.  Do not be afraid to hear criticism.  Be open to what others have to say because they might have a really good idea.  Some of the best elements of the store are ideas given to me by customers.  Host & Toast is better because I was not afraid to listen.

One task that shows effort to be a good listener is to learn people’s names.  And if you are really an overachiever, remember something about them.  Remember what I said earlier about we are all self-centered?  Stop worrying about yourself long enough to listen when someone says their name and make an effort to remember it.  The more you practice, the better you will get.  And the human across the counter from you will be so flattered that you took the time to learn their name that they might just buy something and continue to be loyal to you and your business.

Another key element in creating the community around Host & Toast is making people feel comfortable.  This starts with sales staff, but it goes much beyond that.  Friendly and knowledgeable employees are a no brainer.  The grocery store has those too.  But create a physical environment where people feel at ease to taste, talk, shop, and linger.  Engage customers in conversation and introduce them to other customers who have similar interests and make them feel welcome.  I do not view m job as selling wine.  Instead, I am a host, and my job is to welcome people into my store.  The sales will come later.

I was disappointed the other day when a customer mentioned she felt like she had gotten a dirty look from another customer because she brought her daughter with her to the store.  She assured me it wasn't an employee (relief.)   My kids are at the store with me all the time.  My 7 year old is allowed one sip of wine provided he tells me how it smells first.  Everyone is welcome at Host & Toast ~ men, women, children, even hipsters.  I am happy, however, that she felt comfortable enough to mention it to me.  If I had not created a comfortable environment, she might not have mentioned it and instead just not come back to the store.

Lastly, I am very fortunate that wine is my business.  It's easy to sell something that is intrinsically social.  Although I intentionally set out to create an attitude and environment in the store that spurred community development, the fact that it is a wine store helps the community flourish more easily.  I also benefit from being located in west Texas where being friendly and open is a part of our culture.  Creating a community is easy when the two main elements are friendly people and wine.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Full Disclosure: I don't know that much about wine

Sommelier-- "som mul yare" in TX dialect, soms for short

Last weekend, I had the pleasure to attend Texsom 2012, a sommelier's conference in Las Colinas.  I spent 3 days listening, observing, and learning about wine and wine professionals, and the experience reaffirmed my enthusiasm for Host & Toast.

As I sat in the conference on the first day, I looked around the room and wondered to myself, "Am I the only one who doctored my six year old's bug bite this morning?" And I was curious if anyone else wrote notes for their blog with purple crayon because that's all they could find.  I listened to the suits in the room for 3 days talk about Chateau Blah Blah Blah, and I found myself questioning what world these people live in because it's certainly not where I live.  Between doing dishes and wiping bottoms, I don't think I can find time to travel the world, compare vintages, and take soil samples.

Please don't mistake my meaning.  I loved the conference. (3 days vacation from being mom- a full-time job in itself.  Yippee!)  Everyone at the conference was very nice.  But between the soms in business suits, the terrior, and the '83 Blah Blah Blah, collectively, the group is pretty intimidating.  In my limited experience, it seems winemakers are a pretty eclectic group.  Wine salesmen aren't even that stuffy.  So why do soms have to look so corporate?

When I opened Host & Toast, I thought for a very long time about the brand I was creating.  A statement I used repeatedly was "somewhat aspirational, but definitely attainable."  I felt like I was ahead of the curve in terms of branding and marketing as I listened to a panel of experts acknowledge they speak a different language than the general public because the language of Chateau Blah Blah Blah becomes a clique with little entry to outsiders quite quickly.  Very little of their wealth of knowledge is attainable because there is a disconnect with regular people...you know, the dishwashers and bottom wipers.

Host & Toast is about helping people develop a comfort level with wine while helping them venture into quality wines from well known and uncommon varietals and regions.  I want to meet people on their level and help them find something they will enjoy.  Examples of my common wine descriptors are kick ass, yummy, and so smooth you can drink it for breakfast.  If I ever start selling the terrior of Chateau Blah Blah Blah, feel free to punch me in the face.

While it was nice that the soms acknowledged a disconnect from the public, few seemed willing to make changes to solve the problem.  Losing the suits would be a start.  But many on the panel seemed to explain why they are the way they are, rather than listening to suggestions, new trends, or new approaches to selling what they love.  Several mentioned that wine is personal, but how can a group of people who all look the same way and speak the same way help a person experience wine on an individual level?

Thus I titled this post Full Disclosure: I don't know that much about wine.  But I think I do know something about building a brand and relating to people.  And maybe it takes an outsider to question the norm and give a fresh perspective to an industry.  At one of the sessions, an Italian wine made by an old Italian guy was the grand finale.  It was made from grapes that were almost raisins.  Of course, I don't remember the proper term to describe this style, and I had never tried anything like it.  I turned to the guy next to me and asked if it was spoiled, and I quickly learned that the wine was supposed to taste that way.  It also happens to cost over $300 a bottle.  At least my classmate was really nice about my silly question.  And after I heard someone talk about what a treasure the winemaker is to the industry and the decades he has been putting so much love and craftsmanship into the bottles he makes, I felt that I appreciated it.  But I seriously thought it was spoiled the first time I tasted it.

I had several little missteps such as that, but hopefully I faked my way through it well enough.  But if I, a wine business owner, felt intimidated to ask questions or embarrassed to do the wrong thing, imagine how a first time wine drinker might feel.  What is the industry as a whole doing to convert a first-timer into an enthusiast?

Overall, my experience at Texsom was amazing.  I had the opportunity to taste so many wines that were new to me from some common and some little known places.  I opened Host & Toast because I wanted to offer something different to people in Lubbock, but it seems I might have stumbled on a way of thinking that is different industry-wide.  It's OK that I don't know that much about wine.  I can learn as I go, but as I do, I hope I don't lose the hospitality and the relationships that make wine and Host & Toast so special to me.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Why (not how) it all started....

Sometimes in moments of self-realization, clarity, or needing to clean the house quickly, I tuck notes, photos, or mementos into drawers and cabinets because I know their importance, and I need reminders of things that were once special and meaningful to me.  

While re-organizing drawers, making the bathing suit drawer the workout clothes drawer (surely something meaningful in that action), I found some notes I made while on a plane and trying to decide whether or not I wanted to quit my job at Texas Tech, where I had worked for nearly 10 years.  I was amazed how closely I had followed values statements that I wrote to myself over a year ago and had not thought much about since.

In April 2011, I decided it was time to quit my job.  I always knew that my career would have to change to accommodate my family, but when the time came I wasn't sure I was quite ready to put the brakes on a 10 year career and start from scratch somewhere else.

On a plane headed for Houston, I made a list of pros, cons, and value statements to help me decide if it was the right time to quit and what I might do next.  My decision involved several factors including my family, my health, and my self-worth.

So here's the list....word for word what I wrote last April

Why quit?

Take a risk. 
To recover. 
To be entrepreneurial. 
To be proud I can spell entrepreneurial.
Comfortable shoes.
Eliminate (some) guilt.
If I quit and it doesn't work, I can always go back.
I don't like it when I'm a surly traveler.

Why not?

Health insurance.
But I like to travel.

What I want to be/do/create next.

For moms-convenience, variety, health, peace of mind
Time-to relax, to be, to breathe, to accomplish
A patio-because cocktails taste better outdoors
Lifestyle-mom, ranch, West TX, conscious style
My favorite things-walking, travel, dresses, comfy shoes, sunny days, cool breeze
Ability, portability, flexibility, reliability

It's been over a year since I quit my job.  At the time, I had no idea what I would do.  A wine store was one of many ideas.  And I really didn't have to do anything if I didn't want to.  I could be a mom and a wife, but I wanted more. I had some ideals that I wanted to follow, and I set out creating an atmosphere where I could be what my family needed and be what I needed.  I am proud I opened Host & Toast, and I am amazed it mostly fits with what I wrote over a year ago.

What's next?

I hope to use this blog to chronicle my experiences as a mom and a business owner, but I am trying to set attainable, not overly ambitious, goals.  Thus, for me and for my business my plan is simple:

  • Work as hard at being a good mom and wife as I do on my business
  • Be innovative in my business
  • Learn more about wine
  • Write a second blog post (an attainable goal)