A wine time

Vino 100 is having fun and bringing affordable “boutiquey” wines to Chico

OF WOMEN AND WINE <br>The five franchise partners of Chico’s Vino 100: (from left) Debby Stewart, Yvette “Yogi” Bocast, Jo Scott, Laura Burwell and Desi Cowan

The five franchise partners of Chico’s Vino 100: (from left) Debby Stewart, Yvette “Yogi” Bocast, Jo Scott, Laura Burwell and Desi Cowan

Photo By Vino 100

“One hundred great wines for $25 or less.” In a city like Chico, with its earthy body of small-town values and slight bouquet of big-city sophistication, the concept behind the Vino 100 slogan would seem to be an ideal fit. You get something of quality that you would normally only be able to find in a metropolitan area, and you get it for a reasonable price. Combine that simple idea with a location that is next door to the popular Mangrove Safeway grocery store, and you have a the foundation for a business plan that would seem to have a very real chance for success.

It hasn’t even been a year since store manager Debby Stewart and her four partners bought into the Vino 100 franchise and opened the wine and gift shop in Chico, and it’s already clear that they’re having a lot of fun with the investment.

The business that Stewart and partners Laura Burwell, Yvette “Yogi” Bocast, Desi Cowan and Jo Scott have created is fast becoming a community meeting place where every aspect of the business is intended to engage the customer. With wine at the center—those 100 wines for 25 bucks or less—the conversation begins with their little wine barometer signs that gauge the flavor (from “fruity” to “dry") and body (from “light” to “full") of each bottle of wine in the cozy, wood-lined room. The focus is on what Stewart calls “boutiquey” wines, those from small wine-makers, not mass-produced. There’s an emphasis on wines from other countries, as well as wines (and olives, olive oils, furniture, etc.) that are produced locally.

Add to that daily wine tastings, an on-site expert (former Ray’s wine consultant Jim) and an energetic group of owners who taste all the wines and revel in sharing their discoveries with the customer, and you have a pretty happenin’ place to go work each day.

“It’s not a drudge—it’s fun here,” said Stewart about the family-like atmosphere that the five friends who’ve known one another for nearly 20 years have created. “The exchange is fun and it’s positive and it’s uplifting. [A partner] may come by to just pick up something, but they end up being here for an hour or two, getting involved in the exchange.”

Stewart is a huge part of it. Though she says she’s the “serious” one of the bunch, her staunch anti-snobbery approach to customer service is exemplified by her warm Cali-girl drawl: “Sauvigon Blancs from New Zealand, oh my God, they’re just killer.”

It’s the sort of warm business one would normally associate with a mom-and-pop shop instead of one that was part of a franchise.

Stewart is pictured at the then-unfinished shop before it opened it last summer.

Photo By Tom Angel

“What was really cool was that it’s not a cookie-cutter,” said Stewart. “People who are entrepreneurial, they have their own ideas, they have their own things they want to try. A lot of franchises won’t let you do that, and this one allows you to. So that’s awesome.”

The company itself hasn’t been around a whole lot longer than its Chico branch. An offshoot of the Tinderbox company (the huge cigar store franchise that has been around for a long time—75 years), the first Vino 100 opened in Peoria, Ill. in April of 2003. It’s actually a combo store with an existing Tinderbox shop. In fact, several of the franchises have opened as Vino 100/Tinderbox combos.

According to Robert Craft, Vino 100’s director of franchise development, there are 30 Vino 100s now open, with about 27 more in development. Craft was very complimentary of the new Chico store, saying that the women “are doing wonderful.”

“This one attracted us because of the philosophy behind it,” Stewart explained. “It’s basically designed to be extremely friendly and educational if the customer wants it—kind of a family-type shop where people feel extremely comfortable right off the bat.”

Formerly the chief financial officer for local company Norfield Industries, Stewart wanted to try something different and her job search eventually led her to pursuing starting a business early on with partner and best friend Yogi Bocast.

“We started looking at franchises, because of the [lower]-risk factor—we’re both accountants by the way—because most businesses, like 80 percent of them, fail in the first year. Franchises have a lower risk … a better success rate. There was this one ad about Vino 100 that we just kept laughing about, and going, ‘God, wouldn’t that be a blast?’ Because we both love wine.”

After a trip back east and a positive day-long meeting at company’s Philadelphia headquarters, Stewart and Bocast brought in the additional partners and decided to go for it, putting their love of wine and their business backgrounds to the test.

Vino 100’s Craft said it’s a turn-key investment of around $185,000, which includes the $30,000 initial franchise fee. After that, the commitment to the parent company is a 5-percent monthly royalty from retail sales.

It may be less than 1 year old, but Stewart says, “We’re already meeting our budget.” She also says that they’ve been very encouraged by customer response, citing word-of-mouth as their best advertising. “I would say more than 50 percent [of new customers] say, ‘so-and-so said I had to come in here.'”