Risky business becomes rewarding enterprise for hosts of Aberdeen wine bar

Karen & Ryan Rowe, owners of Grays Harbor Wine Sellars

Karen & Ryan Rowe, owners of Grays Harbor Wine Sellars

Written by Hope Tinney

ABERDEEN, Wash.—Wine bars are a risky business to get into, especially in a small town.

That’s why Erik Stewart, a certified business advisor with the Washington Small Business Development Center (SBDC) was thrilled when he walked into GH Wine Sellars in downtown Aberdeen recently.

“It was standing room only,” he said. People were elbow to elbow at the bar, where patrons are offered sample tastings of several wines before they make a selection.

It’s not standing room only every night, but owners Karen and Ryan Rowe opened for business in June 2013 and have created a community gathering spot. During the Christmas holidays they booked nearly a dozen private parties and GH Wine Sellars continues to be a go-to location for meeting up with a friend or special celebrations.

“The reason for their success is their personalities,” Stewart said. “They are the most wonderful hosts. You walk in and you feel like you’re getting a hug.”

That feels-like-home ambience was the vision from the start, Karen Rowe said, because Aberdeen is home for both her and Ryan. Many of their customers are longtime friends or friends of friends.

“We want people to come in and sit, relax and enjoy a nice glass of wine,” Rowe said. GH Wine Sellars serves more than 80 wines, including a great selection from Washington State. They also have limited food service, focusing on simple but tasty appetizers.

Rowe and her husband first contacted the SDBC in 2010 when they were considering opening a wine shop in Westport. While supportive of their dream, Stewart urged caution and careful planning. Opening a wine bar is a difficult proposition and Stewart knew it. He ran one of the largest retail wine programs in Tacoma in the 1980s.

The problem, he said, is that wine bars typically have limited seating, and cannot depend on high volume to cover their costs — volume Stewart was concerned they would not be able to generate in a small town.

Several possibilities didn’t pan out for one reason or another, but then in March 2013 Karen was driving through downtown Aberdeen and saw a For Rent sign in what she considered the perfect location.

They headed back to the SBDC to talk to Stewart, who supported their dream, but also played the devil’s advocate.

“Having your own business is not easy,” Rowe said. “It takes all of your days and all of your nights.” The fact that Stewart wasn’t simply a booster who downplayed the risks helped them strengthen their business plan, she said.

Stewart stressed that since their margins would be thin, they needed to account for every penny, a concept that Ryan, a former accountant, was well aware of. “He got it,” Stewart said.

With Stewart’s background in wine, he was a great resource for everything from how to talk about wine, how to pour it, and how to price it.

“Erik gave us things to think about that we would never have thought about,” Rowe said, “some of the little things that can make or break your business.”

The wine bar has become an asset to downtown Aberdeen not only because it’s a great spot to meet, but because the Rowes are committed to supporting their friends and neighbors in the downtown core.

“Eric’s business knowledge and wine industry expertise was instrumental in helping us craft and modify our business plan,” Ryan Rowe said. “This plan has since provided the groundwork for a very successful startup of our business. Thank you Eric!”