VIF: Staying nimble and doing what the neighborhood needs
VIF's approach of growing step-by-step, in alignment with both their mission and community has served them well as they adapt, on a daily basis, to the new economy.
We spoke with Lauren Feldman, co-owner of VIF (Fremont) and Petit Soif (Beacon Hill), about how they’re adapting their community-centric spaces to respond to what the community really now needs right now, while also enabling the businesses to survive. Both locations are modeled around a European approach: a good glass of wine, paired with some good food, and then a bottle to-go.
VIF (pronounced “veef”) means alive and bright in French.
Communities: Fremont and Beacon Hill
Take us back to 2013, why did you open VIF?
My business partner, Shawn, and I worked together at Campagna a million years ago - she was the wine director and I was the pastry chef.
Over the years, we traveled together and started talking about different ideas for own space. We knew we wanted to do something that brought together community and agriculture. And Shawn was leaning towards natural wine - and this was before anyone was talking about natural wine.
Originally you had to either be a retail shop or a restaurant or a wine bar, but you couldn't sell bottles to-go at the restaurant. But then the laws changed so that you could have an off-premise license. And that's the style of place we both really leaned towards, it was what we saw and loved in all our different European travels - these neighborhood places where you could get a bite to eat, have a glass of wine, grab a bottle to-go and really have it be part of your life…your daily life.
Then the location where VIF is now became an opportunity and we were just smitten with that building: it has the parking lot, it has windows everywhere, it's like a fishbowl, and we loved it.
Yes, the building is really interesting. What was it before?
It was a Herfy’s Burgers and Teriyaki. And, originally, the building was a Winchell's Donuts. It was built in the 50s or 60s. And, it was really a mess when we found it, but we knew that it would be a great spot. So, we thought, here we go….We're going to open a restaurant.
Later, the idea of coffee came up too. It worked well in the space and we felt like it built on our commitment to agriculture and farming.
We've always been of the mindset that you have to be nimble in this business and do what the neighborhood needs. But, we still stayed true to our philosophies, our vision and the people that we want to support.
How has the business evolved since launching?
Coffee has ended up having a much bigger role in the current business. It gave people reasons to come in at all different times of the day. And it also gave us the opportunity to have multiple revenue streams, which we're realizing, now more than ever, is really important.
Take us back to January: It was seven years old. You were pretty established. Where was your business at?
We were experiencing steady growth, year over year, in the double digits. And we were really happy with that. Every year, we would try to figure out how to grow a little more. For instance, a year ago, we started doing what we called Bar VIF and stayed open later on Thursdays and Fridays so that we could sell more wine by the glass. And we started doing more dinner items. We did it just the two days a week and that drew people in.
We were doing well.
How were you affected when the shut-downs hit?
We laid everybody off except for our sous chef, August.
Initially, Shawn and I just sold wine out of the space but we just sold all of our existing inventory. At the beginning, we just didn’t know what to expect and we didn't want to buy anything new. The last thing we wanted was to invest in a lot of inventory and then not be able to get rid of it.
So it was not fun. But a couple of customers that were very generous asked us to put together a case of wine, some stuff that was expensive or hard to sell. That helped. And, we got through it.
We then quickly slapped up an online shop. We had already been working with someone on our web site so we already had the back-end of a store partially set up. We quickly got that up and running, selling wine.
Each day we were figuring out how to make that better and better and more efficient.
We were open two days a week at both shops. And Shawn and I were doing everything together. We would just pack up wine orders and people would come and pick them up. We started buying a little bit more like pantry items like olive oil and canned tuna, tinned fishes. And then two or three weeks after that, we started doing a little bit of prepared food. Bit by bit, we held on.
Then we got our PPP funding round on the second round. Though I still have very mixed feelings about it. We're not going to be able to reach the goal of having 75% go to payroll. I know we're not alone in that, that's for sure.
But, we did bring back a couple of people and we started doing more food. We started making more larder items and in-house yogurt. And that's going over pretty well.
What are your thoughts on what’s next? Will you re-open?
Operating at 50% capacity doesn't necessarily make sense. That would mean we could have six tables inside.
We are lucky that we have a lot of outdoor space. And we also have a massive parking lot that we could convert to have more tables. But, it still might not work.
Looking forward, it also might not make sense to have the coffee program anymore. We’re thinking more about to-go dinners and food kits, to provide people with the things that they loved about VIF.
We're also thinking about how we’ll respond if there's another shutdown. It would make a lot more sense for us to stick with the protocol that we're using now and be able to stay open, instead of shutting down again.
What do you wish that government understood about what is happening with your business?
First and foremost, the PPP terms. We shouldn't be told when to use the money and how, because we might need to use the money in different ways to respond to the crisis.
Especially when you hear of the big corporations getting some of the PPP funding. They're just not thinking about what small businesses are doing for the economy, the culture of a city. They think that because we're generally scrappy, hardworking people, we can just figure out our own ways to function. And, we will, but we shouldn’t have to figure it out on our own.
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