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Wine Steals CEO starts Gastropub movement downtown

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As president and CEO of Wine Steals Inc., Ken Mills co-owns four Wine Steals locations in Hillcrest, Point Loma, Cardiff and East Village San Diego, as well as Proper Gastropub. Anchored by Mills' ingenuity and dedication to his business and customers, the Wine Steals and Proper Gastropub now employ a staff of more than 100.

Q: What was the inspiration/concept behind Proper Gastropub?

A: Growing up in England, there was no such thing as a gastropub. I had to make do with greasy food that was standard at every pub -- simple food that would be considered bar food here in the U.S. Later, as I visited England as an adult, I noticed that the pubs began to add full kitchens and trained chefs. The gastropub trend began in the '80s and has continued to grow and make its way across the pond. I simply drew from my favorite gastropubs in England to form Proper Gastropub.

Q: What was your vision when you decided to combine Wine Steals and Proper into one location?

A: Wine Steals has always been a place for a light bite or a stop before venturing to dinner. Our customers typically purchase wine on their way out and bring it to a restaurant or home for dinner. With Proper being a full-service restaurant, the co-owners, including myself, my wife, Wendy, and our business partners, Warren and Elisabeth Mack, realized it only made sense to put a Wine Steals right next door. Diners can now stop off at Wine Steals East Village first to pick out a reasonably-priced wine and head over to Proper while paying the same $6 corkage. Wine Steals East Village is also the largest wine store in the area with 300-plus bottles of wine available.

Q: Are you ushering in a new culinary version of the "British Invasion," with English cuisine or gastropub style dining?

A: We're really bringing over the concept first developed by the Eagle Pub in England. London is now a culinary capital, so we are bringing the same focus on quality preparation and products to San Diego. It is our own vision of what a gastropub is. To me, a gastropub is a true English "local" (place) with a focus on the bar and a surprise in the kitchen.

Q: Why did you choose the ballpark location?

A: The setting and view from our new location were just too tantalizing to pass up. We like the growth and energy in East Village. It is really much more of a residential area than the Gaslamp.

Q: How do you set yourself apart from your competition downtown?

A: Wine Steals and the ability to purchase wine for dinner at a fraction of the cost of most restaurants is unique to downtown San Diego. This certainly sets us apart from our competition. And no one in East Village can match our outdoor viewing deck. I believe our Chef Sean Magee and his creative menu blend some British classics (brought up to a gastro level) and his own influence to truly make us one of the best dining choices, based on the quality of the food alone.

Q: How do you keep up with the latest wine fads? How do you decide what to incorporate into Wine Steals' offerings?

A: Our Corporate Purchasing Manager Tasha Kuxhausen's job is to taste a lot of wine and keep up with the latest trends. We often buy wine that we like and that practice has often led to a local wine fad. We have countless varietals that we have introduced to the market that have taken off. Vinho Verde from Portugal is a good example. When we first started selling this crisp white wine four years ago, most of our patrons had never heard of it. It is now a huge seller throughout San Diego.

Q: What has been the leading factor in your success with Wine Steals? How do you plan to duplicate this?

A: We had a point of view that was different from the other wine venues in town. We stuck to our beliefs and in time we found that San Diego liked a value-based wine store and bar that was more casual and relaxed. We have found that this very same business model has worked well throughout San Diego.

Q: From a business perspective, what has been the main difference in opening up Proper Gastropub as compared to your experiences with Wine Steals?

A: It is a larger venue with a full kitchen and bar. This requires more staff and management. I knew this going in from my previous experience at Hornblower. Working with low margins and producing a great product at a great value has been more challenging, but I truly believe we have accomplished just that.

Q: Where is your next location? Next concept?

A: I am a little like a sports team. One game at a time.

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