Passion for wine, good service helps restaurateur grow business
DOUG SHERWIN, The Daily Transcript
For Ken Mills, the secret to success in the food and beverage industry is pretty simple.
"Really, what it is for me, is servicing your customer," he said. "If you can find a way to make your customers happy, then it can work out. If you're doing it just for you, then it may not work out.
"Basically focusing on customer happiness, that's the best advertisement, especially these days with tweeting and Facebook and Yelp! It's changed dramatically. When I first started, none of those existed."
The philosophy has worked well.
Mills launched Wine Steals, a European-style wine bar, seven years ago in Hillcrest, and the business now has four locations, including one with an English "gastropub."
During a time when restaurateurs and other businesses are contracting, Mills has continued to hire employees, which now number more than 100.
"What's impressive about him is his total dedication to his business and his ability to dream and fulfill those dreams," said Michael Bartley, a general manager and wine buyer for Wine Steals. "And his ability to deal with people at every level so that they feel like they're an important part of his life, which is rare."
When he's in any of his stores, Mills tries to "touch every table," talk to patrons and figure out what he's doing right and, more importantly, what he's doing wrong.
"Since I was a little kid, I always wanted to own my own business," said Mills, now 42. "I always knew that's what I'd do. Whether it would be successful or not, it's all I wanted to do. I like having employees and providing jobs and having customers."
During college, he worked as a food runner and buser at Invader Cruises, which would soon be purchased by Hornblower Cruises.
He quickly moved up the ranks from waiter to bartender to floor manager and eventually assumed the role of food and beverage manager for Hornblower. He oversaw the company's catering facility along with business operations for its six boats.
After 12 years, he left to start a real estate company with his wife, Wendy, entering the housing market as it was booming. Sensing the good times wouldn't last forever, he took the profits from the real estate business to open the first Wine Steals around Thanksgiving of 2003.
"When we first opened in Hillcrest, most people in the food and wine business said we wouldn't make it and it didn't make any sense," Mills said. "We put it out there and consumers got what we were trying to do. We had no idea. For the first three months, I thought everyone was right for a minute."
Bartley, a former sommelier for the Queen Mary, never doubted Mills.
"I suppose that with somebody else or under different circumstances, I might have felt that way (had reservations)," Bartley said. "But I have terrific faith in him, and it's fully justified. His critics must be saying, 'I guess we were wrong.'"
The idea of Wine Steals grew out of a trip Ken and Wendy took to Lake Como in Italy, where in one rustic wine bar customers sit on barrels and taste test exotic wines for free.
"I just found the whole wine motif here different than in Italy or Spain or France, where wine is food, part of a meal," Mills said. "Wine bars (in California) are really expensive. It makes it hard to start enjoying wine if you're just out of college or young or don't make as much money.
"We really wanted to allow people to test wine and bring in wines nobody had heard of before."
Mills initially hadn't planned on serving a full food menu. He simply offered cheese that was cut on the back of the bar. But -- listening to customers -- he added pizza, salads and other items, hired an executive chef and now has installed an English "gastropub" at Wine Steals' newest location in downtown San Diego's East Village.
Wine Steals also has locations in Point Loma and Cardiff.
Warren Mack joined Mills in 2006 as the company's chief financial officer to help with Wine Steals' expansion.
Mills doesn't plan on stopping with four locations either.
"His business is basically to bring to the general public the best values he can find in wine," Bartley said. "And also customer service -- he's red hot on that. He wants people to enjoy their time with us and want to come back and want to tell others what a good place it is."