After a long and successful career in corporate America, it took three wake up calls for Theresa to make good on her dream and start her own business, Good Grapes, a wine and craft beer boutique.
Tell us a little about your background…
I grew up on Chicago’s south side, where I attended Catholic school. I’m the youngest of five and the daughter of parents who taught me hard work, life priorities, and what it means to have integrity. My parents were a team; disagreements on child rearing were discussed behind closed doors and decisions were presented as a united front. Chore assignments were based on age, not gender. My dad worked two full-time jobs until I was in 5th grade while my mom carried the majority of child-rearing and housekeeping responsibilities. When my dad moved to working one job, my mom took a full time job and my dad worked nights so that one of them was always at home.
My dad was the most honest person I’ve known. I learned from him that there aren’t many hard decisions if honesty and integrity are important. My dad was also my biggest cheerleader and really liked having a daughter who played sports. While I’m only 5’ 8” now, I sprouted early and was 5’ 7” with a medium build by 5th grade. In 7th grade, the grammar school football coach offered me a position on the team. My Dad was all for it. Thankfully, my Mom nixed that idea. Instead, I played volleyball all the way through college (Bradley University), and was even named All-American while in high school.
While attending Bradley University on a volleyball scholarship, I majored in Computer Science with a minor in Business Management. Freshman year was tough. I was one of three freshmen on the team and all three of us were starters who took positions from senior teammates—we didn’t always feel welcome. However, this experience bonded the three of us and we’re still friends today.
Freshman year was also hard as I had an active social high school life that was not immediately replaced at Bradley. Because volleyball season was a fall sport, I missed out on meeting people beyond my teammates. When my parents were visiting for a game, I told my mom that I didn’t want be at Bradley anymore since I wasn’t making friends. She told me to finish freshman year and we would discuss it again. It was sage advice; after the season, I had time to meet others and graduated from Bradley with lifelong friends.
Bradley is also where I experienced female inequality for the first time. Basketball was king at Bradley and our women’s volleyball team had to work around the men’s basketball team practice times. I wasn’t raised in a home that put males first and I went to an all girls’ high school so this was a new experience for me
I returned to Chicago and took my first job out of college as a computer programmer. I then moved on to business analyst, project manager, program manager, and finally technology and strategic planner. I really enjoyed executive program management and strategic planning because it touched on every aspect of the business and was a great hands-on experience in budget creation and management.
When did you start to think about making a change?
In 2000, after being in corporate America for 15 years, I started to think about a change. While I didn’t know what it would be, I always knew that I wanted to own a business—even as a kid, I pretended that I owned a bike repair service. As it turned out, it would take over a decade for me to make my dream a reality.
I thought I’d be a wine importer so that I could combine my love of travel with my own import business; I purchased the URL goodgrapes.com. I knew from the first flight I took in my 20s that I loved traveling. Initially, I took domestic ski trips but soon was skiing in Austria traveling internationally. I’ve been to Austria, Germany, France, Ireland, Scotland, Australia, New Zealand, England, Brazil, Ecuador, Mexico, Panama, Costa Rico and Canada.
My interest in wine started a bit later, on a trip to New Zealand at age 36. Prior to that trip, I didn’t like wine, but that changed in New Zealand after sipping wines at several vineyards with unbelievable views. Not counting the wines in my suitcase or the two cases of wine that I shipped back to Chicago, I carried 12 bottles on board the returning flights. I literally clinked as I walked down the aisle to my seat. I couldn’t do that today!
I started attending wine tastings and learned as much as possible from the distributors who were pouring the wines. While wine tastings are plentiful and extremely popular today, at that time, attendance was very low and the distributors were happy to have someone to talk to about their products and knowledge. I then took a class on importing. After the class, I spoke to the instructor about my desire to open a wine importing business. He advised me against this idea with the “knowledge” that liquor in the Chicago market was run almost like a cartel and I’d never be able to succeed. I made the mistake of taking this advice at face value and stopped all efforts towards opening my own business.
Time and life passed. In 2006, I was hit by a car while driving my scooter and bounced off the hood of the offending car and then on to the pavement. Two identical women their mid-70s with accents were soon on each of my sides and talking to me. As I was looking up at them, I was confident that I was seeing double and had a brain injury. I also couldn’t straighten my left leg. The ambulance arrived, put me on a flat board with my bent left leg, attached a neck brace, and taped my head to the flat board before heading off to the emergency room. Obviously, I lived and was able to move on—with a leg cast, stiches, broken ribs, and lots of physical therapy. I subsequently learned that the two women who were at my side after the collision were identical twin sisters from Ohio who had lived together all their lives and continued to dress and style their hair alike as well as complete each other’s sentences! It was funny in hindsight.
The following year, I went to Brazil and engaged in a reckless outdoor activity, rock surfing: In an undeveloped part of Brazil a few hours outside of Rio, you walked up into the forest and crossed the rocks horizontally at the top. Once on the “right side” of the rocks, you sat down and “rode” down the jagged rocks with half an inch of water flowing and moving you. Once you reached the bottom of the slope, you plunged quickly and deeply into a small hole of dark water surrounded by rocks and jagged edges. You then swam and kicked in the dark water to come back to the surface as quickly as possible for air and hoped you didn’t hit a rock on the way up.
As the guide was leading us up the tree-dense mountain, we passed a billboard that stated, in both Portuguese and English, that what we were about to do was against the law and had resulted in deaths. Still, we marched on. Each person went through the activity alone while the rest of the group cheered the person on. During the activity, I was incorrectly turned backwards while descending. The cheering stopped and there was a collective gasp by the group. I was confident that I was going to die from a head injury in a foreign country, surrounded by strangers. While I’d always been adventurous, I was old enough to recognize that what I did was reckless and dangerous.
Two years later, in early 2008, I became very ill with MRSA, which was described by a doctor as a staph infection on steroid. While my primary care physician and I knew something was wrong and I was seeing a lot of specialists who all thought I head early signs of their disease, my illness wasn’t diagnosed until I visited the ER after waking up one morning with most of my body, including my mouth and throat, covered with lesions. Thankfully, I’m now fully recovered, with only occasional flare-ups that my doctors monitors to ensure the MRSA does not resurface.
After being released from the hospital, I was on disability. I’ve never been a big fan of TV and there’s only so much reading I could do. While I slept a lot, I had plenty of “me time” and “life analysis time.” Every one reaches a point in life when they come to terms with their mortality, and for me, it was during this time. I couldn’t stop thinking that this illness was my third warning. It was during this time that I decided to move forward with opening my own business based on the motto of “if not now, when?” Life is short and I didn’t want to look back at a bunch of should have’s and could have’s.
What is your next act?
I am the owner of Good Grapes, a wine and craft beer boutique. Our primary products are service and experience. My niche is small vineyards that produce high quality and low volume wines at reasonable prices. There are always eight wines available for complimentary tastings (and bubbles on Saturdays). These tastings help us understand the customer’s palette (e.g., what does “oaky” mean to them, what did or didn’t they like about the wine they tasted). It doesn’t matter if it’s a $10 or $50 bottle of wine; no one wants to get home and not like what they bought.
We offer a cellar-stocking program. With the purchase of five or more cases, the customer receives a custom cellar stocking based on their parameters (e.g., number of reds, types of whites) at 15% off. I create a detailed booklet for them to keep that provides a description and price of each wine. The wines are selected from all wines available in Illinois and not limited to the store portfolio.
We also carry craft beers. While it’s harder to differentiate ourselves here—the selection is smaller and craft beers have become so “in” that many stores now carry them—our focus is a high quality, comprehensive portfolio. This makes Good Grapes a “one stop shop” for beer and wine.
We recently opened in a bigger, 1200-square-foot location in Winnetka, Illinois. This larger space allows us to hold in-store events that provide a foundation for community and new friendships. I love owning a business with fun products that people want to buy rather than products like toothpaste, which they need to buy. People are in a good mood when they buy wine!
The part I love most about owning a business is the complexity of the big picture that contains many small pieces. It’s like a large jigsaw puzzle: All of the pieces are needed to complete the picture. There’s also a strong sense of community amongst small business owners. They truly want to help each other and understand that when one neighboring small business succeeds, it’s best for all.
How did you get your business from concept to reality?
As soon as I was able after recovering from MRSA, I incorporated Good Grapes and started looking for a small retail space, with the idea that my primary focus would be an online wine store. The retail space search was based on the incorrect advice from my then lawyer that I needed a storefront to sell wine online. I actually just needed a physical location to accept wine delivery.
I knew I needed a retail space in an area that I would feel safe late at night by myself. This was on top of the challenge of finding an area that didn’t already include an independent, neighborhood wine shop. At the time (and today), I lived in downtown Chicago, where independent boutique wine shops were (and still are) plentiful. It took me four months to find my first storefront. In November 2008, I opened Good Grapes in a 170-square-foot space. The storefront was located in Glencoe, an affluent suburb of Chicago’s north shore.
The first article written about Good Grapes included the description “smaller than most North Shore closets.” I loved it! Plus, it was accurate. One customer referred to shopping at Good Grapes as the equivalent to looking for good wine in a phone booth. I eventually expanded to 250 square feet and added craft beers, and now occupy a 1,200 square foot space in Winnetka, one suburb south of Glencoe.
How hard was it to take the plunge?
At first it wasn’t hard at all. After all, I had lots of time to analyze my decision before pulling the trigger. Hesitancy came as I began writing checks and watching my savings decrease. I had a chunk of savings set aside to open a business but I’d had to make a choice: Should I pay off my mortgage and retire by 50, spending much more time on travel? Or should I keep my mortgage, open a business, and take on more debt? I took the riskier, second path.
How supportive were your family and friends?
Family and friends were supportive in that they wanted me to succeed and to be happy. My mom was and is always encouraging of whatever makes her kids happy. My dad’s concern was my timing with the economy—opening a business selling a luxury item in November 2008 at the start of a recession—and the amount of money I was putting at risk. He continued in his role as chief confidante and advisor until his passing in December 2013.
My close friends didn’t understand why I was doing this. After all, I could have been mortgage-free and cruised my way to an early retirement. While the monetary aspects weren’t common knowledge, there was an understanding that businesses cost money and they knew I was working two full time jobs—I stayed in my corporate job for five years while I started my business. It’s fair to state that more was left unspoken than spoken.
What challenges have you encountered?
Liquor is a monopoly: A retailer has to buy from one state-licensed distributor. I either take their price or I don’t carry the wine. As a small retailer, it can be very hard to set competitive pricing and pricing does matter. There is a liquor chain with 30 locations in the Chicagoland area in the area, named Binny’s. Good Grapes is surrounded by three of them. It can be very difficult to compete on price with Binny’s, however, most of the small vineyard wines I carry aren’t carried at Binny’s due to either the vineyard not wanting their wines at a big box retailer or they don’t produce enough bottles for Binny’s to carry them.
My experience is that the larger distributors will allow a retail giant to significantly influence their purchase price (smaller distributors are more concerned with a large retailer price setting for their company). So for wines offered by big distributors that Binny’s carries and that I’m interested in, I either have to cut my margin or choose not to carry the wine.
I have strong organizational, prioritization, scheduling, and decision-making skills. By creating, reviewing, and gaining approval for a plan, I’m accustomed to adhering to the plan. I’ve learned that this isn’t the case for many service providers. I have been frustrated with the lack of accountability and no escalation path for timely resolution. For example, it took several months, six phone calls, and two strongly worded emails for money owed to be returned. The CEO of this small company simply couldn’t be bothered with returning the owed money.
I wasn’t accustomed to being treated as the “little woman” by the property management company of the Glencoe location. It was also the attitude of the first general contractor I hired, and subsequently fired, for the build out of the Winnetka location. He underestimated me and was surprised that I would walk from him and his business. For me, there was no moving forward with someone who so clearly lacked integrity.
The early years were also physically hard, working two full-time jobs. I’d be worn out and just want to spend a day sleeping. While I remain pleased that I turned down offers to invest in Good Grapes, money management was a challenge and there were many times when I wanted someone else who was financially invested in the business, with whom I could discuss options and challenges.
Another challenge was having to shut down my first location in Glencoe after five years due to a boiler issue. When my employee opened the store on January 19th, 2014, the indoor temperature was over 110 degrees, bottles had corked themselves, items hung on the wall had fallen off, the wall was too hot to touch, and the front door, which had expanded, wouldn’t close after being opened. The stock had to be dumped. While I had insurance, there were things that needed to be done by the property management company that weren’t completed (e.g., completely fix or replace the boiler) and violated the lease. The situation wasn’t resolvable with the property management company so I closed Good Grapes in Glencoe.
It took 18 months to find the right location, negotiate the lease, and complete the build out. While it was a stressful 18 months that included negotiating and walking away from three prior locations, the Winnetka location is exactly where Good Grapes needs to be.
What did you learn about yourself through this process?
I have a good gut and it’s typically spot on when someone or something doesn’t seem right.
I know my business and am able to filter through the never-ending input on what Good Grapes should be and offer.
I need breaks. My friends are key. I need to be able to be with friends and to talk and laugh about everything and anything.
What advice do you have for women thinking about starting a small business in midlife?
Make sure you’re up for it. Owning your own business is fun, but it’s also very hard. I made a lot more money in Corporate America and all of the positions were much easier. Owning your own business is a 24×7 commitment.
Be an expert at rallying. Every small business owner needs to know how to rally. Things don’t always go as planned and you need to be able to keep going, even when you feel like giving up.
Find a small group of people that you trust and can bounce ideas off of. This group needs to understand that their input is suggestions that may or may not impact the final decision. You’re the decision maker.
Find an experienced business advisor who can provide sage advice. I didn’t do that and am now in the process of trying to build a small advisory team to meet with quarterly to review my business plan and current challenges.
Everyone talks about the need to network and, while I agree, I recommend depth over quantity. Pick two or three organizations, try to participate on a quarterly basis and build solid connections. I’m a fan of EPWNG (Exclusive Professional Women’s Networking Group) and the Winnetka Chamber of Commerce; I also started my own group – The Grapettes – a wine group for women business owners.
Introduce yourself to your local Chamber of Commerce members. Chambers, like any other organization, vary greatly. I’m fortunate to be in Winnetka, which has a strong Chamber of Commerce office. As a result, I’ve developed both a partnership and friendship with the office members. Additionally, since the Chamber is so well established and respected, I frequently use them as a sounding board for various ideas and potential concerns.
Run and rerun the numbers many times. Be conservative in your estimates. For example, liquor has a low margin and competition is everywhere. Have a clear plan for how you’ll differentiate your business.
Whatever your products are, read up on them as much as possible, positive and negative. The more information you have, the better you’ll be at presenting your product to potential customers.
Know your competition and how you’re different from them. I’m frequently asked what makes Good Grapes different from other wine shops. Not only do I have the answer, I believe how I differentiate myself is accurate and a value add, hence I’m enthusiastic when I provide the answer. If you’re an independent small business owner you need to have something that differentiates your business and be able to state it readily as if being asked your birth date.
Do you have advice on hiring and managing employees?
I currently have one part-time employee, who has a full time-time job and has a genuine interest in wine, as well as learning how a small business operates. I previously had another part-time employee who helped to stock and do other background tasks required for the store to run efficiently, but he went back to school.
In a small business, every employee needs to fit the personality of the store as every employee interacts with the customers. While my employees need to have wine knowledge, they shouldn’t feel like they need to share it all with the customer. Shopping at Good Grapes is casual, neighborly, fun, and not a classroom.
I put potential employees who will be advising and selling at my store through a two-part interview: (1) verbal on their experience, why they want to work at Good Grapes, applicable skills and (2) a taste test of 8 wines that they have to describe to both a wine novice and wine aficionado—we have both types of customers. Due to my focus on small vineyards, I don’t expect a new employee to know my products when they start. They do, however, need to have a strong wine knowledge base and create a learning plan for how they’re going to learn all of the labels.
Training and managing when I was working in corporate America was difficult for me as well as the new employees as my time with them was very limited. While I stress in the interview process that my employees be in the store alone, that type of work environment isn’t for everyone. It’s tough to gauge if the person really understands the work environment. I regret not creating a Standard Operating Procedures guide when I first opened. Once this was in place, it eased the training process.
My advice is to not assume that you’re good at interviewing; you should practice interviewing, be prepared for each interview and take notes. Remember that many people are nervous in an interview and I consider it my responsibility to help them relax.
How do you promote your business?
After being closed for 18 months after shuttering the Glencoe location, I treated opening in Winnetka as if it were the first opening of Good Grapes and had several promotional giveaways including purple wine totes, note pads, purple caps and purple visors—all with the Good Grapes logo. I hired Good Egg Concepts to help me with branding. I hosted a Realtor Open House with complimentary wine and appetizers.
On an ongoing basis, I take advantage of our retail space and products to promote the store. Every product in the store has a Good Grapes sticker on it. I buy high quality, re-usable purple bags that have the Good Grapes sticker on both sides. These bags have become recognized as Good Grapes bags even to passers by. I have blackboards in the store where I list upcoming events. I have store business cards easily accessible in various places in the store for customers to take. I use Vista Print to create small cards customers can pick up, promoting the wine club and cellar-stocking program. Each spring, I buy golf tees imprinted with Good Grapes; these are very popular. If an event requires a pen, the pens provided have the Good Grapes imprinted on it.
I also make sure I’m visible in the community and am fortunate to receive a lot of customer referrals. New residents receive a “Welcome to the Neighborhood” card for 15% off. I run promotions like 15% off one purchase during the existing customer’s birthday month. I partner with the Winnetka Chamber of Commerce on various events (the Sidewalk Sale, the annual Holiday sale, the Block Party, the Golf Outing…). I partner with a well-known local theatre, Writers’ Theatre: I offer bubbles for each show opening in exchange for advertising to their subscriber base.
I run events such as Taste of Good Grapes, a wine, craft beer, and food festival, on September 19th in front of Good Grapes (the street will be closed off). We’re hosting the first Cork It! Contest during this event. Contestants build something with corks, champagne ties, nails up to 4 inches long, and any color glue. The base can be cardboard, plastic, wood, or corks.
Two local businesses are grilling and selling food at Taste of Good Grapes and a local charity is selling their baked goods. A wine restaurant is saving corks for the contest. Cork It! Contest entries are due by Noon on the 19th. Judging will occur prior to 7pm, the start of Taste of Good Grapes. All entries will be displayed throughout the festival. Prizes are gift certificates to the winners’ preferred airlines. 1st Place: $250, 2nd Place: $100, 3rd Place: $50
Once a month, we host Thirsty Thursdays, an in store wine tasting with a specific theme. The next one is September 17th and will include South African wines. The October 22nd tasting will include Barolos. The remaining 2015 Thirsty Thursdays are November 19th and December 17th.
Hadley School for the Blind is hosting a wine tasting fundraiser in the store on November 5th.
I advertise in a local, high readership online and print magazine, Make It Better, as well as in a high end, glossy magazine that has a broader reach and produces a large annual wedding issue, North Shore / Modern Luxury. I do online advertising via Facebook, twice monthly email blasts, our website (currently under re-construction), Yelp.com, LocalWineEvents.com, and WeddingWire.com.
What resources do you recommend?
Chicago has a very good Small Business Association, in particular for those who need help in budgeting and other core business skills.
I also enjoy the emails from BPlans.com; they provide business articles on a broad range of topics targeted at small businesses.
I’ve used Word of Mouth Marketing: How Smart Companies Get People Talking by Andy Sernovitz. I have about 25 pages earmarked and I frequently go back to those pages for a refresher. I find the book very applicable to Good Grapes and small businesses in general. Small businesses need to create buzz and get people talking about them.
I launched with, and am still using, 3dCart for the website development. I didn’t want a custom website that required ongoing payments for small changes or for the addition/deletion of products. With 3dCart, my staff and I can do this with minimal training, which saves a lot of money.
Chicago has scored for small businesses. This is a great resource if you need business training on various topics as they offer a wide variety of training at exceptionally reasonable prices. If someone doesn’t live in the Chicago area, I recommend looking for something similar in his or her geography.
My A Team, for those in the Chicago area, is as follows (in alphabetical order):
Chicago Renovation: Contact Brad Ashman
Brad and his team completed the build out of the store. Chicago Renovation is fairly priced. Brad and Peter, Brad’s project manager, worked within my budget and were creative in finding solutions that fit within my budget. The store looks great thanks to Chicago Renovation.
Golan and Christi LLP: Contact Caren Lederer or Darrin Baim
I couldn’t have asked for better representation when the Glencoe location was closed due to the heating issue and I had to negotiate a new lease. They were conscious of both cost and business impact as they laid out my options.
Good Egg Concepts: Contact Rebecca Hoffman
Rebecca was instrumental in the branding and PR of Good Grapes. Additionally, she’s a networking queen and introduced me to many other women who own businesses that could be cross-promoted with Good Grapes.
Lindsey Bissett Visual Communications: Contact Lindsey Bissett LindseyBissett@gmail.com
Lindsey created the perfect poster promoting Taste of Good Grapes with very little input and checked in with me on her ideas before presenting her final proposal. I’ll be hiring Lindsey for all of my visual communication needs.
Top Quality Wood Working and Rehab: Contact Chris Quigley at 773.269.9674
Chris was a magician in repairing the custom wood wine racks that were damaged during moving and storage. He worked extremely well with the Chicago Renovation team.
Contact Theresa Lucas at Service@GoodGrapes.com or 847.242.9800
Uncork your best event yet with Good Grapes!
Store: 821 Chestnut Court, Winnetka, IL 60093
What a great story of grit and perseverance! I think owning a wine store is a dream for many women.
Thank you so much. At the time it seemed like a long haul. Now it seems like a flash in the pan.
What an inspiring woman and story! Bravo to her for having the courage to take the riskier path! May she have much success!
Many thanks! It’s been a fun and rewarding path.
Hey, great share….
What an inspiring story!! Owing a wine store is a dream for so many wine enthusiasts but converting this dream into a reality is not everyone’s cup of tea. It really needs a strong determination.
Kudos to you, lady!!
Thanks for sharing this wonderful post.
Keep drinking and keep serving….
Bravo to her for having the courage to take the riskier path! May she have much success!
First of all, i appreciate your life because you have 5 children and you feed them. Chicago is a beautiful place and it’s grapes wine is famous all over the world. 3 years ago i have visited this place. In next tour i should come to your wine store.