Full Stomach, Empty Wallet

The word I heard was that Ed Moore was headed toward semiretirement. Last September, he sat down, assessed his plans for the coming year, and realized he was beginning to lose interest in Thee Bungalow, the Ocean Beach institution that Moore made famous for, among other things, its remarkable wine list. (Even now, after selling the place, he still goes back and cherry-picks some of those finds whose prices haven't risen with the tide. "Most customers there were content in the $30-$40 range," he says, "but if I find something that I think is a screamer at $60, I'll buy it without thinking twice.")

He still had his wine club, which passed along to its members some of the deals he managed to sniff out. But the 3rd Corner — his big Mediterranean-feel project across the street — hadn't worked out. "The decision to close was a business decision. At some point you have to get above everything, look at the landscape, and say, 'Whatever we're doing, we're not doing it right. It ain't working.'"

To make the mortgage payments, he started renting the building out for catered parties. Two a month would pay the rent, and Moore made money off the bar (he kept the liquor license). Then he started moving Thee Bungalow's wine dinners into the place. "That worked out just fine. I was doing 100 dinners with the wine thing and still doing 70, 80 dinners at Thee Bungalow."

The success of the wine club, however, had led him to consider converting the space to a retail wine shop. Oh, and while he was at it, why not serve a little food? "I made the menu very simple. I had the food expertise to set up something that was somewhat limited," and fairly foolproof. "I didn't want to sauté a lot of things on top of the stove; I didn't want things that were too critical." Things like duck confit, baked chicken, short ribs, mushroom pasta. A few cheeses, some salads and desserts. Smaller portions, nothing over $14.

And then the kicker: Why not let customers buy bottles off the racks and drink them onsite for just $5 more? "You read Wine Spectator, any of those magazines, and there's always a letter to the editor -- somebody's pissed about restaurant markups. Most wine lists today don't start until $30. Some of them don't start until $40 or $50. It drives you nuts. You look at that list, and you see stuff you recognize at a three, three-and-a-half markup. Why? We want to make friends. We want to bring people back."

He envisioned 60-70 percent of the business coming from the retail end, with the restaurant padding things out — just a few tables here and there, plus the patio and the bar. He borrowed $50,000 to stock the shop and added "Wine Shop" to the existing 3rd Corner sign.

Things didn't work out quite as planned. Looking back, says Moore, "I had a funny inkling about what was going to happen." Before Thee Bungalow sold, "We did a chef's celebration dinner over here — Thee Bungalow wasn't really big enough. I had done a couple of wine sales to the wine club here, and they had been very successful. We had racks in, and we had floor stacks of wine, and I just didn't want to move everything out of here. So I said, 'Let's see how many tables we can get in here; just kind of put them around the wine.' I think we did 90 dinners or so, and everybody loved this environment of being in the middle of the wines. Everybody who walked in here thought the place looked great. It was simple: just throw a ton of wine out there. Everybody likes the look of wine."

Moore learned a lesson about the retail business, which has been slower than he expected. "A lot of it is convenience — where you're located, where your market is coming from." He learned another about the restaurant business, which has exceeded his wildest expectations. "The concept seems to work. It's not the normal restaurant." By this, he means the kind that leaves you with a full stomach but an empty wallet and an anxious heart. "The uniform statement, the one I hear over and over again, is, 'It's amazing how much fun we had.' I call it Chuck E. Cheese for adults. I have to squeeze myself sometimes, business is so good." He paid off the $50,000 in two months.

The new 3rd Corner worked "right off the bat — and that's the absolute rarity. Without any ads or anything. The only thing we had was a big inflatable gorilla up on the roof. I put that up there so that people would look at the building — 'What is that place? Oh, that's a wine shop and bistro.'"

The gorilla grabbed attention; the rest was a matter of right time, right place, right concept: "I think the market in OB is much more upscale than it's given credit for. It's price-conscious, but it's savvy. It's cultured." As with the rest of San Diego, the demographics are shifting: "Now, we have a lot of food-service people, people in the service industry. Younger couples who probably don't want kids; at least, not right away. Then you start looking up the hill — people who bought houses for $500K, then dumped $300K more into remodeling. They come down here."

The crowd changes as the evening progresses: at five o'clock, the median age skews toward 70; at 2 a.m., it's closer to 22. But thanks to the pricing, even the more moneyed old-timers get to play outside their usual safety zone. "If they're used to spending $40, $50 on a wine list, and they see all the things we've got for $15--$20," they're more likely to look at an unfamiliar varietal and declare, "'Yeah, let's try that.' Someone once told me, 'If it's bad, I only spent $8 -- I'll take it home and cook with it.' They'll sit down -- 'A bottle of Sonoma-Cutrer for $16.50 plus a $5 corkage? That's a deal! Let's have a second one! And what about one of those?' By that point, they've got the glow. 'Now, let's get a few of these to take home. He's got some great prices here.'"

So much for semiretirement. "It's been a really interesting movement," says Moore. "I could see having two or three of these in the San Diego market. Maybe two or three in L.A./Orange County. I'm dying to open up another one."

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