I’ve always had a secret fantasy to open my own store or café. Perhaps it was all those Cheers episodes as a kid, but the idea of having a storefront where friends could gather and I could be social all day long just sounded like the most amazing idea.
Three friends of mine have actually made that dream a reality with their new venture, Venokado, which phonetically spells wine (Vino) and gift (cadeau) in Italian and French. Tucked along LA’s famous Fountain Avenue, the combination gift and wine shop offers something for everyone on your list. The partners include Susan and Molly Brink, who are gorgeous sisters and Tracy Hoff, Molly’s lovely wife. Molly and Tracy recently had Oscar -- pictured below with the girls -- who doubles as the store mascot.
from left to right Tracy, baby Oscar, Molly, Susan
Open just seven months, Venokado has already been profiled on Daily Candy and WWD. I stopped into the shop to get a first hand look at the goods and talk to the girls. Susan and Molly do the gift buying and Tracy and Susan do the wine buying. Tracy also does bigger picture tasks, like overseeing construction and managing the property. Although after talking to them, they each clearly have their hands in it all.
Below is a recap of our conversation.
Why the gift giving biz?
M: Maxine Gifts was a company that Susan and I started in 2001. With all the studios and post-production companies in LA, there was an untapped need in the market for customized quality gift baskets. We saw an abundance of baskets filled only with cheese and crackers and thought people would like to get fun, usable objects. We also consistently got requests for wine, but you can’t put wine in gifts unless you’re a brick and mortar store.
S: We were looking to open the retail component to expand the business. We have such great objects that we wanted people to be able to browse and buys single items instead of just assembling the gift baskets. This space seemed to magically present itself, offering both an ideal location, a space zoned for general use --merchandise and beer and wine -- and we were sold!
How did wine enter the equation?
S: I worked as a manager at AOC (very swanky LA wine bar) under Caroline Stein’s tutelage. Learning about wine infiltrated my system like a virus –- in a good way. I wanted to know more, so I went to school at the International Sommelier Guild, got certified, then it snowballed into various gigs. I have done the wine lists for various restaurants including Dominick’s in West Hollywood, Little Dom’s in Silverlake, Soho House and most recently Chiconne’s in New York.
M: Tracy --an accomplished film editor-- has always been a wine collector and afficionado. She also knows a lot about Italy, where they source many of their labels. She had an interest in building and running a retail business.
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What do you offer that’s different from other stores?
M: We offer a wide range of unique gifts, from practical to fun, as well Splendid brand baby clothing.
S: In addition to sellling wine by the bottle, but we also have a wine of the month club, which is customizable to each person’s taste and budget and we’ll ship anywhere in the world. And we want to talk to customers about their tastes and help them with their purchasing decisions.
How is it working with family and with your spouse?
S: We trust each other so much. It’s been an adjustment with the baby and the construction. It all came at once, but we just made it work. We all pitch in and juggle as needed. And because we’re family, we say what we need to say. Nobody takes anything personally –- we pitch in and get it done.
M: When the store opened, I had just had the baby, so Tracy was taking care of me and managing the property. Susan was doing the day-to-day business and buying. It was a lot.
Meanwhile...Tracy has been entertaining baby Oscar by zooming him around the room to fits of giggles. She now hands him off to Molly who starts breast-feeding.
In year one, what have been the big lessons?
S: Go to the health department first as they run the whole show!
T: Have patience, as the process takes so much longer than expected.
M: Keep your day job as long as you can so you have some source of income as you’re waiting to open.
S: And when in doubt…Take Fountain!
What challenges have you faced?
S: When we opened, we wondered if anyone would take us seriously as a wine shop because of the gifts -- and vice versa -- but we’ve proven ourselves. Currently at 150 labels, our wine collection is growing. We offer quality options for a range of tastes and budgets.
Venokado offers wines from $6.50-$7 on up and specialize in smaller houses and productions. They will guide newbies through wine options based on their tastes. Susan has also written quirky little descriptions and anecdotes, which are posted above each bottle. Fun things like, “This is a third date wine -–take this along if you want to get lucky.” Or “Great for the mother-in-law luncheon.”
They had a built in business from Maxine Gifts with clients such as Nascar, Digital Domain, Efilm. They also have the options of buying online (products are shipped) or calling it in and having items delivered locally. Shipping 30 packages daily through the holidays.
How’s business and what has helped you build clients?
T: From mid-November through the first of the year, we were slammed. It was so exciting to have all the hustle and bustle, but January did bring a natural slowdown.
We have an excellent database to keep track customer’s purchases, so we can guide them upon return visits based on how they liked past purchases. We are available to make recommendations and really talk about wines, which has brought people back.
What are your top selling items?
S: The Buddha Board ($30) for sure. It’s a stone drawing board based on the Zen concept of living in the moment. (They demonstrate it for me).You paint on the surface, which stays only momentarily until the water evaporates. It’s a great for someone at a desk who wants a creative break or nice to write your intention for the day before you leave your house. Other big sellers are the Gras & Lantz felt wine carrier ($75) and the Splendid baby clothing. The two most requested wines are Le Cupole Trinoro ($35) and Domaine de Deurre Saint Maurice ($17.50).
Open daily, Venokado is located at 7714 Fountain Avenue, West Hollywood or online at www.venokado.com. Gift-wrapping is complimentary and delivery is available throughout LA. They have an online newsletter with info about wine and upcoming sales and events. To sign up, send an email to [email protected]