In 2014, Chad and Lauren Coulter opened LouVino, a wine-centric, small plates concept in Louisville, Kentucky. By 2019, the couple had five LouVinos in four cities and were preparing to open Biscuit Belly, a fast-casual breakfast-brunch concept. For two pharmacists with no restaurant experience, their success is remarkable in the hyper-competitive restaurant world. Author Steve Coomes discussed how they got started.
The Coulters are valued customers of Winston’s CVap® products.
Wine is Fine
[Steve Coomes] What made you think Louisville and other cities needed a wine-centric restaurant concept?
[Chad Coulter] “At the time, we owned two Uptown Art spots, where people came and painted and drank wine. We noticed we were selling a lot of wine. Albeit not very good wine, but a lot of it. So, we looked around the city and were surprised to find there really wasn’t a wine-centric place. There were restaurants with incredible wine lists, but they weren’t doing what we had in mind.”
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Big Wines, Small Plates
[Steve Coomes] So what did that mean, exactly?
[Chad Coulter] “LouVino’s slogan is ‘Big wines, small plates.’ Other than some shareable platters, we serve small plates only. We also serve several wine flights: three small glasses of wines we think go well together. Every flight also has a themed name. Our staff is really knowledgeable and skilled at pairing those flights with food. Of course, they can buy single glasses or bottles.”
[Steve Coomes] You and your wife are pharmacists by trade. What did you know about the restaurant business?
[Chad Coulter] “Not a lot, frankly, but that didn’t stop us from recognizing a need in the community. We did our research going in, and we started talking to people who were in the business or who knew about it. We did a lot of that.”
[Steve Coomes] How did you choose your first location?
[Chad Coulter] “The neighborhood where we wanted to go, the Highlands in Louisville, is super popular for restaurants and bars. But the laws require specific distances between bars. And in that neighborhood, it’s practically impossible to put in a new bar without violating the rules. So, we said (sarcastically), ‘okay, we’ll do a restaurant I guess, too, and make it really fun!’ But that’s what we had to do to get that location.”
“We bought the building, which, on the lower floor, allowed space for two restaurants (the second is currently rented by a burger concept). There also are three apartments above us we rent. The mortgage for the building was the same as what rent would have been, so it was a no-brainer to have something that was generating income instead of sucking it up.”
[Steve Coomes] How did you fund the start up?
[Chad Coulter] “Mostly from the profits from the sale of Uptown Art. We didn’t do a construction loan. But looking back, maybe that might have been a good decision because that first building had a lot of problems. We had to cancel our (pre-opening) media night because sewage was coming out of our back patio. It was rushed to have a sewer line redone that weekend so we could get open for actual business the following Tuesday.”
“The previous owners didn’t have a grease trap. And overall, the condition of the place was pretty scary. The smell of it…it was just awful. When Lauren and I were in Barcelona, we smelled that same smell and joked, ‘maybe this is what the previous owners were going for, this authentic smell!’ We wound up having to redo the plumbing.”
“Thankfully, and despite the problems at the start, business took off once we got opened.”
[Steve Coomes] Your first LouVino really took off and did well. Why do you think that happened?
[Chad Coulter] “Timing. I really believe that. Local journalists were writing about the restaurant bubble being ready to burst a year or two before we opened, but we moved ahead with our plan. Overall, we got in at a good time. We believed it was a good concept, and the need was there for a cool small plates wine bar that wasn’t stuffy. The location, despite its problems, also was key for us. The Highlands in Louisville is the place to be.”
[Steve Coomes] How did you market it?
[Chad Coulter] “Facebook and word of mouth. The media was writing about it. When we got good coverage, other writers were quick to jump on it.”
[Steve Coomes] What made you consider a second location so soon?
[Chad Coulter] “Our demographic in the Highlands restaurant was nearly 70 percent women, and we’d seen where a lot of them were coming from Douglass Hills, a neighborhood in the city’s east end. So we found a location out there.”
[Steve Coomes] Allow me to skip ahead with this question. Has your core demographic stayed the same in each of the cities where you operate?
[Chad Coulter] “Pretty much. The only location that might see small groups of guys visit, without any women in the group, would be Cincinnati and downtown Indianapolis. But that’s the exception.”
[Steve Coomes] Given the problems with the age and plumbing at your first location, was it much easier with a newly built restaurant?
[Chad Coulter] “In some ways, yes. But the new build had its own challenges, such as dealing with our neighbor, a shopping center, where we were fighting over five parking spaces. Five parking spaces delayed our opening almost six months! With new construction, there are lots of building codes to follow, so that creates its own set of headaches and follow up. But it’s just part of the process. We learn lessons from every place we open. In the Highlands location (their oldest), we learned you cannot use an old commercial refrigeration unit as your HVAC–that’s what the previous owners were using. You don’t know that stuff going in. In the old building where the first Biscuit Belly is going, there have been things the landlord promised to correct, but hasn’t yet. So we’re not waiting. We’ve gotten proactive and got it done.”
Is the Second Loacation Harder?
[Steve Coomes] Lots of restaurateurs say opening number two is the hardest since it forces one to spread time between two spots. Do you agree?
[Chad Coulter] “I think it was easier to do the second because at that point we knew things that took us a year-and-half to figure out in the first one. In the first one, had a great idea in LouVino, but we still had to see how it worked and figure out what it was as a concept. We had to get staffing right, the food right, the service right. Other than usual opening craziness, I thought the second was easier than the first.”
[Steve Coomes] As you added locations, did the original menu stay the same or has each evolved some?
[Chad Coulter] “Every location has had a slightly different menu from the start. All have some of the classics, the best sellers of last five years. Some of those may rotate off eventually. The brussels sprouts salad (with roasted sweet potatoes, chili salsa and cilantro-lime vinaigrette) will never go away. They’re huge. We sell about 6,000 pounds of those every quarter across all five restaurants.”
The Staffing Challenge
[Steve Coomes] You’ve credited some of LouVino’s success to great staff. How did you find these people?
[Chad Coulter] “Since we were new to the restaurant business, we didn’t know anybody. So we started asking around. I asked one guy, a big restaurant fan, if he knew of a chef who might be willing to consider a new opportunity. He did, but he didn’t want to be known as the guy who helped us lure anyone away. Since I’d heard chef Tavis Rockwell’s name come up a couple of times, I told the guy, ‘if it’s Tavis, cough once,’ and he did. That’s how we found our chef.”
“Tavis’s wife, Sarah, actually came to his interview because she doubted whether he should get involved with people who’d never run a restaurant! She started asking us questions! But apparently she was convinced for him because she’s a chef for us now, too.”
“That first staff…I think the first ones are the greatest. Not sure why, but that was a great one. Many of them were able to train people for our second restaurant in Louisville, and then go on to help open our restaurants in Indiana and Ohio.”
“In Louisville, we were really lucky hiring and coaching people up from a business aspect. We chose people who show attention to detail and numbers. There’s no secret formula, really. It’s like all other retail businesses.”
Expanding Across State Lines
[Steve Coomes] Has that luck extended to your Indiana and Ohio restaurants?
[Chad Coulter] “Louisville has been sort of easy to hire in. But Indianapolis and Cincinnati have been really tough. What doesn’t worry me in this business is other restaurants taking sales away. It’s other restaurants hiring our people away.”
“In one of our Indiana locations, we give a $300 sign-on bonus if a server stays more than three months. And yet not many do. That’s the biggest headache, the staffing. Without good staff, you have bad food and bad service, which leads to bad reviews. So it’s really tough in those markets. We’re still working on the retention part outside of Louisville.”
[Chad Coulter] “We’re also learning to better manage our people, and that sometimes means policy changes. We’ve gotten more strict on drinking after shifts. We were pretty lenient in the beginning, but soon, one shift drink turned into two to three shift drinks. In one of our stores, I asked the manager why it took (the late crew) until 1:30 in the morning to clean up and clock out. Turns out they were drinking on the clock, which is a huge liability. They should have clocked out three hours earlier and the bartender should have stopped serving them. We cut it out completely there.”
“We’ve also changed some relationship policies, like not allowing a manager and their significant other to work in the same store. In the past, that led to some favoritism, so it’s something I say no to now. All these things and others made us develop policies and procedures like an employee handbook and more HR-appropriate tools. We’re still learning, always learning.”
[Steve Coomes] What about management level employees: what have you tried to retain them?
[Steve Coulter] “We made Tavis Rockwell, our chef, a partner in Biscuit Belly to show him some love for the success of the LouVino side. All our managers and middle managers have budget goals to meet and get a small profit share when they achieve them.”
“Tavis suggested the company create a retirement savings plan, but when we looked into it, we found out the legal work to establish it is 15 to 20 grand. I just said, ‘dude do a Roth.'”
Beginning Biscuit Belly
By 2019, Chad and Lauren Coulter had five LouVinos and were eyeing the opening of a new concept, Biscuit Belly, a fast-casual breakfast and brunch restaurant. With five years of experience behind them, we asked what was in store for LouVino and Biscuit Belly, and whether they’d lead others like themselves into the restaurant business.
[Steve Coomes] Now that LouVino has achieved some critical mass, is the brand enjoying some benefits of scale?
[Chad Coulter] “Yes, and in some unexpected ways. Our customers seem to bounce from Louisville to Indianapolis and Cincinnati easily, whether for jobs or fun or whatever. Those three cities are all close to each other. That gives a lot of people lots of options for dining with us.”
“From an operations perspective, with five units you can afford to hire a marketing director and a beverage director. I’m not a trained server, but now we have someone who has been a server and who can point out 20 things from a service standpoint I’d never seen and know how to correct. That person can do the training.”
“I’m a numbers guy, a very much behind-the-scenes person who’s looking at numbers, reading reviews, talking to managers and directing them. My strength is business development and looking at expansion opportunities, branding and marketing and concept creation. Part of my job is to hire people who know how to run the operation. I can do that now with more locations.”
[Steve Coomes] Was it your business goal to build a large chain?
[Chad Coulter] “For LouVino, we feel maxed out right now. The concept needs a lot of our resources and focus. But, sure, I’d like to do two or three more of these if we can overcome the issue of staffing. But do I want a large chain? I know I don’t want to build something mediocre or not have the right tools in the workforce to make each location successful.”
“Frankly, LouVino is not a super-easy-to-scale concept. There’s nothing standard about it, which is our own fault. I’m not complaining about it though, because each location is unique. In fact, I think (employees) are attracted to us because they have some freedom and autonomy to run the place.”
“You really can’t do more than two LouVinos in a city. It’s not like having a Papa John’s franchise where you can have 15 to 20 units in a city. So a large chain for LouVino, no. Biscuit Belly is duplicable and scalable for sure. It needs less-skilled staff and the menu at every unit will be the same. You could have three to five of those per city. I’m excited to see where it goes.”
[Steve Coomes] Have you ever tried to talk somebody out of opening a restaurant?
[Chad Coulter] “It would be hypocritical if I did, right? They could look at me and say, ‘did you have any restaurant experience?’ Well, no, but … (he laughs). I’ve seen friends get in, and I’ve talked with them about it. But they really have to do it themselves. Once they feel the heartache, and you tell them, ‘yeah, that sucks,’ that’s about the only way you can experience it and know whether it’s for you.”
“I do love parts of it a lot: the development, the finding of a good location, opening it and letting the staff do their thing. I do like the business.”
“The funny thing is, there are people who get into this industry and succeed, yet you never thought they would. Then there are others with all the experience in the world and they don’t make it. Why? I have no idea. If someone came to me asking if they should get in, I’d say, ‘here are the good things and the bad things,’ and let them make the decision.”
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