How Wine Turned Me Into a Citizen (And A Shop Owner)

It was Carl Sagan, the famous astronomer, astrophysicist, cosmologist, who suggested, “It pays to keep an open mind, but not so open your brains fall out.”

My La Bonne Femme

The front door sign from my shop, La Bonne Femme

I mention this proposition to emphasize how vitally it is to do some serious research before embarking on any business or any endeavor of any kind.

The only way to learn the retail business is to spend a few years working in a store.

I learned this the hard way…

After spending a shockingly short time at the London Cordon Bleu School of Cookery (today, Le Cordon Bleu London), I decided to open my very own cooking school in Greensboro, North Carolina. I named it La Bonne Femme.

Of course, nobody in Greensboro had the least idea what that meant. (As a dish, it is a seductively tasty combination of garlic, onions, bacon and mushrooms in a red wine sauce to accompany a thick veal chop or chicken leg. As a namesake, it evokes “The Good Wife.” I preferred to think of myself and the shop as The Good Woman.)

I set up my cooking school in a beautiful, isolated little house in the woods where nobody could find it.

Nevertheless, word of mouth was generous. The school thrived. It thrived so mightily (on a small scale mind you,) I decided to expand it into a shop so I could sell the soufflé dishes and rolling pins and other gadgets and utensils I was using in the classes. That worked.

Then I thought how neat it would be to sell what was then quaintly called “gourmet” foods. A glass door refrigerator displayed great cheeses. There were exotic coffee beans, teas, chocolates and all manner of good things to eat. I arranged to have baguettes, croissants and brioche flown in from New York.

There were only two things missing from my little corner of Paradise: one was wine…so I decided to import it. The law required wine sellers to become U.S. citizens. I became a U.S. citizen.

The place was simply charming.

There now remained, only one thing missing: customers.

Lesson One: Don’t choose a fancy name for a business or to as your identity as a personal chef, or for a service, a blog, or book title.

Lesson Two: Each town has a doomed location where every enterprise is doomed. Before investing in a cash register, make sure you know you have chosen the best possible location. Know who your customers and suppliers are likely to be. Make sure there is enough parking for the crowds that will flock to your store. Check the zoning. Get insurance. Explore all the hidden costs including taxes, garbage and snow removal. Register your name. Make friends with the bank manager. Have a marketing and publicity plan. Be realistic about drawing up a profit and loss statement.

Think carefully about your ability to withstand extreme stress.

And as a rousing chorus of Les Bonne Femmes would say: Bonne chance! (Good luck!)

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