Susan Williams believes in staying open. Her advice to Santa Ynez Valley business owners: “Work hard” and don’t close your doors at 5 p.m. if you want to be successful.
Williams and her husband, Jack, who came to the Valley from Goleta by way of Maryland, have made their mark in Solvang as owners of the Wandering Dog Wine Bar.
Williams, who earned her bachelor's degree in business administration from the University of Baltimore, moved to the West Coast in 1984 with her husband, daughter and son. She landed jobs in Santa Barbara, first as controller for what is now West Marine, and then as a vice president of finance for BEGA, a German lighting-fixture company.
Although she enjoyed living in Goleta, Williams said her husband wanted more land. So they moved to Santa Ynez Oaks, where they purchased a home with 6 acres.
“We moved to the Valley in 1988,” she said. “We had a beautiful home that overlooked Buttonwood Winery. I worked in Santa Barbara until 2007 and commuted from Santa Ynez.
“In 2007, I decided I was going to take a sabbatical from my career,” Williams continued, explaining she and her husband moved to Solvang in 2000. “We were active in Scouts because of my son and we were active in church … but we didn’t have time for anything else.”
Her son suggested they purchase a wine shop in Solvang. He was working with Carina Cellars in Los Olivos when he approached his parents about purchasing the Cabana Cellars Wine Bar & Lounge on Mission Drive in Solvang.
“We took ownership on April 1,” Williams said with a smile. “We changed the name in September. We decided Cabana Cellars just didn’t fit.”
As she and her husband contemplated names, everything they came up with was too serious, Williams said.
“We’re dog people, and we happened to have a ‘wandering’ dog,” she recalled, referring to Mazzey, a border collie and springer spaniel mix with a propensity for chewing through wooden fences and then wandering around the neighborhood.
That was in 2007, when wine bars were all the rage. Since then, many have closed their doors; but the Wandering Dog in Solvang has survived.
“I believe we are the oldest operating wine bar in Santa Barbara County,” Williams said, attributing its success to perseverance and personal interaction with customers.
“We’ve tried to make Wandering Dog who we are,” she said. “We like people, and we like to entertain. When you come here, we want you to feel comfortable.”
Staying attuned to trends and developing a strong brand identity are important to the success of any business, Williams said.
“We’ve always been far ahead of the curve — sometimes too far ahead,” she joked. “Like the year we thought everyone would like Rose.”
As for branding, the couple has named many of their private-label bottles after their dogs. There’s a Lucy & Brenna blend, made from a petite sirah produced by a small vineyard in Ballard. There’s Leila, a pinot noir; and there’s Bentley Bubbles, named after their current favorite canine, a golden retriever and Staffordshire poodle mix. She’s a sparkling chardonnay produced by Norm Yost, a winemaker in Lompoc.
One of the first things Williams noticed when she and her husband opened the Wandering Dog was Valley businesses tended to close in the early evening.
“We were the first place in Solvang to be open until 8 o’clock,” she said, noting it took a couple of years for people to catch on. “We had to tough it out.”
One of her first actions was to join the city’s chamber of commerce.
“I was on the chamber board in 2007, right after we opened,” said Williams, a former chamber president. “It gave me a lot of insight into how business works in Solvang.”
Joining the chamber helped her network with other business owners.
“I feel really strongly that it’s helpful for businesses to get to know each other,” she insisted. “I don’t think you can operate in a vacuum. It’s good to know what your neighbor down the street is doing.”
Williams laughed as she recalled the day the owner of Olsen’s Bakery walked up to her and declared, “I can see you’re a real hard worker!”
She took that as a seal of approval from a local great Dane.
“I found that if people realize you’re working hard, and you’re interested, they will start recognizing you and they’ll open up,” she said. “We had to work hard when we opened. I did a lot of events, and we really put ourselves out there to get our name out.”
Things change quickly in the wine business, which tends to be trendy. In the late 1980s, white zinfandel was popular in Santa Ynez Valley. In the early ’90s, many California wineries moved to chardonnays, followed by cabernets and pinot noirs. Now, grenaches are in vogue.
“The popularity of things change,” Williams observed, noting wine bars were more fashionable 10 years ago, when Wandering Dog opened. “Now, it’s about craft beers and cocktails.”
Not surprisingly, the Wandering Dog serves a variety of beers today, as well as wine cocktails made with shrubs — effervescent mixers made from a variety of fruits and herbs.
Numbers add up
If timing is everything in business, buying a wine bar in 2007 turned out to be a risky endeavor.
“That was at the beginning of the recession,” Williams recalled. “As I was going around town, I kept hearing people ask, ‘What is the city going to do?’ I said, ‘I think as business owners we need to do something to drive people and get them to come to our businesses.’ That’s sort of how 3rd Wednesday came about.”
The monthly event continues today, enticing tourists and locals to dine out and sample wines from participating tasting rooms, hotels and restaurants by offering discounts and other incentives, such as waiving the corkage fee. Although the event inspired many businesses to stay open later, others fell by the wayside, Williams recalled.
“Much to my surprise,” she said, “when the city of Solvang put their economic development survey out, everyone said 3rd Wednesday was an asset.”
Although that made her feel good, Williams urged local business owners to find ways to improve the event in 2009.
“I said, ‘OK, but we need to reinvent it — we need to make it better,’” she recalled, crediting the owners of Taste of the Valley Wine Bar and Carivintas Winery, the Santa Ynez Valley Association and the Solvang Chamber of Commerce with stepping up to the plate.
The result is today’s Wine Walk, part of every 3rd Wednesday.
“It wasn’t an overnight success, but gradually we got a website and a Facebook page,” Williams explained. “Now, it’s paid off. It’s never going to be a huge event, but it raises enough income to cover the 3rd Wednesday expenses.”
As a business owner, Williams is persistent; as an accountant, she knows when to cut her losses.
“I’m a numbers person,” she said, crediting Heather Bedford of Graphics Systems in Solvang with helping to launch the 3rd Wednesday event. “I keep track. I want to know how things are going.”
Case in point: Scarecrow Fest, the brainchild of Sue Moualim — owner of Artistic Pony Studio in Solvang. Now in its eighth year, the annual event grew out of 3rd Wednesday. Five years ago, it became the Valley Scarecrow Fest when Santa Ynez, Buellton and Los Olivos joined the contest. Today, it’s extremely popular with tourists, who take photos with the Halloween displays and increase foot traffic throughout downtown shops.
Williams, currently chief financial officer for the Solvang Conference & Visitors Bureau (CVB), said she’s fascinated with accounting and business processes.
“The financial end of the business should be a tool,” she said of her background. “It’s not supposed to run your business … but to streamline the process and improve reporting.”
With her CVB term expiring in January, Williams said she’s looking forward to pursuing personal interests, including spending a lot of time with her granddaughter before she starts elementary school.
“I’m going to do some things that make my heart happy,” she said. “Bentley’s a certified therapy dog and we participate in the Tail Waggin’ Tutor program at the Solvang Library … that’s where children come in and read to the dog.”
Upon further reflection, Williams said she’s a lot like her dog.
“I’m like Bentley,” she said, explaining she wanted a doodle (part poodle, part retriever) and she wanted a puppy. “I told the breeder I wanted a dog who has a mellow personality, but still wants to play — and that’s me.”