2021 was supposed to be the year that Mike Vandy realized his entrepreneurial dream after a couple of decades toiling as an accountant for others.
The 45-year-old Bartonville resident had spent the year before doing his homework and writing up a 40-page business model. He was going to make and sell wine for a living – imagine that! -- opening his Waters Edge Winery & Bistro in a high-traffic location of walkable, vibrant Peoria Heights. Thirsty customers would flock in to consume it in profitable amounts. He was ready to take the plunge, to pop the cork.
“I had looked at every single pro and con, and it all pointed to my happiness,” he recalled recently.
Ah, what is it they say about “the best-laid plans of mice and men”?
Indeed, Vandy was moving full steam ahead on building his urban winery when March 2020 blew in to deliver a one-two punch that he never could have seen coming: the arrival of a global pandemic, and a grand mal seizure that would betray the existence of a near tennis ball-sized tumor on his brain.
The tumor was benign -- meningioma on his frontal lobe – but following surgery to remove it, it would sideline him for six months, and that was just the beginning. He developed a fever that he initially suspected was COVID, but turned out to be a staph infection that put him back in the hospital for another two weeks. He was fatigued, sleeping half the day, wondering what he'd gotten himself into.
Meanwhile, COVID was still raging. For 18 months, money exited out the door as he crafted an attractive and welcoming space, with little coming back in. He wasn’t eligible for government COVID assistance because he was a start-up and hadn’t been open. When the ribbon-cutting ceremony did finally arrive, staff proved hard to come by and keep, as nearly every restaurant and bar owner was discovering. Meanwhile, some customers were staying away because of the fear of contagion. Holiday parties scheduled far in advance would suddenly be canceled.
If ever there was a “perfect storm,” he had just sailed into it, said Vandy, who could have been forgiven for believing, in the words of the old country song, that “if it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all.”
Expectations, meet reality, which turned out to be a far cry from the optimism that welled up inside him that day in 2019 when a franchise recruiter had called him out of the blue with an opportunity too good to pass up.
Sit down with Vandy today, and he manages a smile. Like a prize fighter, he may have been staggered, but never knocked out.
There remains plenty of room for improvement in his bottom line, he concedes, but things are looking up.
Fermentation is happening in the gleaming steel tanks behind him – 16 of them in all, making between 20 and 80 cases of vino apiece – turning grapes from Australia, Chile and southern California into everything from his popular Big Daddy Red to his signature raspberry peach and pineapple pear flavors.
“Wine tells you when it’s ready,” he says, knowingly.
He still believes in that original business plan, he has a great space – 3,000 square feet up front, 1,100 square feet in the banquet room, 2,300 square feet of balcony, overlooking the Heritage Square Courtyard, site of the popular Summer Concert Series – and he remains sold on the Heights, arguably the Mom & Pop capital of central Illinois.
But he’s also had to adjust, to pivot.
What was originally envisioned as a wine-and-shareables operation has evolved into a wine and full-service, upscale restaurant, featuring full entrees such as Delmonico Cut New York Strip Steak, broiled chive butter scallops, lemon rosemary roasted salmon and multiple pastas.
There’s a DIY component whereby customers can make their own, bottle their own, label their own, though they have to plan well in advance, as it’s usually a four-month process from beginning to end.
He’s had to become leaner, more efficient, versatile. He’s learned to say “no” to purchasing products he can live without from vendors, which hasn’t been easy for a “people pleaser.”
He sometimes wishes he’d brought on a partner, someone to bounce ideas off of and share the load. “Every decision was made by me … right down to the right color tile in the restrooms,” he said. “It was overwhelming.” The round-the-clock hours have made him discover “I’m not in my 20s anymore.”
He’s learned the value of marketing, as you can’t always take for granted that people know where you are – in this case on the second floor of Heritage Square, above Brienzo’s Wood Fired Pizza – or that you even exist.
He counts the small wins. Just when things looked the bleakest, he booked a wedding.
“I’d only been on one side of the bar in my life. To get on the other side … I’ve learned a lot,” Vandy said.
Knowing what he knows now, would he do it all over again?
While he sometimes misses the security of the corporate world, “I probably would,” said Vandy. “I do enjoy the entrepreneurial part of it. My destiny is in my own hands.”
He can even joke about his tribulations now, with his prognosis good: “During the shutdown, I couldn’t do anything anyway. I couldn’t have picked a better time to have brain surgery.”
Waters Edge Winery, 4450 N. Prospect Road, is open from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 4 p.m. to midnight on Fridays and Saturdays. Eventually, Vandy would like to add a brunch.
“Prepare yourself. It’s not going to come out exactly as you plan,” he advises. “It was kind of a surprise how flexible I really needed to be.”
Yet looking back, there are no regrets.
“This is where I had to be.”
Mike Bailey is editor in
chief of Peoria Magazine.