"Yesterday it was sixteen months to the day that we got the keys," says Heather David, who is finally ready to celebrate the grand opening of Room for Friends, the wine bar she's created with partner Michael Vela at 846 Santa Fe Drive.
The two both worked for United Airlines, but "Michael and I love to cook, and we love to share food with friends," David says. They began hosting small dinner parties at their 1,100-square-foot apartment, and the group quickly grew from eight people to 24. "We realized that this was the highlight of our lives — hospitality. For both of us, it was what we looked forward to," she adds. "People kept saying, 'You guys should do this for a living.' So we decided to do this for a living."
They signed the lease in November 2021. "The day we got the keys, we opened a bottle of champagne, and it was a beautiful moment," David recalls. But then the real work began. "It was lots of waiting," she says of the process of opening the business.
"That's been the majority of this, is waiting," Vela adds. "It was frustrating. We were newbies to this sort of business."
One exception: working with the city's health department. "They have been fantastic through all of this," says Vela. "They've been phenomenal. They really were proactive on getting us up and ready to succeed."
Still, paying rent on a space that could not open for sixteen months was a big financial stress — until they learned about special-event permits. By partnering with a nonprofit — Punk Rock Saves Lives — Room for Friends was able to open on First Fridays starting last March. A percentage of the profits was donated to the organization, which has been a "wonderful partner," David says.
Those events "kept us afloat," she adds.
In all, the project ended up not only taking much longer than they anticipated, but also costing three times the anticipated amount, which the two covered by cashing in their 401(k)s and taking out loans. But in the meantime, First Friday events had introduced the concept to the neighborhood. "The reception we've received has been amazing," David says.
Now the wine bar is officially open full-time, and it will celebrate March 15-20 with a week-long grand opening. While David and Vela had some big plans for the event, their dwindling budget put most of those on hold — but it will be a festive occasion nonetheless. "Specials will be us being overworked, being confused at times, making mistakes," David jokes, adding that there will be one wine on "super special" every night.
Mostly, though, this is a time to truly introduce Room for Friends and all it has to offer. "We wanted to make our own rules," David says of the concept. "So many wine places feel masculine. I wanted something cozy."
"We took a lot of inspiration from Sienna Wine Bar," Vela notes, citing the Congress Park spot. "We absolutely love them." The Santa Fe space has high ceilings and its original tin roof; there are two couches, including one red velvet number with fringe at the bottom. A pair of eye-catching chandeliers hang above the action, along with string lights.
The space also doubles as an art gallery, with pieces by local artists lining the walls. But the real highlight is the 1,100-square-foot back patio, which is also adorned with string lights and is dog-friendly. "Our neighbors are really excited about that," Vela notes.
The wine program itself is designed to be comfortable for all, too. "We wanted to be somewhere people can afford to go have wine," David explains. "We really wanted to put things in every price range." Wines by the glass start at just $8 and go up to $15. Flights will be added soon, too.
While Vela's love of cooking was a big part of the inspiration behind Room for Friends, building a full kitchen was ultimately cost-prohibitive. "The kitchen scene was a little disappointing," Vela admits. "But it's helped us get creative in other ways." The pared-down menu includes charcuterie, David's bacon-cheese spread, Vela's vegan chickpea bruschetta and even a Cheez-It flight, an homage to Sienna Wine Bar, which serves small bowls of Goldfish.
Although the path to opening was longer and rougher than expected, both David and Vela were able to quit their jobs at United and are now all in on Room for Friends. So, even with all the stress and frustration, would they do it again? "If we knew at the end of it, we're going to have our dream come true?"
David responded. "Definitely, yes."
Room for Friends is located at 846 Santa Fe Drive and is open from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday and Sunday and 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. Monday and Wednesday through Friday. For more information, visit roomforfriendswine.com.