The Wine School of Philadelphia- Philadelphia, PA
The Wine School of Philadelphia has provided educational courses and programs to aspiring sommeliers and wine enthusiasts for nearly two decades. Executive Director and Founder Keith Wallace has keen intuition for new opportunities, expanding the school’s offerings to courses on beer and food in recent years, but one opportunity in particular has the potential to help the school serve even more students in the community.
When his landlord was planning to sell the building where the school resides, Keith seized the opportunity to own the location. He partnered with The 504 Company and a local bank to finance the purchase of the building, allowing The Wine School to keep its location and open more classroom space within the building.
We spoke with Keith to learn more about his journey and the challenges he’s faced while opening and running the Wine School, as well as how his hard work and dedication have contributed to his success.
Prior to launching the Wine School, you were a journalist, executive chef, and winemaker. What made you decide to transition to entrepreneurship and start the Wine School in 2001?
That was an easy decision – I always wanted to be my own boss and work on my own time. My first experience of entrepreneurship was while I was working as a winemaker and independent consultant. From then on, I knew I wanted to have my own business.
The only thing holding me back was my shy personality; I didn’t think I could stand and talk in front of a group of people, but a friend of mine asked me to be a guest speaker for a class and I loved it. Opening the school just went from there.
What did you want to educate people about?
I wanted to educate people on the aspects of the art of wine that I found fascinating. I wanted to make sure that everyone who came in knew the science and proper information about wine, instead of getting “wine voodoo” from everyone else. Today, we also offer craft beer and cooking classes in addition to wine classes.
Why do you think the Wine School has become one of the most influential independent wine schools in the U.S.?
There are a lot of wine businesses that offer classes but it’s not their main focus. With us, that is our only focus. We have over a hundred people coming in for our classes; some of them are wine professionals and some are just regular people interested in wine, beer, and cooking. We also have one-on-one contact with everyone that comes into the school. I think that people get so much more out of our courses than they would from other options; our students have built careers with the knowledge we’ve provided them. In fact, I’ve had students that are now working in the wine industry all over the world, including places like New Zealand, California, Australia, and Oregon.
What are some of the factors that have contributed to your business’s success?
I believe there are two simple factors that helped us succeed. First, I try to be very smart with money and make frugal, but good choices for the school. Second, I work really hard at the business. When I first started, I worked 60 hour weeks so I could learn everything I could about the business. I taught myself how to build my own website, how to do graphic design, and even the basics of contracting and electricity. I wanted to make sure that I could understand everything that goes into the business, as I knew doing so would save money and time.
What are some of the business challenges you encountered along the way?
I’ve faced many different challenges; it feels like there is a new one every year. My latest challenge brought me to The 504 Company. My business’s landlord told me that he was selling the building, and I knew that meant my rent would increase to the point where I couldn’t afford it or I would have to relocate. I also knew I wasn’t going to be able to move this business to another neighborhood after putting in all the hard work I did into this building. So, I decided to look into getting a loan to buy the building myself and I found The 504 Company. My banker and my The 504 Company loan officer, Ashley Heaton, helped make everything possible. I was able buy the building and save my school. I’ve learned that every challenge that comes my way only makes me stronger.
Tell me about working with The 504 Company. What was the process like?
It was a real pleasure to work with my loan officer, Ashley. She was clear and knowledgeable about the process, and laid out all the steps I needed to take to get the loan. She made a checklist for me to work off of, and when there were bumps in the road, she knew they were coming, which made it easier for me. Ashley and The 504 Company were a pleasure to work with and helped my business out tremendously.
Interested in learning more about the wine school? Visit the website (that Keith built!) at www.vinology.com.