Nothing to Whine About
By Dom Gagliardi
Just as its name suggests, The Alcove, a small intimate wine bar/restaurant tucked away along a busy stretch of El Cajon Blvd. in San Diego, has become a little gem for local residents. Situated in the quiet El Cerrito neighborhood nestled between Talmadge and the College District, the vision for creating a place for old and new friends to gather has been the brainchild of owner and entrepreneur Angela Sandoval.
Angela’s dream of creating her own business was many years in the making, filled with unexpected personal challenges along the way. But who could have predicted that once that dream was about to become a reality, all her planning and hope for success could soon disappear because of a pandemic? Such was the case for many entrepreneurs who suffered the misfortune of bad timing, but not so for Angela. The Alcove officially opened on December 27, 2019, just in time to ring in the new year, but almost three months later was forced to close due to COVID-19 restrictions that were enacted. And so began another twist in Angela’s journey of becoming a small business owner that would test her patience, creativity, and determination.
A Chula Vista native, Angela did not hesitate when asked about her reasons for opening a wine bar. “I always recognized my leadership abilities and enjoyed being around people. I always liked playing host and wanting to have fun.” While these attributes would foster what would become her ultimate dream, Angela’s employment history from the time she left high school also provided some necessary skills to become her own boss.
While a dietician major in college, Angela began working in dental offices when she was 19 years old and quickly moved into office manager positions. Since she was earning very good money, she did not complete college but has continued in this field for the last twenty-six years, although now on a part-time basis. A doctor who appreciated her ability sent her to business seminars that focused on how to set up a business; communications; customer service; public relations; and financial planning. This training would surely come in handy later on.
Angela often frequented wine bars around San Diego. She enjoyed the intimacy they offered and imagined owning her own place one day. Her first priority was for it to be small and personable, “A home away from home, a ‘Cheers’ atmosphere,” as she described it. With that concept in mind, her journey began. Although it would take years, Angela never gave up.
In 2012, Angela found herself in the middle of a divorce which forced her to sell her home. Staying focused on her dream, she decided to use the proceeds from that sale to invest in a fixer-upper with hopes of selling it at an even greater profit to grow her nest egg in order to open her business. Then in the same year, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent various treatments, including chemotherapy, until she was cancer free in 2013. In 2014, she finally bought a fixer-upper that she sold in 2017, providing the funding for her to pursue her dream seriously.
That’s when the real work began. “I had no idea what I was getting into,” she admitted. “It took nearly two years to find a location.” While she had geographic boundaries in mind for locating her business, she quickly became schooled about the various licensing regulations and restrictions that eliminated many possible locations she considered. She also received very little cooperation from potential landlords regarding tenant improvements and rent abatements until she discovered the location where The Alcove now sits.
Formerly a small used furniture shop, the landlord was willing to pay for some tenant improvements and provided six months of free rent while Angela and her architect designed and built out the space, which required a major remodel. “I was surprised by all the building permits and licensing requirements, especially for a bar/restaurant. It was a load of work, and the permit process alone cost nearly $30,000,” she admitted. The build-out began in May 2019 and finished in December. Angela temporarily quit her job to ensure the work was completed on schedule. She also made presentations to the El Cerrito Community Board to keep them informed and to earn their support which she gratefully received.
Angela succeeded in creating a very personable atmosphere where locals feel comfortable to drop in for a minute or for an evening. She is committed to knowing what her customers like and has the same expectation for her employees. Ironically, Angela is not a huge wine drinker, and one of the ways she engages customers is by hosting free wine tastings where they help select which wines to include on the menu. It is a unique approach, but certainly one that values her customers’ input.
She also dedicates much time cultivating a menu that pairs well with both wine and beer. “I want to make sure there is something for everyone,” she said. As a result, what is served is not “typical” bar fare. Anthony Magee has been an intermittent chef at The Alcove since it opened. His twelve years of culinary experience has inspired many of the items on the menu. “Customers are always amazed by the quality of the food because the kitchen is so small,” he says. Some favorites include the “Alcove Burger,” the lemon garlic parmesan shrimp pasta, or the stuffed poblano pepper.
Soon after it opened, The Alcove became a welcomed gathering space for local residents, but everything changed with the onset of the pandemic. By then, Angela had exhausted most of her funds just to launch the business. Like so many others, she had to get creative to stay in business. After the initial shutdown, when bars and restaurants could open on a limited basis, she needed to make some rapid and immediate changes.
She built a small patio to accommodate outside diners, which was all that was allowed initially. She cut her payroll, which meant she had to reduce her daytime office manager work so she could work at the wine bar. When restaurants and bars were authorized to provide take-out service, she reduced the hours of operation. One of the biggest challenges was finding and keeping chefs during this time. Angela went through approximately thirty during the pandemic. Despite all of the challenges, “The community was very supportive,” she acknowledges. She said customers would patronize the local restaurants on a rotational basis to be equally supportive in hopes those establishments would remain open.
Despite her positive energy and exuberant confidence, Angela admits the pressures of keeping the wine bar open during the pandemic began to take its toll, and for about six months, she considered selling the business. As she wavered about that decision, she realized she was only undermining herself and chose to stay focused on making it work, which she has continued to do.
Angela has incorporated many features to entice new customers and to accommodate her loyal new “friends.” She offers a variety of entertainment that includes a DJ, Karaoke nights, and even live music. In addition, there are date night specials consisting of pre-fixe meals that include a bottle of wine. With its increased popularity, Angela notes that “Since the last few months of last year until now, this actually feels like the first year of being open for business.”
Financially, the wine bar is now at the break-even point, which means Angela continues to manage various dental offices so she can meet her own personal expenses. In addition, an increase in private events has definitely saved the business. In addition to the steps she has taken, Angela attributes much of her progress to her loyal employees. “Everyone looks out for each other,” she says proudly. “Angela looks out for us,” Anthony validates. “She is always very flexible.”
While there still may be bumps in the road, Angela is always thinking of ways to improve, whether it’s the food menu or the wine and beer selections. She is already considering a little redecorating and possibly adding a few more seats while still maintaining the current cozy ambiance.
Although she is a very hands-on owner who shares shifts with her staff, Angela makes time for her family and her own interests. “It’s a juggle,” she admits, but she continues to enjoy bike riding and spending time on the beach or just hanging out with girlfriends when they visit other establishments where she might discover a new idea or two.
Hopefully, she does not stray too far from her original vision. What Angela has created has made a huge impact on the El Cerrito community. She has provided an inviting meeting place that had long been absent. “I see new friendships and connections made here all the time,” she says. “People who would never talk to each other now hang out and do things together outside the bar.”
So if you are looking for a warm, friendly, and unpretentious spot to have a drink or a meal, consider dropping in. The Alcove is located at 5540 El Cajon Blvd. in San Diego. Its current hours are 4:00 pm-10:00 pm on M-Th, 4:00 to whenever the doors close on Friday and Saturday, and 2:00 pm-9:00 pm on Sundays. As Angela always says, “If the lights are on, and the door is open, come on in.” Visit the website at www.alcovewinebar.com to check the menus and learn about upcoming events.
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