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Thursday, February 20, 2014

Critic's Notebook: Bella Vino Wine Bar & Tapas

Posted By on Thu, Feb 20, 2014 at 8:00 AM

click to enlarge Co-executive chefs Austin Hamblin and Michelle Allender in the Bella Vino kitchen. | Jennifer Silverberg
  • Co-executive chefs Austin Hamblin and Michelle Allender in the Bella Vino kitchen. | Jennifer Silverberg

As a veteran server, I was a party to more conversations about opening a restaurant than I can count. They would usually take place at the end of a particularly arduous shift while folding linens or doing a checkout report and typically involved complaining about one's current employer. Whether these were nascent business plans or the musings of disgruntled employees, most of those who have spent a decent length of time in the service industry have thought about opening their own place. Few have actually made that happen.

Ashley Morrison and Jackie Miller were determined that they would make their vision for Bella Vino Wine Bar & Tapas (325 South Main Street, St. Charles; 636-724-3434) a reality.

See Also: Bella Vino, in historic St. Charles, is a meal worth driving for

"Ashley and I were acquaintances at [the now-shuttered] Aqua Vin; I was a server, and she was a bartender and cocktail server. This was about eight or ten years ago. We both went on to work at other restaurants, but as our friendship grew, we got more serious about our dream to open our own restaurant."

I asked Miller what she thought made her and Morrison's situation different than others -- how they were able to translate a casual conversation between co-workers into their dream restaurant.

"Ashley and I are both very determined. Once we decide that we want to do something, we do it. We're both very passionate, so we started putting all of our energy into the concept. Our vision became real, and once that happened, it was just a matter of making it happen."

click to enlarge Ashley Morrison and Jackie Miller | Mark Buckner
  • Ashley Morrison and Jackie Miller | Mark Buckner

As with most restaurant openings, the road to Bella Vino was not easy. Morrison and Miller developed their business plan about five years ago, and began the road to opening two years before Bella Vino's first service. "We thought it would take one year to open, and it actually took two," says Miller. "One of the most difficult things was finding the right property. It took us a solid year to find our location. We had so many ups and downs; we'd think we found the right place, and then we would lose it at the last minute. This happened over and over again. We'd get our hearts set on a property only to see it go to someone else at the last minute. It was tough, but we didn't get discouraged. In the end, it allowed us to find the perfect spot for Bella Vino. It couldn't have worked out better."

Although Miller jokes that she and Morrison are too new to restaurant ownership to be taken as experts on the subject, she has advice for fledgling restaurateurs. "Be determined. Be passionate. Surround yourself with people who care about you, and learn as much as you can from them." She credits Charlie and Carolyn Downs (Revival, Cyrano's, Sugarfire Smokehouse) for their guidance, patience and invaluable mentorship. "They taught us how to do everything. We've met so many people along the way who helped us. So many different people contributed to make this happen." As for paying it forward, Miller says that she feels like she has a long way to go in her professional development before she is in a position to be a mentor herself, but she's always happy to offer advice. "I'll sit down with anyone, anytime and talk to them about what we've done." It's her way of paying it forward.

Read my full review of Bella Vino here.

Follow Cheryl Baehr on Twitter at @CherylABaehr. E-mail the author at

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