The ink was barely dry on their lease when husband-wife partners Jason and Melissa Scrymgeour were sent back to the drawing board.
“We signed the lease for Clean Slate Wine Bar in downtown Solvang on the central coast of California in February 2020, and immediately, the world shut down, Jason says. “Our original concept was to be a wine-focused, wine-driven concept, which happened to serve really good small plates.”
The idea was flipped on its back, however, when terms of reopening during Covid required food be served with all alcohol sales, Jason says. “It was a rule in our state specific to the covid measures,” he says. “And because of it, we started to get all these customers coming in to dine with us.
“So now we became a restaurant that happens to serve really great wine!”
The “wild ride” Jason and Melissa rode, along with other hospitality businesses in the aftermath of covid restrictions, tested their commitment to their dream as well as their abilities to wipe the slate clean and start again.
In this week’s Q&A with Boxerbrand blog Recipe for Success, Jason Scrymgeour discusses the ways he and his wife stayed focused, kept up morale, and worked their way into the hearts of restaurant goers.
Boxerbrand: How did Clean Slate come about?
Jason: My wife and I had wanted to do something like this for a long time. I was previously a consultant with small-production wineries in the central coast, with a niche of direct-to-consumer distribution. My mission was to provide a platform to introduce these great wines, which are off the beaten path, and hard to find, to consumers in a tasting room that also served small plates. My wife was raised in Louisiana, where cooking is love, and she learned in the kitchen of her grandparents and great-grandparents. She always wanted to do something like this.
But, because of the Covid rules requiring food be served with every transaction involving alcohol, she took center stage.
Boxerbrand: And top billing on the menu chalkboard.
Jason: Yes. The original idea was to put wine and beer listings on our chalkboard, but now it’s Melissa’s food menu that changes daily to reflect what she finds at the farmer’s market and Saturday seafood market in Santa Barbara.
Our menu changes as the bounty of local farmers makes itself available. We have a local mushroom farmer who had a batch he knew Melisa wanted. The farmer came into the restaurant on a Saturday afternoon and we measured out the mushrooms on the bar and paid him out of the cash register. And about 15 minutes later, after Melissa got her hands on them, we had a mushroom crostini dish up on our chalkboard. We always tell people to come early, because it’s not uncommon for us to run out of our popular dishes.
Boxerbrand: How does Louisiana fit into the cuisine?
Jason: Melissa’s from Louisiana and has kept some of those traditions. On Mondays we have a traditional red beans and rice dish. This is very traditional in New Orleans and is part of the French and Catholic influence. Historically, people would go to church on Sundays and then sit down to a big ham supper. Mondays were washing days, so they’d put a pot of beans over the stove and let them simmer all day, throwing in leftover ham. And this is what inspires our Monday dish. On Sundays, I put on the chef’s hat and make a Cajun shrimp and sausage boil. I have a big pot that we used to do crawfish boils with every year for her birthday. We’d fly them in from Louisiana for her special day. But shrimp is a lot easier to get here, so we substitute local Pacific shrimp, and I make a dish it has taken me five years to perfect. I use shrimp, sausage, corn, potato, sweet peppers, and we sell out of it by 6 p.m. every Sunday.
Boxerbrand: Tell me about the wine.
Jason: We’re in an unusual geographic region of the world, where our mountains face east-west. What this means is that as soon as the sun sets, we have a wild temperature fluctuation, and it gets very cold. But we have hot days. And wine grapes just love this climate. The climate gives us access to a deeply varied range of wines, and our menu reflects that.
We offer 50 wines by the glass and 10 beers on draft. We offer three new wines a week, with as many as 10 new ones each week. I make a point to carry small batch wines, so we can go through them quickly, and embrace something new and fresh. With both our food and beverage menu, we’ve found a way to deliver a constantly changing taste experience while maintaining a consistent experience of excellence.
Boxerbrand: How did the menu covers fit your concept?
Jason: Originally, I was printing reams of paper menus because our wine list was constantly changing. We found that the wine list looks a whole lot nicer in a menu book, and they helped us reduce some of our printing costs. It also allows us to nicely present some of the marketing materials we use to promote wine club sign-ups and events such as winemaker dinners. The menus have really made a positive impact in that regard.
Boxerbrand: How have you handled the stress of hospitality today?
Jason: Obviously, there have been stressful times where everybody’s running around and everything seems crazy. At times like these I like to remember our core mission is providing great food and wonderful wine and beer. And we should be having fun while we’re doing it.
I have an employee expectations sheet and I’ve put at the top that this job should be fun. If we’re having fun, our guests are having fun, and everyone can just sort of feel it.
There was one night that I remember where the fun really came through. I was chatting with some guests on the patio and one of my servers, Hannah, came up to say goodnight to me before she left for the day. As she walked away, I, and my guests noticed she was skipping down the courtyard. Skipping. That’s the environment we want to create for everyone. —Clean Slate Wine Bar of Solvang, Calif. uses Boxerbrand menu covers in its table presentation. Thank you!