Anne Dowling is not running a high-growth start-up. She doesn’t live in a major metropolitan area. She’s not chasing investors or working 80 hours a week. She raises her 7-year-old son and often skis or hikes in the morning.
Dowling, a former competitive skier, is running a pair of lifestyle businesses: Ridge Street Wine, a wine shop in Breckenridge, Colo., and a related store, Breckenridge Cheese and Chocolate, selling wine by the glass and a variety of artisanal cheeses and chocolate. Together, the shops bring in $400,000 a year in revenue, enough to support her family — her husband, Kenny, works there, too — while providing the freedom to do things she wants to do.
Not that it’s easy. “Right now, I am stressed,” she says. “We have to pay rent.” Cash flow generally dips before her two big seasons — winter and summer — and uncooperative weather can keep tourists and local regulars away. “We have great snow this year,” she says, “so we’re off to a better start than usual.”
Dowling opened Ridge Street Wine in 2000, a few years after retiring from the skiing circuit. After her last competitive event at Lake Tahoe’s Heavenly resort, she and some fellow skiers decided to take a trip to Napa Valley. “I just fell in love with the lifestyle of wine,” she says. She needed a job, and she found work in sales for a small distributor that represented boutique wineries around the world. “The learning curve was just exponential,” she says.
After three years of selling, Dowling quit and took a ski trip to Chamonix, her favorite town in the French Alps, where a wine shop caught her eye. “It was like a one-room shop and there were stacks and stacks of wine,” she says. And then she thought: “Breckenridge could use something like this.” After she returned home, the idea stayed in the back of her mind. When she blew out her knee skiing in March 2000, she decided to use the down time to write a business plan. By September, she had opened Ridge Street Wine.
Dowling used $50,000 to open the business, borrowing against her home, which she had purchased with ski prize money. Within a year, she was making a profit, although not a big one. She used the knowledge she had gleaned as a wine distributor to “educate the locals about the wines, so they can take it home and they can tell that story at the dinner table.”
In her second year, the business suffered after the attacks of Sept 11, 2001, put a damper on tourism and travel. No longer were “people driving in and loading up their Suburbans and then going to their ski homes,” she says.
In fact, the next few years were lean. To drum up interest, Dowling began hosting wine-tasting events at her home, as liquor laws prevented her from opening bottles in her shop. She invited customers to try wines paired with cheeses that she had shipped over-night from France. “And everyone was like, ‘Oh my gosh, these cheeses are extraordinary, you need to sell them,’” Dowling says. She listened to her customers, and began selling cheeses and also chocolate, putting up a divider in her wine shop so the food was technically sold in a separate space (to satisfy liquor laws) she called Breckenridge Cheese and Chocolate .
In 2007, Dowling moved both businesses to her current space, got a new liquor license, and added an upstairs wine bar to the cheese and chocolate shop. Here profit margins are best on wine by the glass. “We started doing wines by the glass and cheese plates, so people could sit down after skiing,” she says. The space also features live music on Wednesdays and Fridays. Expanding beyond the original retail shop and hiring two part-time employees has “really helped the business go to a whole new level,” she says.
Dowling says she enjoys creating a “home base” for skiers, something she always searched for while skiing competitively. In the future, she says, she might consider expanding further by arranging ski and winery tours to Europe. But for now, she’s content with the control and flexibility her small shops provide. “Last year, I skied 50 days,” she says. “This year, I am hoping to get more in.”