After a five-year stint as wine director for the five restaurants—Acanto, The Gage, Beacon Tavern, Coda di Volpe, and The Dawson—in the Gage Hospitality Group, Jon McDaniel is now demonstrating his wine-promoting skills in a new way. In the spring of 2018 he left the floor to commit himself full-time to his new business venture, Second City Soil, a consultancy and an online hub for the city’s local wine-buying community.
Recognizing that his adopted hometown was better known for food and subzero weather than for wine, McDaniel launched Second City Soil as a one-stop shop for wine-focused promotion, communication, and tastings. His mission is to build up Chicago’s reputation as a robust wine destination through on-premise events that connect visiting winemakers to wine buyers and that help distributors, producers, and other suppliers get more exposure in a market where they might not have dedicated on-the-ground resources.
SevenFifty Daily spoke with McDaniel about his transition from wine director to small-business owner, the ways in which his multifaceted industry experience helped prepare him for running his own business, his goals for the company, the new challenges he’s facing, and why he’s never slept better.
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SevenFifty Daily: How did you come up with the idea for Second City Soil?
Jon McDaniel: I had the realization that though Chicago is a world-class food city and there is a lot of wine talent here, wine just isn’t a part of the mainstream culture. If you read restaurant reviews, sometimes the word wine doesn’t even appear, even if a place has a really great list. I realized there’s a disconnect between having a really great wine program and being able to sell a really great wine program.
Second City Soil is about expanding the wine culture of Chicago. A lot of my peers don’t have the experience or support to create content about what they’re doing. I want to help share the stories of what’s happening here in the city when it comes to wine.
What was the impetus for making the change?
I was working for an amazing restaurant group, but I was working 85–90 hours a week—and mostly on the floor doing managerial things, not wine things. It was just the realization that I needed to do something different and take on a new challenge. A lot of it was jumping off the cliff and hoping I’d land on my feet.
My experience in the wine industry spans retail, distribution, importing, opening a restaurant, winemaking, wine education, working on the floor, and developing and overseeing wine programs. I was confident about my experience giving me the skills I needed to develop the business, and I hoped someone would buy into it.
How are you positioning your company?
I can help marketing professionals and producers navigate the Chicago market, which can be especially valuable if they don’t have people on the ground here. My company can give them that insider information, create promotional content for them, and be a local source to help them maximize their market visits.
No one else I’ve heard of is specifically tying a consulting business to helping bolster sales and buyer-seller relationships in one specific city. There is no consultant out there who’s saying, I’m going to make things better for wine in Los Angeles or Houston or New York. My entire mission and the pitch for my business is: I want to help you sell more wine here in Chicago—and you’re going to pay me to do it. It’s a unique way to look at it.
Financially, how did you prepare?
It’s just me—there’s no business plan with investors. I knew it would take some time to invest and get back financially to where I was comfortable. I know from having a failed restaurant that if you don’t have enough in reserve, you’re going to fail. I started with enough capital to stay comfortable for six months while getting the business off the ground.
What was your experience like as a restaurant owner?
Before I worked for Gage, I was a partner in a restaurant that took two years to build and was open for about six months. Everything that could go wrong in a restaurant did. I was the accountant, the general manager, and the sommelier. I did the hiring for front and back of house—I did everything except the cooking. I slept five out of seven nights at the restaurant, using a box of trash bags as a pillow, but these are the things you have to do when it’s your company on the line. It taught me that picking up the paper towels in the bathroom—and all the things needed for running an actual brick-and-mortar business—was torturous for me, and that I never want to own a restaurant ever again.
What’s your biggest challenge with Second City Soil?
It’s solely on me to drum up business, so I spend a lot of time creating proposals, pitching the company to different entities, moving from project to project, and convincing people that I can deliver. There’s a lot of recon—lunches and phone calls and figuring out what exactly it means to be a consultant.
What types of projects are you pitching?
One potential project involves working with a regional vintner association to help them execute an annual tasting event in Chicago. It’s not just about that one event a year, though; it’s also about making that region relevant in the Chicago market all year long, defining how to do that month after month, and identifying the value the association is expected to get for their money.
You created a successful Rolls + Riesling promotion with local Asian restaurants in Chicago. How did you pitch that?
I already had a relationship with Wines of Germany and knew they would fund a targeted project promoting Riesling. My idea was to create a short-term, “flash” program for them. I pitched the organization saying I’m here locally and want to help you develop the kind of program that can work in a lot of markets, with Chicago as the test market. Then it was up to me to deliver a specific target—75 restaurant accounts specializing in Asian cuisine that we’re going to tackle—and let them know I’d be the one executing it. The goal was 25 placements in by-the-glass programs for the month of August.
A 30-day BTG promotion is something that any restaurant can participate in without changing its concept or its way of doing business; it’s a targeted way to help generate sales and educate staff and guests about German Riesling—or whatever the program topic may be.
Do you have a time frame and projections for success?
Everything right now is very project driven. The immediate goal is to create an online wine event calendar on the Second City Soil website that shows when my producer clients will be in town as well as when other, related market activities are happening. It’ll not only help connect buyers, suppliers, and visiting producers but drive traffic back to their sites from my site.
Additionally, the calendar will help me raise awareness for local events like seminars, tastings, and luncheons that I’m hosting, coordinating, and promoting. I’ll also be interviewing winemakers and posting the interviews on Second City Soil’s site and social media, and offering concierge services to winemakers when they’re here in Chicago.
What are your long-term goals?
I would love to create a network of consultants in other cities so that if I’m doing something cool in Chicago, I can pitch it to a colleague in Houston, and we can co-create events in multiple markets to add value to the growing wine culture in secondary markets.
What’s your advice to others wanting to start their own wine-focused consultancy?
If you’re going to give everything, you have to have an outlet and have a life balance—something I’m completely terrible at.
What’s the best part of what you do now?
I work everywhere and the setting isn’t the same desk. Now I have the opportunity to schedule my own day the way I want to, and I have goals I want to accomplish, so now it’s more of a lifestyle. I’ve never slept better.
Lana Bortolot has written on food and wine for Dow Jones, Wine Enthusiast, Saveur, and other magazines of the wine and spirits trade. She reported on community development and arts and culture for the Wall Street Journal and New York Post and on design for Entrepreneur magazine. She holds the Wine & Spirit Education Trust’s Level 3 Advanced Certification and is working on the Level 4 Diploma. Having covered most European wine regions and a few in South America, she is always looking to add a new wine-stained stamp to her passport.