Nikaline Iacono built her dream bar/bistro/gathering place, but making it is a challenge, even when your business is as beloved as Brunswick’s Vessel and Vine.
Nikaline Iacono is enjoying a rare moment of quiet in Vessel and Vine, her Brunswick establishment that’s part bar, bistro and shop and 100 percent an alchemy unique to Iacono. Her kids, Zola, 5, and Auggie, 8, are tucked into a table, keeping busy with pens and paper. “This last week will be the first time in two years that I’ve been able to breathe,” says Iacono. Sipping milky coffee from a huge mason jar, she credits her breathing room to a new loan.
Over the last two years, the Vine (that’s what Iacono, and diehard customers, call the business) seemed on social media to be enjoying success, each image more delightful than the last—delicious drinks, intriguing menus composed of items Iacono had foraged, and bustling events ranging from mending classes to group sales of vintage clothing. But this crafted image was like a marriage where everything seems good from the outside, Iacono says, but in truth is rocky. The truth is that times are tough, courtesy of the vagaries of fast financing, life without an accountant, tech and equipment problems and perhaps, Iacono concedes, because of her initial reluctance to monetize the very special type of magic she’s brought to Brunswick. Not to mention, trying to explain it.
For starters, the only menu is on a chalkboard, for spontaneity’s sake. The retail half of the spaces features clothing, art, vintage stemware, beer and wine. Iacono describes her wine list as “weird” but each wine has been thoughtfully chosen to echo and expand upon a more popular category. There’s an alternative to a Pinot Grigio, a substitute for Sauvignon Blanc and so forth. She offers wine-tastings daily to introduce people to these selections. The walls serve as gallery space for local artists. The Vine is a bit like the browser of an eclectic creative, with lots of irresistible open tabs. It’s not possible to get to it all at once, so you make a note to return. Aside from her own classes in cocktail-making and wild food, Iacono hosts other teachers, from visible mending lessons to styling tips from Bath’s Guru Vintage + Modern. For Iacono this is a haven, and she wants it to be for others as well.
“It’s a weird place to walk into,” Iacono says. “It’s my job and my employees’ job to put people at ease. I want to win over the person who says, ‘I don’t see wines on the list that make me comfortable, I don’t see food that I understand. This aesthetic makes me feel uncomfortable.’” Many of the ingredients she uses in both the food and her drinks are ones she’s foraged. “It’s my therapy to go out in the woods, and it’s great to get the kids walking out there. But I’m also getting ingredients for my restaurant.” She laughs. “They are so much more rich and interesting and they bring this complexity to the table—and they are free!” Fir tips and rhubarb juice show up in her “Field Blend” cocktail. She runs foraging classes that conclude with lunches at the Vine, with items like black trumpet butter, pickled moon snails, goat cheese stuffed with daylily flowers, magnolia vinegar pickled eggs and pickled milkweed pods. All of it is prepared with minimal equipment, an induction burner, two pressure cookers, and a toaster oven. “I want to convert as many people as I can to fall in love with this place,” she says, but admits she may not always succeed.
The converts are loyal though. “This is the place in Brunswick to get a cocktail,” says Nate Wildes, the founder of nearby Flight Deck Brewing, another hip but decidedly more mainstream Brunswick spot. He was attending an early December cider dinner to celebrate Vermont cider maker Eleanor Leger and enjoying a cocktail called a Slanted Shadows as he waited for the third course (choucroute made with Winter Hill Farm’s pork, three ways, and Morse’s sauerkraut, garnished with three mustards Iacono had made with multiple foraged ingredients). “A real cocktail.” Wildes definitely gets Vine, and by the end of the dinner, after the last, perfect spoonful of spiced quince clafoutis had been scraped off the vintage plates, so did the entire tableful of 14 diners, most of them young, professionals and open minded.
“I want to win over the person who says, ‘I don’t see wines on the list that make me comfortable, I don’t see food that I understand. This aesthetic makes me feel uncomfortable.’”
It might be tempting to theorize that Iacono simply needs more of those types of customers. But running an eating and drinking (and shopping) establishment can be more complicated than simply having a loyal customer base. She recently let customers know on social media that she was shutting down for a few days to reevaluate, hitting the reset button as it were, on a business she had willed into being a little more than two years ago.
Backtrack to August, 2017: the recently divorced Iacono, who had run the bar at Enoteca Athena in Brunswick, decided to start a business from scratch, with a game plan of supporting her kids. She reached out to Sarah Guerette, the head of the Women’s Business Center at CEI in Brunswick, for guidance. “I presented her with three pages of narrative, and she was like, ‘That’s cute, now let’s do it.” From August through October that year, Iacono “busted ass” to get a commercial loan. To do so, she had to fix up the “teeny” farmhouse she’d owned with her ex-husband to get it appraised and refinanced. Iacono and Guerette met every week for three months to develop a business plan and create projections and talk insurance, permits, staffing, payroll and taxes. This meant a lot of late nights at the computer after the kids went to bed.
Iacono found her dream location on Pleasant Street, a downstairs space in a former church, which had seen a number of businesses come and go, including, briefly, a juice bar, and started beautifying it before having secured financing or even a lease. The wood came from her barn, and some from the salvage yard, the stools from the side of the road, chairs from the dump. She bought all four chandeliers (stunning modern glassworks that make the whole place feel sedately fancy) for $120 from a Chinese restaurant. She spent $5,000 before securing the loan, enlisting only the help of an electrician and a plumber, and after much anticipation—from Enoteca Athena, Iacono had become something of a legend in town for her prowess with cocktails—Vessel and Vine opened on Valentine’s Day 2018.
In the scramble to put a business in place, Iacono had rushed to find fast financing. “Square [Capital] short terms loans look super convenient because they take money directly out of your daily sales. What it does is cripple your cash flow. Every day 14% of my sales were getting skimmed off. I borrowed $10K and paid it off in six months. For a small business that’s a ridiculous amount of money. It was this cycle I got myself into where I had to keep borrowing money because my cashflow was getting hit.” Her second mistake was in not working with an accountant from the outset, a resource that likely would have tackled the cash flow problem early on.
When the computer, phone and cooler all died within a week, and Iacono learned she needed to install a cooking hood in her kitchen, there wasn’t enough income to cover these unexpected expenses. Two months behind on her mortgage; she had to delay payroll a few times—a last resort after having forgone income for herself. “Then the sales tax guy in his leather coat walks in and says he’s here to collect and will shut the place down if I don’t come up with money within a week.” Iacono asked for a personal loan but knew that wouldn’t be enough. That’s when she decided to be candid about Vine’s struggles in a post on social media. The response ranged from moral support to brass tacks on how to better commodify what was until then inherent value (including, charge more for her expertise). Iacono says she almost feels guilty about charging for the classes, wild food and secondhand clothes, but concedes, “This is a business. It might not start out being all about the money, but if it’s not about the money, it’s going to end up being all about the money.”
For the last quarter of 2019, Iacono regrouped and took a long hard look at numbers. The Vine had seen nice growth from year one to year two, but her liabilities were still nearly $70,000. Her total income from the Vine, about $16,000 a year, barely covered her mortgage, truck payment and food. Her student loans have been in deferment for years. After some dark nights of the soul moments over the course of three months—“I had to ask if I really wanted to keep doing this”—Iacono secured a three-year loan.
When she made her coffee this morning, she added in a treat, some maple syrup. “Just a touch today only because I was feeling a bit decadent.” Her Vessel and Vine has been righted by that loan, and she’s hopeful for its future. “I am luckier than many,” Iacono says. “I certainly struggle financially and think it’s important to highlight that. My bank account is overdrawn often, but I could also probably make choices that would put me in a more fiscally stable position. So far, I have (just barely) not had to sell my horses. I am still in a position of privilege compared to many. Most importantly I have a home over my head that I own, and healthy children.”
Kerry Eielson owned and ran La Muse Retreat, a writers residency in France, from 2001 until recently, when she and her family relocated to Maine. She is the chef at SurfPoint Foundation’s artist residency in York and she has worked in magazine publishing and written for The New York Times among other publications.