Debra Carlson, 57, left a career in tech to launch Salut! Wine Bar at Littleton’s new The Point development, an area that was once apple orchards and farmland. Despite COVID-19, she managed to open in June. Now, she’s planning comedy and music nights — and looking forward to the day she doesn’t have to wear a mask.
Let’s talk about the Dark Ages, before COVID-19 hit. You launched your business right before. What was that like?
I feel like this is the Dark Ages! I had a lot of issues with the build-out. My contractor wasn’t very experienced. It slowed everything down. I also think he had another job, and he wasn’t pushing to get mine done. I had issues with my plumbers. It got to the point where when I was trying to get my hand sanitizers, the electronic ones, so you just put your hand underneath — and the vendor called me and told me they were lost in a typhoon. He’s like, “Can you believe it?” And I was like, “Yeah, actually, I can, because if it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen to me.”
So it took a year to build out, and I wanted to open in January, but then we had some issues with the Board of Health. They required me, even though I wasn’t really doing any cooking, to have the setup of a kitchen like a regular restaurant. State law requires everybody to serve some sort of food if you’re serving drinks.
So I was basically just going to do charcuterie plates. I was just cutting meat and that type of thing, but I still had to put in a three-base sink and everything. So I had to redesign my entire prep kitchen area. . . . When did Massachusetts shut restaurants down?
17th? Yeah. We were going to open three days later, was our plan. So, the governor shut us down, and then he said April 6 we could open. … Luckily, I did not buy all my wine and beer and all of that, because that was a big expense. And because I wasn’t open, I wasn’t qualified for any of those plans. So I got no federal money. And I was still paying rent and utilities and everything. We officially opened on June 26.
This was a departure for you. What made you want to open a wine bar?
Well, I’d been in technology for 25 years, and I was laid off. Every 10 years, I got laid off for some reason or another. And then the last time, I wanted to buy my previous company from my boss, because I had inherited some money. He didn’t think I was capable of running it, even though I had been running it for the past two years while he was in Ireland.
So my husband said, “Why don’t you do something different?” And when I was in France to settle my aunt’s estate, she didn’t have any Internet in her home. I had to go down to the wine bar, and the guy was so nice to let me use his Internet. And so I kind of hung out at his place during the day. There was barely anybody there, and so he and I were just chatting the whole time.
And so you fell in love with wine?
I did. I mean, I’ve always been a beer girl, but I’ve been recently diagnosed with celiac. And so, I can’t drink beer anymore. And my background is French. Growing up, we’d always have wine with dinner, and my father drank wine every night. My mother too. And he would give us sips, and she would, too. It was just like that French upbringing.
The process of clearing that estate was 10 years, so I was over there quite often. And so, every time I was over there, wine was just part of life.
What’s the food scene like in Littleton? What does the area need?
I grew up in Acton, and my husband and I now live in Littleton. I wanted to be close to home. It’s always been like a farm town, and it’s kind of up and coming. Littleton still holds that town feeling, that charm of a small town. There’s still farms. It’s a great conservation town. … [Salut] is a nice, kind of relaxing place that matches the feel of the town.
When you go into France, you have these nice small villages or these nice small towns, and they have these wine bars. With COVID-19, my husband and I went out to eat a couple of weeks ago, and when we made the reservation, they said, “You have 90 minutes to eat.” And I looked at them, and I said, “Seriously?”
And I mean, that’s enough time, and I understand that they’re trying to turn the tables over and everything, but that’s not me. We have women who have come in, and men too, and couples who have come in, and they have spent five hours. Last night, we had these two women on the patio, and I came out, and I was like, “Oh, my God, these ladies are still here.” And our server, Matt, goes, “Yeah, they’ve been here all night.” And that’s what I want.
I’m not pushing people out the door. I want you to come in. I want you to have a glass of wine. I want you to enjoy it. We do flights of any one of our wines. So you can pick any three wines you want, and have a flight. We offer over 120 wines by the glass.
How has business been since opening?
Well, business has been really cyclical. Is that the name I want to say? Up and down. So the first night it was great, we had friends and family come, and then we saw kind of a lull for a couple of weeks. But it was Fourth of July, and unfortunately, I kind of opened up on vacation time, too. The state was like, “Oh, everybody can go on vacation!” People were going to the Cape or up north, that type of thing. So we’ve seen a lot of vacation weeks. It is starting to pick up now, but a lot of people didn’t know where I was located. ...
I have a gorgeous spot. We see the sunset come, and it’s beautiful. We saw the sunset all around last night. They finally got my banner up on Monday. My bartenders are a great bunch of guys, and two of them are my nephews, and the other two are friends of theirs. And so they love chatting with the customers. They’ve been finding out that a lot of people have come in due to this banner.
Any lessons learned?
Yes, definitely. Hire people who know what they’re doing, and don’t try to do it yourself. I hired a lawyer who knew exactly how to get through the process of getting the licenses, and I didn’t have to worry about that. All I did was sign it. I hired a tax company, Huntington Tax Company, and they are awesome. She’s helped me with my business plan. She’s helped me with setting up all the financials and everything that I need to do. And to hire a good contractor.
I wanted to do the contracting myself, but I couldn’t. Massachusetts won’t allow it. So you do have to hire a contractor, but hire somebody who has some experience, and always be nice to your landlord.
Do you regret opening during COVID-19?
No, I don’t. I would have liked to have opened with no pandemic. I think we would have been a complete success right away, but it’s ramping up. We are starting to offer music. That was my plan on the weekends, to have entertainment, like comedy nights. I just scheduled another comedy night for October ... and I have more music in mid-September.
So we’re doing it safely. We only allow people who can sit, come in, and they have to stay ... There’s no moving around. There’s no standing at the bar or anything like that. So we’re doing it safely and abiding by all the regulations.
So I think once people become more comfortable with going out, I think things will get better. I mean, I think Massachusetts is now under 1 percent. People just need to abide by the regulations, and you’re safe. You know? I mean, knock on wood, all of our workers have been fine. I have asthma, and I’m celiac. So I’m really prone to being somebody who, if they got it, would have a problem. And I don’t feel nervous at all.
What’s your favorite wine?
Probably the wines from Bordeaux. Chateau Laborde Domaine Bois de Laborde, Pomerol.
What have you been like stress-snacking on?
Ice cream. Raspberry chocolate chip.
If you had to give a piece of advice to a new restaurant business owner, what would you say?
Hire the people who know what they’re doing.
If you could project into the future in a year, where will we be?
Oh, I hope we’re back to normal. I hope that there’s a vaccine and that everybody’s comfortable, and I don’t have to wear a mask.
Salut Wine Bar, 1204 Constitution Ave., The Point, Littleton, 978-339-5215, www.salut-winebar.com