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Winding Down with Wine; Ben Franco ’06

Ben Franco '06
Photo courtesy of Reading Eagle / Krissy Krummenacker

After working in maintenance and as a field service manager, Ben Franco’06 decided to immerse himself in wine. Not literally, of course, but as the owner of a café and wine bar in West Reading, Pa.

“I saw that wine bars were successful in other places and thought that it was the way to go because there was something missing in this market,” he says. “I wanted to keep it on a small scale, do a simple menu, and do something that was a niche for the area.”

Franco’s idea came to fruition when he opened the Winedown Café and Winebar on Penn Avenue in July 2008, after he’d earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration through Albright’s Degree Completion Program.

Several years earlier, Franco had begun to work on an engineering degree to complement the electronics degree he’d earned at Lincoln Technical Institute. Eventually he decided to change course and earn a business degree instead. That’s when he enrolled in Albright’s program, which allowed him to transfer many of the credits he’d already earned.

Franco finished the program two years later. As part of the degree requirements, he had to work with some of his classmates to write a business plan for a special events business. “A business plan was a scary thing to me before I completed the final project,” Franco says. “Until we did that it seemed like an impossible task.” But his team was up to the challenge, and completing the plan gave Franco the confidence he needed to open the
wine bar and café.

Business degree notwithstanding, Franco knew that opening such an establishment with no experience was risky. So he went to work at another restaurant first. “I happened to find myself the perfect job,” he says, referring to a sort of internship he completed at the American House in Hamburg.“The general manager allowed me to do many different things, from serving to bartending to prep cooking. Anything to get myself experience in different areas.”

To learn as much as he could about wine, Franco visited a number of wineries and took classes at the Wine School of Philadelphia. “I was basically just a novice at wine and wine drinking before this venture,” he says. “Today I’m by no means a wine expert, but I can hold my own in conversation.”

At any given time there are about 20 wines on Winedown’s menu. Franco decides which vintages to offer based on his own taste tests and the recommendations of his vendors, customers and staff. “We change out one or two at a time every three weeks or so to keep the menu fresh,” Franco says.

The restaurant’s menu items are served in small portions in the style of tapas. “They’re foods that pair well with wine,” Franco says. Of course, no wine bar would be complete without a selection of cheeses, so the menu includes them as well.

Franco and his staff try to keep things light by taking some of the mystery out of wine. “Wine can be intimidating for people, so we try not to make it this esoteric or difficult thing,” he says. “We preach that our customers shouldn’t be afraid of it, and we try to make it fun.”

– Bob Shade

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