Peter Smit changed gears in 2004, launching the Happinez Wine Bar in Saint John. He has never looked back. Photo: Noel Chenier
Born in Amsterdam, Peter Smit gained a wealth of life and business experience around the world, beginning as a hard working youngster at a resort on the French Riviera and later as a guide in places like St. Tropez, Monaco and Nice.
After working and climbing the ladder in the hospitality industry in Spain, France and Sweden, he joined Hilton International. He was the director of food and beverage at the Drake Hotel in Chicago when he left the Hilton chain and came to Saint John in 1987.
Peter switched gears and taught in the Hospitality and Tourism Program at the New Brunswick Community College in Saint Andrews for 14 years. In 2004, Peter had the option to take an entrepreneurial leave, which created the opportunity for him to launch the Happinez Wine Bar in Saint John. He has never looked back. The success of this popular, award-winning meeting place comes from Peter’s lifelong passion for wine, great service, superb local craftspeople and great friends.
I started my conversation with Peter Smit, founder, owner and operator of Happinez Wine Bar, by asking him what the driving force was behind his decision to open a wine bar.
A: Something I’ve always been passionate about is wine, although I also thought about opening a coffee shop, a little bar and even an ice cream store. But the idea ultimately switched to something I’ve always been passionate about – a wine bar.
Q: What made you think a wine bar would work in Saint John?
A: We were actually the first wine bar in Atlantic Canada. The demographics were changing. People of my age don’t drink fancy beers anymore – they prefer a glass of wine. When I say wine bar, I probably have to define it a bit. It’s social, it has ambiance – it is a place where people like to come and sit and talk to other people. Wine is our feature and our name, but it’s not just about wine.
Q: What have you found most challenging in terms of operating Happinez?
A: To be honest there hasn’t really been that much challenge. It is really more about having a passion, enjoying what you’re doing and having a good team.
Q: How would you define passion and how does it keep you sharp?
A: Really loving what you’re doing. We still look to see what other businesses are doing as well because you can always learn. You never stop learning. Every day I take two hours on the computer to study certain wines or regions or whatever. It never stops.
Q: I read a recent newsletter and there was an interesting article on some recognition Happinez received from TripAdvisor. Can you tell me about this and some of the good public relations you have received over the years?
A: It’s one of the many articles and great PR we’ve received over the years. According to the Ottawa Citizen, we are one of the“18 best places to kiss in Canada.”The National Post wrote a whole article about the funkiness of Happinez. We’ve been featured in Progress Magazine and there was a beautiful article in the International Magazine of Architecture and Design on our little patio designed by Monica and Steven Adair (Acre architects).
I got a certificate from TripAdvisor recently, which indicated that we won the Award of Excellence for 2015 for Saint John. What this means is that if you are clicking on TripAdvisor and you go to Saint John, we are listed No. 1 under restaurants. It’s one of those awards that make you proud of your staff.
Q: How do you ensure that your staff are providing a high level of service?
A: First, you need to hire the proper candidates. That’s one. And then there’s training. There’s at least four weeks of training where the new employee follows me and the other staff. We’ve had and have some absolutely wonderful people working here.
Q: As you look back, coming up onto a decade in business, what are you most proud of?
A: I am proud of the fact that we have received awards and have been featured in articles, that people are happy with our service and that we still have most of our original customers. The people who came in here in the very beginning are still regular customers.
I am also proud to say that we have local products, local wines, local cheeses, local art – everything you see at Happinez is local.
Q: Have you noticed any shifts in the Saint John marketplace?
A: The shift actually started about 10 years ago when we started to see more restaurants. If you look around nowadays, we can eat sushi and Thai food and we have an array of different types of bars. There is more vibrancy in the downtown core than there has ever been.
Of course not everything is perfect. Some restaurants are having a tough time because of the current economic situation. Since I arrived in 1983, our population has dropped and there have been tough times, but I think if you adjust, you still can do well and make a dollar.
Q: You embraced entrepreneurship in your early 50s. What advice would you give to someone who’s in their 40s or 50s, sitting on an idea and curious about jumping into the entrepreneurial world?
A: Follow your passion. You have to have real love, desire and passion for what you like to do. You also have to have knowledge and experience in a particular field. Before opening Happinez, I had 40 years of hospitality experience where I worked at some of the top establishments.
Q: How do you help create a passion for wine with your staff?
A: I don’t tell my staff what to like. I ask them to pick at least one or two red or white wines that they like. I make sure my staff are well educated, which helps them feel very comfortable talking about wine.
Q: What do you believe is a key ingredient for a business to stay relevant over the years?
A: I think you need to stay fresh. What I mean by staying fresh is that you don’t have to change your whole business, but you can always add something every year that is interesting for your customer. Every year we do something that’s a bit different.
I also think that traveling is also a very important factor. To travel to Germany, France, Portugal or to Spain to see the vineyards and talk to wine makers is important. Never stop learning. You need to constantly keep yourself updated.
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As published in the September 26, 2015 Telegraph-Journal