Bar finds a winning business formula to fill customer niche

Written by Ian Portsmouth

Guilt & Co. is much like most tech startups in Vancouver’s historic Gastown district. It resides in an old, multi-storey brownstone reclaimed for use by a younger, hipper crowd. Its employees are passionate about delivering a differentiated product, but love to have fun on the job. And on any given Friday night, alcohol is being consumed on the premises.

But this startup is not a venture-backed dot-com seeking a buyout by Google. Guilt & Co. is a licensed lounge that might simply settle for beating the steep odds against new food-and-beverage establishments.

But so far, so very much better—thanks largely to its founders’ ability to identify a monetizable need in the marketplace, bring innovation to an old sector and leverage the assets they already have.

Launched in April 2010, Guilt & Co. is the brainchild of Sonia Bozzi and Jordan Stewart. Like many of their tech-oriented neighbours, they’re on their second venture—they also own Chill Winston, a street-level bistro that’s popular with the after-work crowd and sits atop their downstairs bar. Bozzi says the pair had eyed the unoccupied basement since launching Chill Winston in 2006. Once they felt secure about the future of their restaurant and the redeveloping neighbourhood, Bozzi and Stewart used their positive relationship with the building’s landlord to get a good deal on the space.

More important, owning two complementary businesses side by side (or, in this case, top to bottom) earns the entrepreneurs greater share of wallet. When Chill Winston patrons are ready for a change of scene, many line up to join the after after-work crowd at Guilt & Co., often unaware that the two businesses are associated with one another. “It’s a whole night out at one address,” says Bozzi. “We’d rather provide the same customer with a different experience than try to grab a new customer altogether.”

Guilt & Co.’s founders say their business fills a big gap in Vancouver’s entertainment market. With its exposed stone walls, selection of board games, grownup drinks menu and live but not deafening music, Guilt & Co. gives 30-somethings a sophisticated but relaxed alternative to sexually charged nightclubs, ticketed venues and sports bars.

Bozzi and Stewart get many of their ideas and inspiration from eyeballing bars and restaurants on their personal travels and by attending at least one industry conference a year. This March, however, they’ll break away from the crowd by attending South by Southwest Interactive, a popular technology festival held annually in Austin, Tex.

“There’s a different creative energy there that will inspire us in a different way,” says Stewart. “You never know, we might find the inspiration there to make dramatic changes to our operation in an industry that’s so far behind the curve in terms of technology.”

With a little luck, perhaps Guilt & Co. will become a successful tech startup after all.

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