Uncorked owners Lisa and Michael Amador quickly shifted focus to takeout when the pandemic hit and are now enjoying success with less stress while defending their Vegan Chef Challenge crown this month. | Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

When Michael and Lisa Amador opened Uncorked Wine Tasting and Kitchen on East Haley Street in September 2018, their goal was evident in the extended name itself: Introduce people to new wines — many from smaller garagiste producers, most poured from self-serve taps — and serve some bites to go along with the sips. 

Come the pandemic shutdown in March 2020, that intimate, educational, drinks-focused business model no longer made sense. But being on a busy corridor between downtown and many residential neighborhoods, a simplified, affordable, special-of-the-day takeout menu did. Uncorked’s business shot through the roof. 

“We’re doing great,” said Michael Amador last week. Although September was a bit slow, it was still better than any month of 2019, and that’s with just a handful of patio dine-in tables each week. “Our demographics totally changed,” said Amador. “People like the idea of quickly getting their food, just in and out.” 

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This month, Uncorked is also defending a victory in last year’s Vegan Chef Challenge. Until the end of October, 15 restaurants are competing in this third annual competition organized by Elizabeth Wettstein to get chefs and diners excited about the healthy, sustainable possibilities of plant-based foods. 

In 2019, Amador’s barbecued pumpkin ribs tied with the Chase’s lasagna for first place in the “best entrée” category, so he’s bringing the dish back, plus another idea, with hopes of a repeat. It certainly helps business, as last year’s win put Uncorked on the vegan food circuit. “We get a number of out-of-town guests who come here just for that,” he said.  

Uncorked’s barbecued pumpkin ribs. | Credit: Daniel Dreifuss

Last week, I talked to Amador about his success in both the pandemic and vegan realms, and he shared some thoughts and advice for others.

Specials rule:  Offering at least one special, all-in-one meal each day drives 90 percent of the business now, including stars like lobster ravioli and seared ahi niçoise. Every day changes, except for Fridays, which is surf ’n’ turf for $20, and Sunday’s fried chicken night, which includes spicy coleslaw, potato salad, baked beans, buttered corn, and berry pie for $18. “Sunday was a lost day for me,” said Amador of the past. Taking a cue from Foreign Cinema in San Francisco, he throws a pinch of curry in the batter for the big boneless thighs. “That makes all the difference,” he said. Uncorked now sells about 100 dinners every Sunday.

Marketing strategy:  “Social media is important, but where I’ve gotten all of our business is our email list,” said Amador, who’s doubled his to 2,400 people in the past six months. “I’ve been collecting emails, and I knew at some point this might be important for marketing. But I never realized to what extent.”

Wine still works:  “I’m almost a wine store right now,” he explained. “All of the tables are full of wine, and there’s nowhere to sit in here.” He shifted focus a bit to more affordable wines such as Ballard Lane, just $10 a bottle, but also sells smaller brands like Azios Cellars for $18 and higher-end bottles such as Kimsey and Lavender Oak. “I’m not making much, but I want people to get a bottle every time they come in,” said Amador. He sold 200 cases in six months, which is more than a case per day and triple the usual volume, although with tighter margins.

Unforeseen upsides:  “Everything has benefited from an owner standpoint,” he said. “Revenue is up; expenses are down. And we’re only open from 5 to 7 p.m. now. I used to be here from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.” He’s sad to see other restaurants struggle and close during this time, but admitted, “It’s strange, but in good ways for us. Quite honestly, I’m in no rush to change how it is. I could use a few more people who want to dine with us, but I love leaving at 7:30 p.m.”

Vegan Chef Challenge insights:  Like many “older-school chefs,” Amador was a little reluctant to enter a vegan contest, but then he woke up in the middle of the night with an idea for barbecue pumpkin ribs, thinking it was something that non-vegans would like too. He wound up using kabocha squash, cutting it into rib-like pieces, dry-rubbing overnight, flash-frying for a crunchy texture, and then tossing them in barbecue sauce. “When you pull them out and plate them up, they look like a plate of ribs,” said Amador.

Why popular?  Amador thinks the ribs particularly appealed to former meat eaters who have trouble finding rich, dark flavors. “Most people really appreciated and enjoyed those nostalgic flavors of spicy barbecue,” he said. “I’m not vegan, and I’m not even much of a vegetable eater, but I love eating those things. You’re not gonna confuse them for regular ribs, but there is that richness and those country-folk flavors.” 

Upping antes:  Uncorked is offering a second vegan dish as part of the Vegan Chef Challenge: a flatbread called The Freddie B. Named after vintner Fred Brander, who suggested the dish after a trip to Mexico, it’s a pizza crust cooked solely with caramelized onions and then topped with avocado, cilantro, jalapeño, and a squeeze of lime. “A pizza without sauce or cheese?” thought Amador initially. “Then you taste it, and the avocado is the sauce and the cheese. It gives all the moisture that you need and that richness that cheese normally offers.”

So what’s Brander think? “He loves it, but I don’t know if that’s more because we named it after him,” laughed Amador. 

See uncorkedsb.com and veganchefchallenge.org/santa-barbara

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