You could fairly say that the genesis of Colin Estrem’s popular wine bar, Avenue Wine Cafe on 5th Ave. South, and his new restaurant, 7th Avenue Social on 7th Ave. South, is due in part to the advice and guidance of Suzanne Specht, assistant director and certified consultant at the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) at Florida Gulf Coast University.

Growing up in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Estrem always had a love of food and hospitality, inspired by the quality and success of D’Amico & Sons restaurant and catering brand, which owns restaurants in both Minneapolis and Naples. In an interesting confluence of events, he moved to Naples with his then girlfriend, now wife, and began working at Cafe Lurcat, a D’Amico-owned restaurant. Estrem soon learned that the wine bar across the street, which he often frequented after work, was up for sale.

In spring of 2008, his numerous attempts to purchase the wine bar by getting a bank loan fizzled.  That’s when a mentor referred him to the SBDC, and he and his wife, Kathleen, met with Specht. At the time, his primary goal was to get a loan, which necessitated a business plan. Specht reviewed their plan and their numbers, and helped them to understand what a bank would want to see in order to lend money.  Specht’s efforts actually got the couple qualified for a $250,000 loan, but then family stepped in to help in lieu of a bank.

“She set us up,” says Estrem. He completed the entire business plan because of Specht, and admits that the extra time pondering “who are we and what do we want to do?” was more valuable than he may have realized at the time because it provided clarity. “She [Specht] played devil’s advocate and poked holes in the business plan, particularly the financial part,” says Estrem. The Avenue Wine Cafe opened in September of 2008, and has been profitable ever since, he says.

Which is why Specht was the first person he called in August of 2014 when he decided to open a restaurant on 7th Ave. South in Naples. Estrem jokes about how he challenged himself to complete a business plan that would require minimal editing from Specht, given that he’d already been through the planning process with the wine bar. “She was impressed; I was hoping I would impress her!” he laughs.

Estrem’s goal was to vet his restaurant idea with Specht, and to pursue the financing required to open the business.

“With the restaurant, the most important aspect she provided was being a big, sounding board,” says Estrem. “She asked a lot of questions.” One of the biggest questions was if his restaurant concept could succeed at a location where the six restaurants prior to his had been open for two years or less. “That was definitely the big concern,” says Estrem, who had been hoping for this kind of rigorous dialogue to think his plan through.

Estrem was also initially concerned about financing.  Once again, he had approached a handful of banks for a loan, but after the financial crash, banks weren’t lending to restaurants, he says. His options narrowing, he relied on Specht’s banking background for advice. With her encouragement, he attended the SBDC’s annual Access to Capital Fair in August of 2014, and it was there that Celtic Bank agreed to finance his new venture. “She [Specht] got us set on the right track to get a loan,” says Estrem, even though the business ended up being financed by family.

His new restaurant, 7th Avenue Social, had its grand opening on March 8, 2015 in Naples.

Estrem credits Specht with being a reality check, an “incredible sounding board,” and also very encouraging with both of his businesses ideas, which are now fully operational. He emphasizes how much he learned about preparedness as they worked through the business plan process for the wine bar, and how much he learned about financing options as they sought funding for the restaurant. And even though he opted for alternate financing, Estrem credits Specht for securing loan options for both of his businesses.

“The impact of meeting with Suzanne [Specht] in 2008 continues now with the opening of the restaurant,” says Estrem. “Once you learn the lessons, you don’t forget, and you keep on building on them…I recommend the SBDC to anyone regardless of their experience. Even if they have an MBA from Wharton, it’s kind of nice to get a second opinion,” he says.

Estrem himself seems transformed. “I’ve kind of grown accustomed to being an entrepreneur. I don’t think it’s possible for me to go to work for another company again, to be honest. I enjoy every aspect of being a small business owner,” he says.

Story written and submitted by Jacqueline Aaron