Meet the Woman Taking the World of Champagne By Storm

Jen Pelka set-out to build the best champagne bar in the world and within a year had won Eater’s Wine Bar of the Year. Now, she's opening an NYC outpost and launching her own label.

By Anna Jornlid

Photo Credit: Jordan Wise

What was the vision behind The Riddler? When did you start it, and why?

The Riddler is a champagne bar that I opened in San Francisco in 2017. Our second location opens in New York’s West Village on October 10th. For both of them our goal is to build the best champagne bar in the world, and what that means is to create a space that’s not only a great neighborhood spot, but also has a killer champagne list that allows for people to explore champagne in a different and accessible way.

The Riddler is backed by all female investors. A strategic move?

I just wanted to open a champagne bar. But when I started looking for investors and pulled together a list of people that might have money, I found that my personal network was filled with women. So, I came up with the idea to focus on a space co-owned by other women.

It’s important to keep in mind that when we launched it was a really different time. The #MeToo-movement hadn’t started and Trump wasn’t President yet. So, I don’t know if it was an inherently political, but I didn’t realize it would make such a bold statement. Today, it’s a huge part of what we do and an essential part of our identity.

Beyond having female investors, tell me about women’s involvement in the creation of The Riddler?

We work with as many women as we possibly can—it’s really something we try to emphasize and a lot of women are, naturally, attracted to the project. All throughout the space we work with female artisans. For example, the gold leafing on the ceiling in both of our bars was done by a woman, the banquets in our space we bought from Jodi and Rita (of Buvette and I Sodi), our host stand is a vintage bar from León in France which we got from Elsie Green, a female owned company in San Francisco, and the list goes on. Even though it’s certainly not a requirement, we try to work with women whenever we can and we really emphasize that.

You were fundraising for the first time when you launched The Riddler. How did you prepare for that?

Fundraising is, more than anything, about storytelling, and I think most people who invest in The Riddler are really investing in me and in the concept.

I’ve only received private investments from individual investors (I’ve never pitched to VCs), but sought inspiration from outside sources. For example, in the podcast How I Built This, there are great tips on fundraising, how to structure an entity, and how not to give up too much of a business or give up too much control. I’m also obsessed with The Secrets of Wealthy Women. I also try to go to a lot of talks and conferences. I think it’s really important to be out there actively learning.

"Fundraising is, more than anything, about storytelling, and I think most people who invest in The Riddler are really investing in me and in the concept."

The Riddler has been successful since its inception with long lines every night for the first few months after opening in San Francisco. What have you found to be effective marketing strategies?

Instagram is probably the most important, followed by word of mouth, and traditional PR. We have been mindful in ensuring that the spaces themselves are pretty “Instagrammable” and optimized for taking pictures, like the little details such as our branded name on the tables. We also have a funny thing in the bathroom; there’s a big red case with a giant bottle of champagne and it says “in case of emergency break glass.” In San Francisco, we have a mural of a champagne bottle on the side of the building where people take a ton of photos and tag us.

Traditional press is also huge. My PR philosophy—through the agency as well as on a personal level—is that it’s all very relationship based. I think the trick when it comes to PR is that it’s a long game. My PR relationships are about 15 years old, meaning that the people who I knew when I was in my early 20s are the same people who I talk to today.

We also do things with the neighborhood we’re in. When we’re opening, we go up and down the street to make sure that everyone that’s working in the stores around us know who we are, and we’ll invite them to come in and have a glass of champagne on us. I always say if you’re a restaurant business in a merchant corridor you want everybody who’s working in the stores to know about you and recommend you.

Lastly, we also have a really cool loyalty program that we don’t talk about with our guests as a loyalty program, but that’s effectively what it is. It’s called the 100 Club, so when guests come in and order a bottle of champagne we offer for them to join. And if they are in, we track the number of bottles that they purchase, and if they drink a hundred bottles of champagne they get a bomber jacket with their names embroidered in gold. From that we’ve generated an email list of roughly 10k people—most of them will only drink 3 bottles of champagne with us, but its the best way to get news out about the restaurant.

"I always say if you're a restaurant business in a merchant corridor you want everybody who's working in the stores to know about you and recommend you."

Was there ever a time during the process of building your companies that you felt like, “Wow, this is not going to work?” How do you keep your confidence as an entrepreneur?

Ha—all the time! Literally, every day. But I think failing a lot is really helpful actually, because you just fail and you recover, fail and recover, and you realize that each failure is not that big of a deal. We’ve made so many mistakes along the way—we’re just lucky that none of them have been fatal. A good example of something that was a major setback for us from a business perspective at The Riddler in San Francisco was that we didn’t realize that our building would have to go through a seismic retrofit for earthquake updates before the end of the year. We had to close the bar down for six weeks, and we didn’t have any protections in our lease against it nor the correct business interruption insurance, so it was a huge financial hit. We were definitely very lucky that we were able to weather it, but again, I definitely learned a lot from that in terms of what we should make sure to have in our lease in form of protection going forward.

What has been the proudest moment in building The Riddler?

Winning Wine Bar of the Year from Eater in our first year was definitely a big deal, but I think my proudest moments are really around the team. I’m also proud that we started paying back investors in the first year. And I’m proud that my brother and I are launching this champagne brand, which I’m very excited about!

"I think failing a lot is really helpful actually, because you just fail and you recover, fail and recover, and you realize that each failure is not that big of a deal"

Tell me more about that. When is your champagne brand launching and why is now the time for it to exist?

It’s called Une Femme and we’re launching two wines to start, likely at the end of October. One of them is made by a small grower and producer, run by a wife and husband team in Champagne, France. For the second one we’re partnering with a woman in Napa to do a sparkling rosé, which is really affordable and should retail for under $20. For all of the wines we launch we’ll work with different women, and for all of the sales a percentage of the proceeds will go to the organization Dress for Success.

The reason we’re launching it is that I realized that for our typical consumer—who I generally see as a very savvy consumer who likes luxury goods and wants to treat herself—there’s not really a recognizable brand in Champagne. So like: what is the Aesop, or the Clare V, or the Outdoor Voices of champagne for this specific woman?

If you look at the top 10 champagne brands in the world, 100% of them are over 200 years old and a lot of them are producing enormous quantities of champagne. They’re not necessarily transparent about their sourcing, their farming methods, or ingredients as there aren’t the same regulations around alcohol in terms of labeling as there are around other products we consume.

I want a brand that speaks to me; that looks beautiful, has a focus on sustainability, quality, transparency, and is good for you. For us it’s also important that there’s some component of it where the brand gives back.

Women (like in most industries) are grossly underrepresented in the food and alcohol space. I read that only 20% of head chef roles in the U.S. are held by women, that 6% of restaurants are owned and run by women, and out of the 165 recognized Master Sommeliers in the U.S. only 23 are women. Have you ever experienced gender bias, or that being a woman has been disadvantageous?

It’s funny because I don’t usually feel it a lot in my day-to-day, but I have actually noticed it with the opening of The Riddler in New York. We’ll have vendors come in and they’ll talk to Jonathan (our male beverage director) instead of me—and even more so if I’m wearing a dress. I think they think I’m an executive assistant.

One of the areas where I see the most significant gender bias is when you’re at a restaurant at a mixed company business meeting, and almost always, the men will receive the wine list. One of my personal goals is for us to create an education program, specifically targeted to women in a business setting, so when somebody drops the menu you grab it first, and say “I’ll order our first bottle—and it’s a bottle of champagne.” You don’t have to learn the entire list; if you just know five champagnes you really like, and you know a few cool facts about champagne, that’s a major power move.

What are your favorite female-founded restaurants or bars in New York and San Francisco?

I love all of the restaurants of Jodi and Rita—Via Carota, Bar Pisellino, I Sodi, and Buvette. My favorite restaurant in New York is King, by Annie Shi, Clare de Boer, and Jess Shadbolt—I want to eat there at least once a week and I have to stop myself from going more often. It’s so elegant, so understated, so beautiful, and honestly just a really great value. I also love WestBourne, which is by a dear friend and former client, Camilla Marcus. What she’s doing is really cool; it’s very healthy and west-coast focused and I think she’s poised to do really big things. She’s similar to me in that she has a very long-term growth-focused vision. I also think Ariel Ars is an incredible restaurateur—she is young, but already has 4 restaurants: Air’s Champagne Parlor, Tokyo Record Bar, Niche Niche, and then downstairs she has a jazz club called Special Club. What she’s doing is just very exciting.

In San Fransisco I love Media Noche, which is a Cuban sandwich joint, that’s stylish, seasonal, and really fun. I love all of Traci Des Jardins’ ventures. There’s also a whole group called La Cocina, which is a nonprofit organization that supports female immigrant entrepreneurs in the food space and they help them get their restaurants up and running.

What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

Leave the party when you’re still having fun—my husband and I say it all the time, and it’s this idea that if you’re in a role or at a party or something, you want to leave when you’re still having fun. I’ve left a lot of jobs in order to start something new, and for me it’s always great to see other people carry on what I’ve started, but you also don’t want to stick around until it’s not fun anymore, so that’s basically that advice.

My husband also always says life happens outside of your comfort zone, but honestly I’m always out of my comfort zone. I feel comfortable there.

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