Vine Solutions Serves Up Back Office for Restaurants

November 18, 2011

For one shaky period in 2005, bad things came in threes for Ed Levine.

Levine’s Corte Madera-based restaurant consulting business Vine Solutions Inc. was struggling. The executive director, newly promoted to run the company while Levine focused on another business, left. Not long after, Vine Solutions’ accounting director departed, too, leaving an institutional knowledge gap. The dust had barely settled when the surging economy led to a spate of client turnover — bad news for a company that needs time to study each client’s complex business needs.

Vine Solutions has come a long way since then. Its revenue and client list have expanded steadily in the last three years. As of early November, the company had 165 clients — most of them restaurants with more than $2.8 million in revenue each — and Levine planned to add three positions to his staff of 38.

“We really focused on pruning our client base, losing some of the clients that were more turn-around, focusing on our core larger clients and making our systems and processes more robust,” Levine said of Vine Solutions’ post-2005 rebound. As the company’s full-time CEO, Levine emphasizes cohesion. “Let’s make sure that everybody’s on the bus in terms of your team and they’re all going in the same direction,” he said.

Levine is confident that demand will only grow for Vine Solutions’ accounting, financial advisory and human resources services. Creative thinkers such as chefs and restaurant managers often lack the economic knowledge and discipline to make a restaurant viable, he said. “Let’s face it, the people who run restaurants either love food or people.”

Levine got his start as a teenager washing dishes at a Chinese restaurant in Vancouver, British Columbia. When he filled in for an absent cook one day, whipping up shrimp-fried rice and chow mein, Levine caught the restaurant bug. He put himself through college and Stanford Graduate School of Business on waiter tips, then went on to serve as interim CEO of restaurant chain Gordon Biersch Brewing Co., planning director of Collins Foods International and CFO of restaurant and bakery company Il Fornaio Corp. He was also principal partner at three Left Bank restaurants and one LB Steak in the Bay Area.

When he started Vine Solutions in 1996, Levine quickly made a niche finding profit opportunities for restaurants and bringing rigor to their books.

“For an independent restaurant to provide themselves with appropriate financial controls and systems is really difficult and expensive,” he said.

Larry Mindel, Levine’s former boss at Il Fornaio, signed up as a Vine Solutions client when he opened his Sausalito restaurant Poggio in 2002.

“Restaurants are, at least at first, seven-day-a-week accounting nightmares,” Mindel said. “What happens if your accountant goes on vacation or gets sick? There’s no depth.”

Working with Vine Solutions allows Mindel to focus on Poggio’s food and service rather than its financials.

Growth has brought some complications for Vine Solutions. This year, the company’s payroll expanded 8 percent faster than sales. Levine also realized he had made a significant oversight in failing to carefully track the time his staff spent with each client. Levine put a temporary freeze on hiring, instituted more rigorous assessments and worked with clients to streamline the process through approaches like switching to electronic checking.

With those issues under control, Levine is looking ahead. He hopes to open a new office every year (Chicago and Seattle are strong candidates) and he expects revenue to grow fivefold to $20 million in the next 10 years. “This is a very unique niche. We think it is very scalable,” he said.

Snapshot: Vine Solutions Inc.
HQ: Corte Madera.
Founder: Ed Levine.
What it does: Financial and operational consulting for restaurants.
2011 projected revenue: $4.2 million.
2010: $3.5 million.
2009: $2.96 million.
2008: $2.4 million.
Percentage growth over past three years: 49.5 percent.
Founded: 1991; incorporated in 1996.
Employees: 38.
Web site:
Element of success: Conveying concepts in language of restaurateurs rather than accountants.
Smartest move: Promoting ambitious vice president of operations to executive vice president of company and opening Santa Monica office.
Growth pitfall: Payroll growth outpaced revenue growth at one point.
Future plans: To grow revenue to $20 million within five years.