The Social Club Becomes a Business

By Beacon Staff

WHITEFISH – Successful business models are born in the strangest places – like in downtown storage rooms.

The Loft, a members-only social and business club that opened three years ago in a storage room above Whitefish’s Toggery, began as a place where attorney Chad Wold could take clients to socialize and conduct business. Now Wold, the Loft’s owner and founder, says within the next 14 months there will be five more Lofts scattered throughout the Pacific Northwest from Portland to Missoula. The Loft in Missoula opens on Dec. 8.

Wold said before the Loft opened, Whitefish didn’t have a destination where businesspeople could feel comfortable socializing or discussing business, especially with clients. A bar, he said, “might be more lively than they want.” So he dreamt up the Loft, bought the space above the Toggery and “put in some furniture and a fridge.”

“Our goal initially was to get enough members to cover the overhead,” Wold said. “I never thought of it as a business.”

“Then I started getting calls from all over the nation.”

The Loft is aimed at downtown professionals, or “active businessmen and businesswomen,” offering them a private space for social or business functions with high-speed Internet; ornate furniture; climate-controlled coolers for each member to store food and beverages; a wine room and an elegant wooden bar. The wine services are ran by the Loft Wine Merchant, a separate business within the Loft. Wold said members can use the space to hang out before dinner, drop by to get a few things done during the day or to just get together and have a drink.

“One of the core objectives in doing the Loft was to create a space for both business and socialization,” Wold said, “from a standpoint that it’s your office away from the office and your home away from home. During the day you can conduct business; at night you can socialize.”

On top of the five Lofts currently in the making, Wold said he’s also looking at other locations, including Canadian towns like Fernie and Lethbridge. Describing the club as similar to “a country club without the golf,” Wold pointed out that prestigious country clubs tend to have much higher membership fees. At the Loft, members pay an initiation fee of $2,500 and a monthly membership fee of $175. The “gate-keeping” fee, Wold said, doesn’t limit memberships strictly to the wealthy, but it also deters groups like college kids seeking a party scene.

“It’s not an elitist exclusive club,” he said.

The initiation fees are based on 85 percent equity, which means, Wold said, if the initiation fee grows to $5,000 in a few years and a member opts out of the club at that time, that member will receive 85 percent returns on $5,000. Members actually make money this way.

The Loft has 100 members and a waiting list. Wold said he limited membership to 100 because he didn’t want to become the packed bar that he was “trying to escape” in the first place. While the Loft may not be a packed bar, it does get its share of wine and beer drinkers, thanks to the Loft Wine Merchant, which started up in the spring. The Merchant, while it has a separate owner, shares the same space as the Loft and is closely connected to the club – it was originally started as a service for club members. Like the Loft itself, it evolved into something bigger.

Greg Burger, who co-owns the Merchant with his wife, said his customers are a combination of both club members and wine enthusiasts from the public. The Merchant is open to the public from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and until 10 p.m. on Friday. It also holds frequent public wine tastings and art shows, Burger said. Loft members, however, have keys and can utilize the Merchant’s wine room and space during after hours. Burger, a trained sommelier who recently unveiled his own pinot noir, said bottles at the Merchant range from $8 to $800. Customers hand select the bottles of their choice in the wine room, or choose from a list of 10 house wines by the glass or a selection of 15 beers at the bar.

“We don’t have a wine list,” Burger said. “We have a wine room.”

Burger focuses on unique and often rare vintage wines. From his own Erratic Rock pinot noirs to the celebrated 1950s Rothschild Bordeauxs, the climate-controlled wine room – which is always 55 degrees – holds a variety of treasures for the wine enthusiast. Burger and Wold said it is the only place in the Flathead Valley where a person can buy and taste wine on site.

Wold selected Bend, Ore., Walla Walla, Wash., Bozeman, Missoula and Portland, Ore., as the next Loft sites from a pool of more than 30 potential locations. After conducting a selection process of more than a year, Wold said he based his decisions on two main criteria. One is an eager and substantial enough downtown professional demographic. Two is a manager who Wold trusts. He knows all of the chosen managers personally. They range from an investment banker to a Realtor to an ex-NFL quarterback – Drew Bledsoe will manage the Loft in Bend. Members are given swipe cards that allow them to enter any of the Lofts.

Wold said one pleasant surprise of the Loft has been the way it encourages business networking: Get a group of like-minded businesspeople together in the same room, and deals are bound to be struck. Membership fees, Wold noted, are cheaper than most forms of advertising, which fulfills a similar, if not less effective, role as one-on-one networking.

The separate ownership of the Loft and Merchant works out nicely, Wold said, as Burger handles the wine business itself and Wold gladly participates in the business of wine tasting.

“He’s a sommelier,” Wold said. “I just like wine.”