Water Side Wine Bar owner shares his journey to owning a business in the midst of a pandemic


Before Covid hit, Don Miller and his wife, JoEllen bought the Water Side Wine Bar from Phelps, but since Covid’s restrictions ended with a few bumps in the road, their business is thriving more than ever.

Miller and his wife are from Palmyra; Miller is the former Director of Facilities for the Midlakes School District. After searching for homes, they were able to find one they liked and moved to Phelps. He is the current Director of Facilities for the Palmyra Macedon School District. He also officiates in children’s basketball, is involved in other sports for the school district and was recently elected to the Midlakes School District School Board.

“My wife, JoEllen, always wanted a different sort of business, our own business, whether it was dog grooming or a kennel,” Miller said. “So we came to the wine bar one evening for dinner and found it to be a really nice place. I worked with the family of the previous owners and mentioned if they were looking to sell to let me know and then a few months later he texted me. Now here we are, everything has gone well even though we have never run a restaurant or anything before.

Indoor dining room next to the bar. Credit: Samantha Goodman, FL1 News.

When Covid hit and restrictions were put in place, the Millers began using the outdoor space behind the wine bar. Outside, they’ve set up a stage for live music, a seasonal pizza oven, and several tables overlooking the waterfalls and stream in downtown Phelps. By opening this space, they were able to better accommodate people during the summer of 2020.

Outdoor seating area and stage. Credit: Samantha Goodman, FL1 News.
Outdoor patio overlooking the creek and downtown Phelps. Credit: Samantha Goodman, FL1 News.

“When the Covid restrictions were lifted last year, we were excited,” Miller said. “We have recovered a bit since our beginnings and have gained a lot of customers. The first year we had no idea what we were doing, never ran a restaurant and made tons of mistakes. Just as we started to gather, Covid struck. During Covid we were able to go out and pay our bills and then when he slacked off again we were busier last summer than the previous summer so we were able to straighten the ship out a bit of not knowing what that we were doing to get a pretty good understanding of things.

A view of the top of the falls from the patio seating area. Credit: Samantha Goodman, FL1 News.

The Millers made a few changes in 2020, including moving to a waitress system, something they plan to keep, instead of letting customers order food directly from the bar. After successfully going through their first year as a business owner, followed by a global pandemic, devastating news struck on Christmas Day.

The wine bar was closed for the holidays and on the night of Christmas Eve 2020, part of the property’s building collapsed into the cove below.

“My wife and I stopped by Crafty Al, stopped here to check things out, and then went to a few other establishments,” Miller explained. “It was raining just that night. At 7:30 a.m., I received a text from a customer saying the wall had collapsed. I didn’t say anything to JoEllen, I didn’t mean to upset her. I went downstairs and she asked me why I was leaving, because it was Christmas, so I told her I just had to check something.

“Fortunately, there are silver linings throughout,” Miller said. ” Fortunately, nobody was hurt. It couldn’t have happened at a better time of the year. Usually January is slow because people just spent money on Christmas so generally in this industry it’s slow. The build is usually slow so they were able to throw some guys into it and fix it. “

Miller explained how the community came together and he was able to learn more about the history of the building.

“People would stop and hand us money, it was very heartwarming,” he said. “I learned that there was a waterwheel in the basement and that it was a flour mill. I couldn’t be more grateful to the owner of the building, he knew about everything two days later. Halco was there when I called, FLX Home Solutions, everyone. Everyone came to help us and made us reopen quickly.

The area where the wall fell into the newly remodeled sunken creek overlooking the waterfalls and downtown Phelps. Credit: Samantha Goodman, FL1 News.

Miller explained that when the damage initially occurred, he was ready to pack their inventory and reopen in Palmyra. He thought of the worst at first before everyone got together and it only took about three months to fix the building and reopen.

“I think we received and gave more hugs than when we first reopened, these people were grateful that we were open again and survived,” he said.

One thing the Water Side Wine Bar prides itself on is giving children with special needs the opportunity to work as a dishwasher to both gain experience and a chance to earn money. Miller’s ties to the school district helped him do this.

“It’s really gratifying to see them come out of their shells and work, to make them feel like there are jobs out there,” he said. “Some things are more important than making money. Sometimes if you can make an impact on someone’s life, it’s more rewarding than the financial part of the business.

He also said that despite someone’s past he is ready to give anyone a chance at work.

“I don’t judge people for their past,” Miller said. “If I hire someone, I don’t want to know their past, I start with a clean slate from the start and then we go from there. No one has a perfect past and everyone is entitled to a clean slate.

Miller expressed how close and supportive he is to other local business owners in the Town of Phelps, and explained that it was not a competition; he wants to see everyone succeed.

The Water Side Wine Bar is located at 125 Main St. in Phelps and is open Tuesday through Thursday from 5:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 5:00 p.m. to 12:00 a.m. They are closed on Sunday and Monday.

Seating is available at the bar, inside and outside in the garden or on the terrace overlooking the falls with beautiful lighting.

Outdoor terrace. Credit: Samantha Goodman, FL1 News.

The menu offers a selection of different foods, from poutine and pulled pork to roast dinners. They also have a seasonal outdoor pizza oven and a great selection of sauces and toppings for custom pizzas.

They currently take reservations by text message and have outdoor concerts on weekends. You can find more information on their Facebook page.

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