Phoebe Fung

Canadian trailblazer: Phoebe Fung, Vin Room

By Sean Moon

She calls herself an “accidental restaurateur,” but Phoebe Fung’s business acumen comes from anything but chance.

Born in Fort McMurray, Alberta (Fung has lived in Calgary for the better part of 25 years), the graduate of the University of Alberta and Queen’s University spent over a decade successfully carving out a career in the oil and gas sector before changing her focus to fine food and wine. While on sabbatical from her job in the energy sector, Fung decided to turn her passion for culinary arts into a business.

“My formal education (Bachelor of Commerce and MBA) afforded me the opportunity to work and grow in a large corporation and get first-hand experience in systems, processes, culture and management,” says Fung. “These skills were invaluable in starting my own business and helping me through the hurdles of growing my business.”

Following a passion for wine

Fung’s initial foray into the foodservice world began in 2008, when she founded Vin Room’s first location in the Mission district of Calgary. Having travelled the world — visiting many a wine cellar along the way — Fung has a clear passion for wine and she longed for a local refuge to sample world-class grapes by the glass.

“My brother and I were in a little wine bar in Houston, and we loved the idea that we could share small plates and find new wines to explore,” recalls Fung. “After a bottle of wine, we were going to open up a wine bar in Calgary and five months later, Vin Room Mission was open. We really liked the concept of exploring, so we offered all of our wines by the 2-oz taste so you didn’t have to commit to a glass or a bottle. Vin Room Mission opened with an offering of 64 wines by the taste, which has now grown to over 100 wines by the taste.”

For Fung, food and drink are about relationships and people. Through every sip and sup she hopes the heart she has put into Vin Room comes across to each guest she welcomes.

“There is nothing more rewarding than spending time on the floor visiting with my guests,” says Fung. “To see familiar faces, enjoying their time over a glass of wine or a small bite, is like seeing old friends visit. For me, the vibe and energy of the laughter is like no other.”

Encouraging innovation

Fung believes that Vin Room’s staff is their greatest asset and encourages her team of local chefs, sommeliers and servers to innovate, experiment and try new approaches while creating personal connections and relationships with patrons. She believes in hiring passionate, innovative culinary pros and allows them to bring their wisdom to the table (metaphorically and literally).

“Hire for attitude and train for everything else,” Fung explains. “Find individuals who share the same values as you and who are willing to challenge you. You’re in the business of people and your team has to share the same values as you and have a little fun in their job while they’re doing it. Sometimes, we entrepreneurs take ourselves a little too seriously and forget the whole reason we built a business was to follow our passion.”

Fung has built Vin Room into a business that spans multiple locations across Calgary and has plans to bring Canada’s largest wine bar to locations across the nation (and possibly the globe) in years to come.

“The opening of our Vin Room YYC Airport location was largely rewarding to me in two aspects: I opened it with a core group of managers who have been with me since the beginning of Vin Room and to see them develop to opening a new restaurant together was a proud moment for me. Secondly, to be one of the few independent restaurants in a major Canadian airport was personally fulfilling.

“Through careful blending of food, wine, and ambiance, we pride ourselves on a passion for guiding wine enthusiasts and culinary connoisseurs towards the perfect dining experience,” says Fung. “I like locally and regionally sourced ingredients and I’m always interested in infusing global flavors that reflect the unique culinary areas of the world.”

Vin Room in the community

There’s no doubt Vin Room’s success is due to a vision set by Fung, but a passion for animals fuels Vin Room’s commitment to the community. Vin Room’s charity of choice, the Calgary Humane Society, is top of mind, from an annual Pups-and-Pinot calendar featuring pets belonging to Vin Room staffers and long-time patrons to flipping flapjacks on Stampede parade day. Funds raised are allocated to four-legged friends.

In June 2017, Vin Room announced patios at their two SW Calgary locations would welcome dogs and their owners (now seven days a week), all summer long. Fung was inspired to approach the City of Calgary for permits after visits to cities across North America with Dom, her six-year-old Pomeranian, in tow. It was clear dog-friendly dining establishments are on the rise.

“Cities like Portland, Seattle and San Francisco have amazing culinary scenes that welcome dogs to be part of their social landscape.” says Fung. “Drinking and dining al fresco as a whole family, including Dom – is really special. It’s been a joy for me to find a way to make that after-work cocktail or dinner out on the town completely guilt-free by allowing our valued guests to bring their fur-babies along.”

Sean Moon is the managing editor of Canadian Restaurant & Foodservice News.