In How I Got My Job, folks from across the food and restaurant industry answer Eater’s questions about, well, how they got their job. Today’s installment: Miles White and Femi Oyediran.
It didn’t take long for Graft Wine Shop to become an essential element of Charleston’s drinking and dining scene. After opening in early 2018, Graft — also part wine bar — quickly gained a reputation as an approachable place to discover interesting bottles. It helps that Graft has curated a perfect soundtrack (Think: Prince, Fela Kuti, and James Brown) and welcomes guest chefs in for hip pop-up events. But, most importantly, owners Miles White and Femi Oyediran clearly have a gift for making wine relatable. Eater Charleston named it the 2018 Bar of the Year, marveling at how White and Oyediran “took the stuffiness out of wine.”
How did this duo make it all happen? In the following interview, the partners — who met years ago working at local fine dining institution, Charleston Grill — share how they each found their way to wine and why they joined forces to realize their vision for a new and totally unconventional kind of wine shop.
Eater: What does your job involve?
Miles White: My job entails all of the fun stuff: bookkeeping, finance, scheduling, inventory management, payroll, etc. Other than that, I sometimes get to be a bartender and pour wine. Femi and I still make a big point to try and select all of our wines together, as this has always been a duo kind of thing.
Femi Oyediran: Outside of collaborating with Miles on wines for the shop and pouring wine all the time, I handle all the other stuff: staff education, wine classes, events, tastings, etc. I also manage all of our print, marketing, and social media.
What did you originally want to do when you started your career?
MW: I’d thought since I was about 14 or 15 that I wanted to work in hotels or resorts. I was really lucky to travel and see a lot of cool places. The movie Dunston Checks In had a bigger impact than I would like to admit, because for the longest time I thought general managers of hotels got to live in the penthouse. I got into my dream school — the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University — and realized that maybe that corporate job at Marriott wasn’t quite for me.
FO: I didn’t really have an endgame when I started. I just knew I liked wine. I was more excited about getting a new hobby to nerd out on outside of music. I don’t think I really ever knew what I was going to do or wanted to do, I just knew I wanted to taste a lot of wine and get better at talking to people about it.
Did you go to culinary school or college? If so, would you recommend it?
MW: I did — I attended the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in Napa after graduating with a bachelor’s degree from the College of Charleston in hospitality management. The program at the CIA was a yearlong program that fast-tracked you into the sommelier certification process. I’ve always been one of those people that thinks hands-on experience is more valuable than schooling; but I cannot deny that not only was it one of the most memorable times of my life, but also the amount that I was able to learn in such a short period of time was incredible. My teachers were nothing short of amazing and influenced me in so many ways.
FO: I briefly attended the College of Charleston, but had to step away due to some family-related circumstances. I left Charleston for a year, came back, and started working, thinking I’d go back to school immediately. I started working in restaurants when my music gigs at the time weren’t paying the bills as much as I would have liked. I was lucky enough to meet my mentor, [sommelier] Rick Rubel, when I got hired at Charleston Grill. That was where my schooling began.
What was your first job? What did it involve?
MW: My first paycheck [and] tax-paying job was making biscuits for my sister. She and my mother were starting up Callie’s Charleston Biscuits and they needed as much cheap labor as they could get. I was also the first employee she fired.
I’d say my first real job, though, was running food at the Charleston Grill in the Charleston Place Hotel, where Femi and I met. It was pretty simple: run food to stations, wait for servers to pick it up, go back to the kitchen, get yelled at for something I didn’t do, sneak some room service cookies, rinse, and repeat. As far as restaurant jobs go, it was pretty easy and the cash usually covered my bar tab.
FO: I worked at a Circuit City in Tysons Corner, Virginia when I was in high school. It was a cool first gig because I was a total nerd at the time and loved being surrounded by new electronics. It was a fun gig for a teenager, and I feel like the experience taught me a lot at the time on how to deal with people.
How did you get into the industry?
MW: Amazingly, this is all I have ever done. I did data input at a law firm one summer and noped out of that pretty immediately.
FO: I applied for a job at Charleston Grill when I was 20, because it was the place where this legendary local musician, Quentin Baxter, played. All my friends in the music program at the college revered him, so I knew it had to be a serious place to work if he was hanging there. I got hired as a server assistant and met Miles. I learned everything I know about hospitality and wine through that restaurant.
What was the biggest challenge you faced when you were starting out in the industry?
MW: It’s difficult to see a stable end when you’re starting in this industry. I tend to put too much pressure on myself with what the future holds, and while the cash is great when you’re young, my mind would often wander toward what was next. I feel like this industry doesn’t have the best reputation toward treatment of management, so there were times I would ask myself, “If I’m not going to manage, what’s the plan?”
FO: Having perspective. There wasn’t really a lot of opportunity for wine professionals (and there still isn’t) in Charleston, so it was really hard to see where everything was headed and if there was really space for me to continue to grow a career based on wine service in this city.
When was the first time you felt successful?
MW: It’s a toss-up. My mother has always been my biggest supporter in this industry and to see her get excited about every little thing makes me feel successful. But more specifically? When [winemaker] Maggie Harrison at Antica Terra [in Oregon] asked me to come back to work for her the following vintage, that was pretty humbling.
FO: When I passed my Certified Sommelier exam in 2013. I got the highest score that day. There weren’t a lot of us doing that program in Charleston then, so my small circle of buddies were all super proud of ourselves when we hit that landmark.
Did you have any setbacks?
MW: Where do I start? I have had some not-so-great anxiety issues with my path in this industry. My brother is a doctor and my father is an attorney, so me bouncing around the world making wine and working in restaurants weighed heavily at times. The direction was so unclear, I often second-guessed myself. I remember sitting on King Street in Charleston at the age of 27 crying my eyes out to my dad about how I should just apply to law school and get out. He quickly helped me realize that that wasn’t the answer.
FO: I had a lot of things that happened internally with my family that sort of threw my life into flux when I was in my late-teens. I arrived to Charleston when I was 18 with the understanding that I was “on my own.” It was certainly a setback at the time, but ultimately knowing that I don’t have a cushion to fall back on has shaped my mindset on building goals, getting work done, and not settling for less.
What was the turning point that led to where you are now?
MW: Realizing that Femi and I had a weirdly similar vision in a place that I adore. I basically had no idea where I was going or what I was going to do after I left [an internship at the Antica Terra winery in] Oregon and made a pit stop back in Charleston. It was like a lightbulb went off.
FO: I had reached a point of frustration in Charleston, both as a wine professional and as just a general fan of wine. I think when I mapped out all the issues I had with the local culture at the time along with Miles, we realized that there was an opportunity for us to air out our grievances by making something we thought was cool and represented the ideas we had.
What skills did you need to get to where you are now?
MW: I’m not good at very much and just average at a lot of things, but I do believe that I am very good with people, as I genuinely care about people — probably too much at my own expense, but that’s the job isn’t it? There are a billion ways to make someone happy. I like to try to find as many as I can. I like to think that people enjoy being around me, especially at Graft. I’m getting better at the administrative stuff day by day.
FO: I think being able to devote more of my time to talking to people specifically about wine has given me many opportunities to get better — better at helping them communicate what they are looking for and better at being the sommelier they need. It’s become easier to recognize the experience people want from us just by talking to them.
Do you have, or did you ever have, a mentor in your field? How has that made a difference?
MW: I’ve been lucky enough to have a few incredible people take me under their wings for as long as they could stand me. My first and forever is my mother, who is probably the sole reason I am in this industry. She forced me into the kitchen at a young age and has always taught me the value of authenticity and pride. A few others: Maggie Harrison from Antica Terra is firmly at No. 2 — she is the reason I still work in wine and has changed the entire way I approach wine and a lot of personal aspects of my life. My sister and her incredible business has always been a guiding light. My teachers at CIA (Christie Dufault and Bob Bath), Rick Rubel at Charleston Grill, god bless him, for dealing with me during the training wheel phases of my career. The list goes on.
FO: I’ve had some phenomenal mentors. Rick Rubel, Mickey Bakst, and Michelle Weaver at Charleston Grill were an incredibly supportive team to work under for such a long time. I really owe most of [my] development to my experience with them.
What’s your favorite part of your job?
MW: The fact that we have regulars. I’ve always worked in restaurants and dealt with regulars every night of every shift, but owning your own business and seeing someone walk in the door with the sole intention of coming back to your place is one of the most rewarding feelings. Also I’ve fallen in love with making sure my staff is well taken care of. They are the life force of what we do and I put them above every other aspect of the business, including the customer.
FO: Meeting people and sharing great wine with them in a space that I love to be in every day.
What would surprise people about your job or what is something you didn’t know going into your job?
MW: This probably wouldn’t surprise most people who knew me well, but I had never managed a soul in my life nor had I ever touched Quickbooks or ran an inventory. It can be pretty overwhelming at times, but it’s not as scary as I thought it would be.
FO: We didn’t know what the hell we were going to do for food. We had so many ideas and had no clue how to shrink all the possibilities into a reality. I think when we first opened if you asked for food we just plated things and didn’t charge you. It really came together at the last minute, but we’ve had a fun time with it since.
How are you making change in your industry?
MW: I think aside from helping this seemingly nationwide push to change the perspective of wine in general, I think one of the things we’re most proud of is our approach to staff. I love our staff, and while our situation is pretty unique, I feel that most hospitality workers are left high and dry. We pay our staff an hourly wage that is much higher than most front of the house staff in town and offer health insurance to full-time employees. Shifts are reasonable and we work with everyone’s schedule. Like I said before, they come first.
FO: I think we’ve added to the conversation of how or where wine should be enjoyed, and how we choose to talk about wine with our peers and customers.
What would you have done differently in your career?
MW: I’ve had the phrase “timing is everything” drilled into my head since a very young age. I am a pretty firm believer. If we’re going with that, then I wouldn’t have changed a thing as it may not have gotten me to where I am today. If we’re being honest though, I wish I had tried to do this earlier. I just turned 30 but had been wanting to do my own thing since my mid-20s. From the age of 24 to 28, I didn’t really gain a ton of experience that would have helped me here, and I felt like I was too young to be asking to open my own business. In retrospect, I was not.
FO: Started earlier.
What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve been given?
MW: Take the leap.
FO: Bring a bottle of [Pierre] Paillard.
What advice would you give someone who wants your job?
MW: Be nice to people! For the love of god, hire a good accountant. Network! It is so beneficial and can help separate you from everyone else. Lastly, to reiterate, take the leap. If it’s a job you want in a place you’ve never been? Take it. If someone offers you a job you want that you don’t feel ready for? Take it. If you don’t, someone else will.
FO: Focus on being the best you.
Amy McKeever is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC.
Photo of Miles White and Femi Oyediran by Leslie Ryann McKellar.
Illustrations from the Noun Project: camera by Dhika Hernandita; covered dish by Made by Made; wine by Made by Made; lightbulb by Maxim Kulikov; hand writing by Pongsakorn.