In the back corner of popular Jon and Vinny’s in Los Angeles is a neon sign that reads, helen’s; everyone here is on a first-name basis. Which is exactly how Helen Johannesen, partner in the restaurant and founder of helen's wine shop, likes it. When she invites you in the back for a glass you wonder if you need to sit down for dinner at all. (You will, but she’s just that charismatic and knowledgeable about wine.)
Helen has been steadily working in the restaurant business since graduating from college. Eight years ago she began working with Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo at animal in Los Angeles where she had the opportunity to build the wine program. A role she says really “sparked a curiosity about food and wine pairing.” She became their Director of Operations and Beverage Director for several years until the three partnered up on Jon & Vinny’s and helen’s.
She spend most of her time at the shop helen’s on Fairfax (down the street from Melody Ehsani), but also runs the beverage programs for all six other restaurants. It’s a massive undertaking and she recalls a moment last year when she “felt more underwater than I had ever felt before.”
“I was never going to walk away,” she says, “but sometimes if you can’t pursue your real passion and are bogged down by too much bullshit, it feels defeating.”
She admits that the industry can be incredibly challenging and “can really take you down if you let it,” but ultimately believes: “I love what I do, and every day is a new day, so any frustrations can be laid to rest and I can move forward. Passion is the best motivator.”
She jubilates that there are “SO MANY THINGS,” on her career bucket list, but says, “I would hesitate to say them out loud.” She will however cop to wanting to open a second location for Jon & Vinny’s and helen’s this year. For now the busy wine boss feels satisfied and grateful having “prioritized my wants, needs, and dreams more than any other time in my life.”
When she needs a port in a storm (#winejoke) Helen looks to her business partners, whom she credits as being “influential and wonderful friends along this journey.” She also says she’s “always admired Carolyn Styne, who nine years ago was one of the only other female wine buyers for multiple units in this city.” While they are her day-to-day mentors, she’s likewise shouting out to “too many women across the industries to list, who speak their mind, work hard, believe they can have it all and don't second guess or apologize.”
Helen claims the most striking career difference between now and five years ago is that she come first. “I'm really betting on myself and my own business right now,” she says. Sharing that it's a move that “takes an extra amount of self-encouragement.”
Which is something she works to pass on to other women in the company. “Many of our top positions in the company are held by women and they were placed there because they are the best candidates for the job. We don't discriminate over here. I try and be a leader to those women.”
“Women,” says Helen, “have the power to be as badass as you wanna be.”
We’ll drink to that.