CALISTOGA — People turning 21 often go to a bar to celebrate, but when Carl Dene turned 21, he brought together a group of investors to purchase his own bar. Since then, his entrepreneurial spirit has led him on a path from New York to California and has included owning and operating multiple restaurants, a successful design and marketing firm, and now a small hotel and coffeehouse in Calistoga.
Dene and his wife, Heather, who recently moved to the Napa Valley from Long Beach, are fast becoming some of the valley’s most prolific business owners. They have transformed Calistoga’s Brannan Cottage Inn from a cozy but sleepy bed-and-breakfast into what is now a super-hip destination that includes a popular coffeehouse called Sam’s General Store.
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“We fell in love with the valley years ago,” Dene said. “For our family, it is perfect. We love the pace and that the culture is centered around excellent food and wine. There is also a real sense of collaboration in this community.”
Along with their two teenage boys, the Denes are involved in a dizzying array of activities in the valley. Heather is a real estate agent with Compass in St. Helena; along with a business partner they have purchased Hotel d’Amici and also the Lawer Estates tasting room; they have begun making their own wine; and if that’s not enough, they are still on the hunt for other opportunities.
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Dene recently took a break on a brisk spring evening at the couple’s Calistoga hotel and eatery to talk about the family’s entrepreneurial endeavors. Although the coffee shop was closed for the day, a steady stream of potential customers approached, disappointed upon learning they’d missed the opportunity to visit.
“We saw some amazing posts on Instagram and read the great reviews,” one woman explained when asked how she’d learned about the place, adding with a smile that this was her and her family’s first trip to the valley.
Each time one of these groups left earshot, Dene said remorsefully, “I feel so bad about that. It’s just impossible to stay open any longer than we do because staffing is such a challenge these days.”
Sunday dinners and the Wild West
Dene, a fifth-generation New Yorker, was born in Brooklyn and grew up on Staten Island.
“Every Sunday my dad would cook a feast for the whole family,” he said. “I rolled out the pasta and he’d cook. It was our thing.”
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After high school, unsure exactly what his path might be — “maybe business or real estate” — Dene started, stopped and transferred between “five to six” colleges before ending up in Tucson, Arizona. There he entered college, only to pause his education again to purchase a rundown bar that had a lot of “potential.”
“My friends and I pooled our money together,” he said, “but it wasn’t even close to what the owner originally wanted.”
Unbeknownst to the young cohort, the bar’s owner had defaulted on his loan, so through a convolution of events, Dene and his friends found themselves the proud owners of a seedy bar that included DJ-run parties on weekends. It felt as though they’d entered the Wild West, with bar fights and the need to navigate a good-old-boy network that viewed the New Yorker with a mixture of skepticism and disdain. Eventually the challenges of remaining open became too great, and they were forced to sell the bar at a loss.
“Failure is often the best lesson because you never want to feel that feeling again,” Dene said. “But what we did learn was that we were pretty good at promoting parties that included live DJs.”
Dene had an idea that they could jettison the need for their own brick-and-mortar location and instead focus solely on promoting nightly DJ events at bars throughout the region. They called their new business Cool-Mix Productions (CMP).
It was the 1990s, and CMP took off, quickly expanding to other cities and bringing in yearly increases in revenue. But by 28, although everything was going well by most measures, Dene had had enough. He longed for something more.
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“It was great money and fun,” he said, “but when I turned 28, I had this epiphany that it was not supposed to be my life. I wanted to go back to school to study art, history and design and eventually have a family.”
Now Dene was motivated, and he quickly earned a degree in marketing and design. Toward the end of his student tenure, he was brought on for a pro bono job with the Salvation Army. As with many stories in Dene’s life, that evolved into a new business, this one a marketing and design company he called Vision Design Studios (VDS), which still exists today. At one point VDS grew to $13 million in annual revenue, was staffed by more than 60 employees and was housed in a stylish warehouse complex in Long Beach, California.
“Part of it (a successful life) is that you just need to put it out there and be optimistic and opportunistic as you go,” he said.
By the time Dene met and married Heather, his mother and father had emigrated from New York and moved to Long Beach. Once again the family met for Sunday meals that were full of fresh-made pasta and savory Italian dishes.
“We’d have people over, and they all just couldn’t believe how good the food was,” Dene said.
One can almost predict what happened next. Michael, Dene’s father and cut from the same cloth as his son, had recently retired. So, of course a new restaurant was born — a high-end Italian eatery called “Michael’s on Naples” that was to be owned and operated by Dene’s father.
“My mother suggested that mixing family with business was better avoided,” he said, and then laughed. “But eventually I got more involved as we expanded.”
The restaurant became wildly popular, getting rave reviews from the Yelp of the day, Zagat. Eventually the original concept morphed and grew to include more than a half-dozen Napoleon-inspired pizzerias throughout Southern California and a casual eatery called Working Class Kitchen in Long Beach.
By then — the early 2010s — the Denes had two children, a growing marketing and design company, were involved with numerous restaurants, and Heather was on the path to becoming a successful real estate agent.
It was about that time that memories of an earlier visit to the Napa Valley began to gnaw at Dene. In 2005, the couple had come to the valley — sipping wine and eating well-prepared food as they explored the bucolic back roads and savored the less-frenetic pace.
“Even on that first trip, I just knew that someday we’d live here,” Dene said.
By 2015 the couple had purchased a second home in St. Helena and were on the lookout for a new space to explore an idea that Dene was noodling — a stylish boutique inn that might include a coffeehouse.
Then in 2018, Napa Valley hotelier Amar Patel made the unexpected decision to sell his family’s Brannan Cottage Inn property in Calistoga. Fast-forward a few years and add in Dene’s wealth of energy, experience and vision, and now what has emerged is one of the more popular destinations in a valley known for destinations.
A home for creative spirits
The Napa Valley’s immense beauty and the regulations that hinder unbridled corporate growth are reasons why many creative spirits have come here to live out their dreams. Some come from a world where money is king. Some come from a world where status is queen. But what most find — at least those who end up staying for a while — is that deep satisfaction comes through developing a real connection with nature and community.
“We have found our home here,” Dene said. “The kids’ schools are great, the community is awesome and just look around — it couldn’t be more beautiful.”
Sam’s General Store is located at 109 Wappo Ave. in Calistoga. For more information, visit: samsgeneral.store.
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