A Biochemist's Journey to Opening a Restaurant and Wine Bar

The owner of Spain Wine Bar in Ocean City, Maryland chronicles his career change and shares the secrets to his success.

12 min read
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Turning Points is an interview series where we invite merchants to share a pivotal moment in the evolution of their business.

When Peter Elias was invited to the vacant event space at the top of Cambria Hotel Ocean City and asked what kind of restaurant he'd envision for it, the concept for Spain Wine Bar was born. But to bring this venture from vision to reality, Elias would need to leverage the professional network and business acumen he'd cultivated through his years of managing a variety of restaurants. Here, he tells his story of leaving behind a lucrative career in the pharmaceutical industry in order to open one of Maryland's most celebrated wine and tapas bars and launch his own hospitality company.

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Background | Balancing practicality with passion

My experience growing up is something a lot of first-generation Americans can probably relate to. My parents gave up their home and careers in Cairo, Egypt to move to Detroit, Michigan — all with the goal of making sure their children would have greater education and job prospects than they ever did. As the eldest of four siblings, I felt the weight of my family's expectations acutely, and I remember my parents telling me that I could be whatever I wanted — whether a lawyer, doctor, or engineer.

Except, I didn't want to be any of those things. As a kid, I was always in awe of the generosity and ingenuity my mom exhibited as she prepared our meals, and I admired how seriously she took the art of service — she turned the simple act of serving food into something deeply noble. And from early on, I knew I wanted to emulate her commitment to exceptional hospitality.

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Challenge | Answering the call of hospitality

Just as my parents hoped, my education led to plenty of job prospects, and I worked in the pharmaceutical industry for 11 years — but I can't say I was ever satisfied. And though I tried to find meaning in my work as a biochemist and geneticist specializing in diabetes and cardiovascular disease — both of which affected my father — it bothered me that the medical treatments my company developed were often inaccessible to the people who needed them most. 

I wanted to acquaint myself with the world of service and hospitality that reminded me so much of my mom, so I started spending my Friday and Saturday nights working at nightclubs and lounges in New York City. I didn't tell my parents that I was picking up an additional 20 hours of work on my weekends "off," and I didn't tell any of my new coworkers that I had a day job at a big pharmaceutical company.

I quickly reached a turning point when the owner of one of the venues noticed that I seemed more invested in his business than most of his employees. He took the time to sit down with me and ask what I was working toward — and when he heard my story and recognized the skills I could bring to his business, he promoted me to general manager. Three months later, I invested in the business myself, becoming a part-owner. From there, I brought in new initiatives and systems to better appeal to the venue's celebrity clientele while driving profitability.

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Approach | An opportunity for opening a restaurant

For more than 16 years, my career spanned numerous New York City venues and eventually took me to Washington, DC, where I served as general manager for Agora and Barcelona Wine Bar. I was thinking about purchasing one of the businesses I was working for, when I got a serendipitous call from a friend I hadn't heard from in years. She seemed to predict my entrepreneurial aspirations in the restaurant space, and wanted to introduce me to a potential investor.

This marked another turning point for me, because instead of buying someone else's business, I was in a position to potentially start my own. And this all came together when the investor brought me to Maryland to look at the brand-new Cambria Hotel Ocean City and give my perspective on how I'd run a restaurant on its top floor. As soon as I saw the indoor and outdoor dining spaces, I could picture Spain Wine Bar. Why Spain? There were three reasons:

  1. The venue had huge seating capacity but the kitchen was very limited in its square footage — and the best way to serve high-quality food to a lot of patrons is to focus on small plates. Spanish tapas was a perfect solution.

  2. Ocean City is a high-energy environment, especially in peak season, with boats and jet skis on the water and hundreds of people on the promenade. It suits a cuisine like tapas — sociable, shareable, and snackable.

  3. When I saw the west-facing waterfront views, I thought of the Mediterranean, and how people there love to just drink wine and watch the sunset. I thought it would be fantastic to bring that distinctly European tradition to this side of the Atlantic.

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Other details came to me — like how I'd do custom brickwork and century-old barn wood to simulate an old Spanish wine cellar, and integrate local art into the space to create character and inspire conversation. I knew that in order to make Spain Wine Bar a success, I'd need to confirm a couple of key chef partnerships and bring on culinary maestros I knew from previous jobs, each of whom was well-established and highly accomplished in their careers in NYC and DC.

Remarkably, all of the chefs I wanted to recruit said yes and agreed to relocate to Ocean City in order to help make Spain Wine Bar a reality. And somehow, I raised the startup capital I needed within a week. To be honest, it was overwhelming. I was humbled that all these amazing people, with amazing careers of their own, would get behind my idea. But it just goes to show what's possible when you build trust and confidence with your contacts over the years, and bring strong conviction to your work.

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Result | Acclaim, awards, and culinary creativity

Just as I was humbled by the support, so too was I humbled by the success of Spain Wine Bar. In its first year, it was named Best New Restaurant in Coastal Style Magazine. And it has continued to perform above my predictions — for example, we hit targets in our second year I didn't expect to achieve until year five. Looking at the numbers now, we're 25% over where we were at this time last year.

Diverse offerings 

Our menus are varied and versatile, and can change not only from one season to the next, but from week to week. 

Though our menus may change based on the availability of ingredients, as we source from local purveyors, farmers and fishermen, there are certain fan favorites that are always on offer — and these make popular takeout items. We partner exclusively with DoorDash for delivery, and they make it simple to add and remove items in the online menu depending on what's currently being served. Our DoorDash sales have increased 14% so far in 2024 compared to the same period in 2023.

Serving locals in the off-season

In a resort town like Ocean City, a lot of restaurants close their doors during the off-season, with owners heading down to destinations like Florida after Labor Day and not returning until popular end-of-winter festivities like Valentine's Day or even St. Patrick's Day. We don't do that. I think it's important to continue giving locals and visitors great dining options, just as it's important to provide consistent work for my team. And we've been profitable as a result.

Embracing change and continued growth

Today, my restaurant group Elias World Hospitality LLC allows me to bring bold new restaurant concepts to Ocean City. I'm thrilled to be opening a new Mediterranean and Middle Eastern restaurant this summer in Ocean Pines, which is only fifteen minutes away from Spain Wine Bar. And I have a French bistro in the works which will be located just a mile away, and is set to open in the winter.

Sometimes you have to pursue a project on the basis that you have a good feeling about it, and you have the support of good people, and you have faith it will work out. I'm so fortunate that Spain Wine Bar has been one of those projects — and I look forward to more in the future. 

Ready to write your own restaurant success story? Get started with our comprehensive restaurant business plan template, designed to guide new restaurateurs through the process of opening a thriving business.


Sara DeForest
Sara DeForest


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