Dana Frank

Bar Norman is a dual personal triumph for Dana Frank. For the first time, she gets to work for herself without being the centerpiece.

By Frayn Masters | 10/15/2021

Bar Norman owner Dana Frank and I sip on Topo Chicos in their pandemic built parking strip pergola while silvery disco fringe flutters above our heads. The fringe is a nod to the atmosphere she dreamed up for the bar: unfussy with a sparkly sense of humor – like her. The idea was simply that good tasting wine ought to be fun and easygoing. Inside the cozy atmosphere, patrons are greeted by family photos, lush plants, mismatched chairs, and a giant wall of natural wines. As for the name, though she didn’t get into wine because of her Austi Spumante-drinking Grandpa Norman, she credits the perseverance she and her younger sister possess to him.

Bar Norman is a dual personal triumph for Dana. For the first time, she gets to work for herself without being the centerpiece. After running the wine program for notable restaurants like Ava Gene’s and Dame over the last fourteen years, she says she could no longer ignore the disconnect she felt working for others inside a fast pace, lack-of-meaningful-customer-contact world. She had notions of working for herself, but to actualize those notions was one helluva tummy rumbler thought. The kind that gets shoved down and denied.

Then one day it happened. The pressure building inside reached a volcanic point. Her ever-increasing-in-volume inner voice exploded. “Take your foot off the gas and listen, I will no longer be ignored,” the voice told her. It yearned for her to do something about its needling ruminations, it went on to say, “is this how I want to do hospitality? Is this the best use of my skills? There must be a way,” her voice insisted, “to connect more deeply to this line of work, most especially to people, in a smaller more focused space.…” But, opening her own place? As a person who says she is pretty risk averse, it’s not surprising that a comfort-seeking inner voice shouted back, EEEEEEK, NOOOO!!!

Owner and sommelier Dana Frank laughing and lounging in Bar Norman. Shop Dana’s look.

Eventually, the fear voice lost the battle. It was time for a do-over, one that would create a life reflecting the thing that has the most meaning to Dana, “and that’s family.”

Dana’s reluctant road to entrepreneurship was squiggly-shaped. The path from the unsatisfying familiar to the scary unknown takes a full-bodied support system. Dana counts herself lucky that she had both a wonderful example in and unwavering belief from her entrepreneur husband, Scott Frank, owner of Bow & Arrow winery. But she knew that to really get her to where she wanted to go, some deep work on herself was required.

Like most of us, the first place to look when working through an issue is to reckon with the past. Her parents were entrepreneurs with mixed results.

When Dana was about to enter junior high, she and her family left their home in California. Her parents were ready to create a new life. Their goal was to trade in the rat race for more snow skiing. Her dad left his CFO job at a television station and her homemaker mom was eager to pursue her own business. They settled in Bend where her dad put out his shingle as a small business and financial consulting expert, and her mom whipped cluttered homes into super organized spaces—her business eventually morphing into event planning. Dana says she is more similar to her mom, who enjoyed putting everything in its place and having a vision for how something should eventually look, versus her dad, who was more about numbers.

Family portraits grace the wall at Bar Norman. On the right are photographs of Norman, Dana's grandfather and namesake for the bar. Shop Dana’s look.

Her childhood was a happy one. She says her people skills bloomed at a young age, “I was precocious, never shy, I’ve never been nervous to do things publicly and have always had an outgoing personality.”

Sparkler glow illuminated her face when she spoke about what a positive, funny, and enthusiastic person her father is. Growing up, he would crack her and her friends up. He was passionate about his business and believed in people, but even with that faith, some of his businesses didn’t succeed. Watching those ebbs and flows of business were hard. Taking in a breath, she pauses, breathes out, does a half raspberry with her lips, and laughs, “Now that I look back on it, [the ups and downs] is just small business. That's the story of small business.”

Like her parents, she heard the call for a life shift. Being great at taking care of other people’s needs is an asset in the world of hospitality, but she sought balance through putting her family first, and, for her, the very new and difficult thing of also putting herself first. She just couldn’t keep doing things simply because people expected them of her. With relentless encouragement from her husband Scott—who saw her and what she was capable of doing—she was able to break through the final hurdle of that fear-based story from the past. She moved forward even though, she says, “I'm still very riddled by financial anxiety. I can honestly say that one of the biggest stressors in my life is finances.” She found her way to making the decision she needed to go out on her own. She says she “still feels the emotional heft and has deep compassion for the people that got caught in the wake. When you change, there is the very human inevitability that you will disappoint people, and that is painful.” But, then came the day when she popped up on the other side and could finally say, OH MY GOD, I can breathe again.” It took a lot to get to that moment.

Dana enjoys a glass pour of natural wine. Shop Dana’s look.

And that moment led to Dana at long last following her intuition and managing in a new way. She has a tenderness for people who are servers—particularly after years of doing it herself. She wanted to prioritize dignity and respect for the role and wove that into her management style. “I think seeing what a team can do together is pretty magical.” Instead of her dropping in mandates from above, Dana’s staff meets regularly and has a direct influence over decisions and daily operations. Everything is transparent, from input to changes in their own work, to the customer experience, to all the business financials. Alongside her ownership duties, Dana continues to work the floor multiple shifts a week, putting her in the position to stay in touch with all aspects of her business. But staying in touch doesn’t mean helicoptering, “I don't have to be watching everything. And it's nice to feel trust. There's a real trust here, a real trust.”

“I think seeing what a team can do together is pretty magical... I don't have to be watching everything. And it's nice to feel trust. There's a real trust here, a real trust.”

In mid-2019 Bar Norman established a constant pricing model—every glass of wine is twelve dollars. A half glass is $6, and from there drinkers can create three, five, or six half-glass flights. This standardized pricing was developed in response to those regular meetings with her staff. They found that people were sometimes not ordering what they really wanted due to price. Haven’t a lot of us been there? Removing this barrier creates space for two things: the server doesn’t constantly have to recall which wine is what price, and the customer can simply order what they want, not what they feel they can afford.

On that note, Dana is adamant that no one continue drinking a glass that is not giving them the sensory experience they are seeking. “Why would you drink something you're not enjoying? Don’t feel bad sending it back, we don't feel bad,” she says. “We all work so hard for every little bit of money we have.”

Dana's thoughtful and expansive selection of natural wine. Not sure what to try? The Bar Norman team is there to help! Shop Dana’s look.

Dana’s journey shaped an approach that vanquishes the exclusivity spectre that haunts the wine trade, creating a super fun bar to walk into that delights customers, staff, and herself. Bar Norman exists to include everyone, from schooled wine lovers to those “wine shy” folks who feel like stepping foot inside a wine bar might be a grape-y shame-y experience. Visions of ascotted froufrou heads on yachts with their cork-sniffing swirling label language can make people feel like they need to live up to an elusive experience, rather than an inclusive one. That said, the staff and Dana can nerd down with the best of them on wine talk. Or book talk, or music talk, if that’s a particular customer’s thing. Intimacy is built on a case by case basis. If it’s clear a couple of folks are there for a hot date, or to have a moment of peace, then the Norman staff will quietly back away from the table. Bar Norman meets you and your story wherever you are.

PRODUCED BY FRAYN MASTERS

PHOTOS BY AARON LEE

Bar Norman is now pouring wine on their patio, just a few miles from the Betsy & Iya flagship. In addition to glass pours and bottles for purchase, they host inclusive seminars and social meet ups for wine enthusiasts.

BAR NORMAN / 2615 SE CLINTON ST. / PORTLAND, OR 97202

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