Chris Nemeth knows how to make money. His comfortable home on North Kenilworth Avenue in Oak Park testifies that as head of the mergers and acquisitions department of the Keystone Group in the Loop, he has done well for himself.
What excites him these days, however, is the attempt he and his wife, Tara, are making at House Red, their wine store in Forest Park. Beyond selling a few bottles, the duo is trying to create a community.
“To this day, we view House Red not as a wine business first and foremost,” Nemeth said. “The wine serves as a common denominator, a social lubricant, a commercial vehicle to acquire enough capital to further our social values.
“If you read Bill Gates, he’s decided that his foundation is not enough, that philanthropy and doing good for society needs to be an integral part of a company’s strategy and performance scorecard.”
House Red began as a dream of creating a space in which people could connect and create community. At one point they thought about buying a house in Michigan, Tara said, or maybe a loft in the city dedicated to performing and gathering. They decided a wine store might provide the financial basis for sustaining their dream of a place where people could connect.
Their friend and Chris’ colleague, Neb Mrvaljevic, an accomplished trombonist who had studied at the Moscow Conservatory, had acquired a great deal of knowledge about wine. It was a natural fit, and the three partners opened the doors of House Red in October 2006.
Tara and Chris regularly host a series of concerts, poetry readings and artistic exhibits.
“We have friends who are performers on some of the most prestigious stages in the world who want to do a dress rehearsal before their big performances,” Tara Nemeth said.
House Red provides them with an intimate venue – 10 to 30 people at the concerts. Performers run through their program a final time and experience the warmth and intimacy of an appreciative audience. The concerts are free, and House Red charges $10 for the wine tasting that accompanies the music.
Both performers and members of the audience feel the connections.
Mark Thompson, who teaches music in River Forest and is a regular at House Red concerts, raved about what happens there.
“I attend lots of concerts all around the Chicago area, and House Red is probably my favorite venue,” Thompson said. “Where else can you hear amazing music in such an intimate space while drinking good wine? The concerts are informal yet professional and always non-threatening. Needless to say, that doesn’t happen in Orchestra Hall.”
Tara, meanwhile, wanted to reconnect with the work she had been doing with special-needs students for 10 years in the River Forest school system. As a result, they are hiring an adult with cognitive disabilities to do some packing and cleaning.
House Red sees philanthropy as part of its mission. This year they will pick six charities to feature every two months. Their first charity was the local United Way. They put on a wine-and-cheese event for the organization as a fundraiser, featured the agency on their Web site, and gave a percentage of the profits from designated wines to United Way.
At this point the Nemeths are uncertain if House Red will make it as a business. Many small businesses don’t, and in this recession the challenge is even greater.
“We decided,” Chris said, “that whether House Red makes it or not, we need to leave some good in our wake. There needs to be some testament that we pursued this idea with everything we had. We’re going to try to do some good with this.”
The birth of their daughter three years ago reinforced and “magnified” the importance of what the owners of House Red are trying to do, they said.
“I don’t care if she ever understands the work I do with mergers and acquisitions,” Chris said. “Two things I care about are that she becomes a compassionate person with a sense of responsibility for what is happening in the world, and to be on fire for life. We want to be living examples of what it means to be alive and creative and passionate.”