It’s a Sunday, and the late afternoon sun slants between the buildings on Price Street in downtown Pismo Beach. Crowds are lining up outside Cracked Crab and Giuseppe’s as they wait for their tables to open.
I pause, considering adding my name to a reservation list. But I don’t want a big dinner. Maybe just a glass of wine to put a bow on a lovely spring day on the Central Coast.
And then I see it. A new sign on the little space that I swear a week before was Vino Versato, a decidedly girly wine bar that’d I’d enjoyed a few times.
Puffers of Pismo, the sign says. A cigar bar? Wait, this is California, so that can’t be it.
But the door is open, literally beckoning me inside. I see a few people inside, so I walk in.
“Welcome to Puffers of Pismo,” says a man wearing a beret and vest. “I’m Charlie Puffer.”
It Starts with Service
I enter the jewel box of a space, which has been transformed from bright pink to neutral tones, and flanked with church pews for seating and a few bistro tables. Just ahead is a couple sitting on stools at the counter that looks into the kitchen area.
“Pull up a chair and join us,” she says. Debbie and her husband are soon my friends.
Charlie comes over and shares what he’s pouring and what’s on his menu tonight — a homemade soup, a cheese plate, and a panini — and brings over a glass. And with that, I’m introduced to the welcoming, friendly, and service-based foundation that is Charlie Puffer and Puffers of Pismo.
Since that day in April 2016, Charlie Puffer has grown Puffers of Pismo into a destination known for its exceptional wine list (plus the culinary creations of Chef Andy and the range of live music). But the foundation of service is what turns customers into regulars.
“Before I moved to Los Angeles in the late 1990s, I worked for several years in fine dining and wine shops in New York, Chicago, and Florida,” he says. “The experiences helped define what I want to bring to every customer — service, recognition, gratitude, and a genuine feeling of being welcome.”
He adds, “If you’re in the hospitality industry and you’re not kind and respectful, you may make money, but you won’t be truly successful.”
Entering the Wine World
Charlie’s wine career actually started in the classroom teaching English. It is there he learned to listen, develop empathy, observe, ask questions, remember details, and provide information in a way that helped his students learn and grow.
His first experience in fine dining and service was at a bistro on the East Coast. From there, he made his way to Chicago in the mid 1980s, and landed a position as part-time bartender at a restaurant with a Wine Spectator-rated wine list.
“The bartender was amazing, and I learned so much from him,” he says. “After I started, he said ‘you have to taste everything here — wine, spirits, everything — so you can know it and share it with customers.’”
Charlie leveraged that experience to open the first Puffers in Southside Chicago.
“I opened Puffer’s Chicago in 1991, and then opened 34th Street Coffeehouse in 1995. The coffeehouse was just three doors south of the Puffer’s location, serving coffee, espresso, breakfast foods, and sandwiches,” he says. “We also did poetry, live music, and some theater.”
Coming to California
In 1999, Charlie moved to Los Angeles, got married, and started teaching English in the Watts neighborhood.
While teaching occupied his days, he got a job at a wine store to earn a little more money and continue learning even more about wine.
“I absorbed everything I could,” he says. “I went to all the tasting seminars with the vendors, listened, read, and talked with the customers.” Later, he had the opportunity to take the first Sommelier exam, further expanding his knowledge.
The store was selling millions of dollars of wine, and it wasn’t long before he had the opportunity to earn twice the income selling wine than he could earn from teaching.
He made the leap, and from that point, his focus was helping customers find wine they enjoyed. His ability to listen, recall customers’ tastes and spending levels, and provide recommendations combined with a high level of service made him the go-to resource that customers trusted — even more than his employer.
“I think they trusted my opinion because my motivation was for them to have a great experience at the store and enjoy the wine they took home.”
During his twelve years at the wine store, his marriage ended and he knew he wanted to move out of LA.
“I had done work on the Central Coast as a wine distributor and liked the area very much,” he says. “I decided to look into buying a business. My experience opening businesses in Chicago gave me the confidence I could do it.”
He didn’t know what his next business would look like, but he knew what it would feel like: people treated well, enjoying a great product and great service.
“The Vino Versato space opened up in downtown Pismo Beach,” he says. “I looked at it and took mental notes. Was it viable? What would make it better? What would retain and expand the local base?”
Building the Business
Like with any new business, the first year was rough. “But I kept showing up. Always being genuine. Always being respectful. Always providing service. And always being grateful.”
One of Charlie’s first goals was to build a more sophisticated wine list than the previous space had. Using his wine sales experience and Sommelier knowledge, he buys the best wine he can find with good value. Puffers of Pismo offers a strong local focus from wineries you may not be familiar with, as well as global wines that represent the best of their region or variety.
Forever a teacher, Charlie also helps customers by suggesting wines that he believes they will enjoy but not have tried before.
“I honor their tastes and preferences,” he says. “And within those, I encourage customers to be a little adventurous, to try other varieties, styles, or regions.”
When Charlie recommends a wine, one thing you won’t hear is “aromas of wet river rock, baking spice on the mid palate, and a long finish.”
“I share generalities about a wine when describing it, not the exact tastes or aromas. Everyone tastes differently,” he says. “I might say it has ripe fruit or is restrained, is dry or sweet, but mostly I describe the human experience and emotions this wine evokes.”
Charlie believes in generous pours, and pricing so there’s an incentive to buy the bottle.
Charlie’s foundation of hospitality and quality wine has created a strong following. “You can have a great wine list, but if the experience isn’t great, people won’t come back.”
Pairing Food and Wine
“When you’re enjoying wine, I believe you need food,” he says.
So when Puffers of Pismo opened, Charlie created food items that could be prepared in the tiny space that lacked an oven. For the first couple years, Charlie was the chef (as well as wine steward, server, and owner). His panini, homemade soups, and generous cheese board satisfied customers both in quality and creativity.
Today, Chef Andy masterfully commands the small kitchen, turning out gourmet dinners and small bites. Even people who don’t drink come in for the food. It stands on its own, and also complements the wine list.
Music & The Arts
“I wanted to keep Puffers as a venue for local musicians,” he says.
Before long, live music became a mainstay of Puffers of Pismo. “Being a musician is a tough gig,” says Charlie. “I want the musicians to feel welcome and appreciated.”
This approach soon attracted big-name artists to the little space with standing-room crowds. So when the space next door became available (he calls it The B Side), he leased it and tore out the wall to expand Puffers.
Charlie brings in the work of local artists on a rotating basis and has hosted poetry readings. And he’s considering other creative ways to showcase the arts at Puffers of Pismo.
What's Ahead for Puffers of Pismo
In the three years since he opened, Puffers of Pismo has become known to locals and visitors as a place that integrates wine, food, and service. But they likely won’t use those words. Instead, they’ll share with friends the experience of Puffers — a sanctuary from the outside world.
“I wanted to create a fun and safe environment that is welcoming and accessible to all,” he says. “The majority of my customers are women. I want Puffers to be a place they — and anyone — can come in, have a glass of wine alone or with friends, enjoy good food and the camaraderie of friendly people.”
Supported by a small team with the same belief in great service, Charlie Puffer and Puffers of Pismo illustrate every day that when service underpins everything you do, great things can happen.
If Charlie Puffer was stranded on an island and could have only one type of wine, food, and music, what would he choose?
Wine: white French Burgundy
Food: fresh seafood – scallops, grouper, black cod
Music: Nina Simone