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Small Business of the Month: Connect Lounge

Business owner Iulia Bejan holding Small Business of the Month certificate

Business owner Iulia Bejan.

Listen: Origin Story – Connect Lounge

Connect Lounge in Belltown has its mission engraved on its communal tables: “Building a community, one conversation at a time.” Through her business, Iulia Bejan is creating a welcoming space where guests are free to chat with old and new friends over craft cocktails and appetizers. Connect Lounge encourages customers to get to know each other through its communal tables, conversation starters, a “phone-free happy hour” and more.

“Our goal is to bring people together,” Iulia explains. “Bring people together and inspire people to share stories with other people, who may be family, loved ones, but also with new people that they might meet here.”

Iulia and an OED staff member standing in front of the Connect Lounge bar

Iulia speaking with OED staff.

Born in Romania, Iulia lived and worked in Africa and Europe before moving to the United States ten years ago. She worked at Amazon for four years prior to opening Connect Lounge. “I’ve known for the longest time that, you know, one day I would do my own thing,” she says. Iulia knew she wanted her business to channel her love of hearing peoples’ stories and building connections between people. Opening a bar was a natural choice as somewhere people can spend hours talking and getting to know each other.

Iulia put in a lot of legwork before opening Connect Lounge, going to bartending school and getting a part-time job as a bartender and server to make sure she understood how the business would operate. When she wasn’t at work, Iulia spent the rest of her time developing her business plan: “Defining the concept, and figuring out how this bar would be different than hundreds of other bars that are available in Seattle. How are we going to be different, and how would I emphasize this social concept?”

Opening Connect Lounge presented unforeseen challenges Iulia did not expect. “Finding a space was one of the bigger hurdles,” she says, explaining that it took nearly two years of searching, and nine months of back-and-forth with the landlord and other involved parties, to secure her Belltown location.

A Connect Lounge "phone box" and standing card deck with conversation starters for customers.

Connect Lounge conversation starters.

Securing financing presented its own challenges. Iulia noted that banks did not value the experiences she brought to her new business from the tech industry. Iulia was rejected by all of the banks she reached out to, but one bank referred her to Business Impact Northwest, who ultimately approved her for a small business loan. Through a combination of funds from the loan, a Kickstarter campaign and personal funds, Connect Lounge opened in May 2018.

Now, months after opening, everything about Connect Lounge is aimed at getting people to open up to each other, from the decks of conversation starters on the two communal tables to the sticky notes left in the bathrooms for customers to post their inner thoughts on the walls. Patrons can leave a thumbs up or thumbs down flag on their table, to let others know whether they’re open to meeting new people. Connect Lounge also hosts open mic events twice a month. “To me, an open mic is an amazing way to bring people together and have them share something with other people, the community,” Iulia says. “The theme of our open mics is sharing stories. We are encouraging people to share stories from all walks of life.”

The words "be human" with hearts drawn around it on the Connect Wall.

The Connect Wall.

Customers will be greeted with the “Inspire Me Seattle” wall on their left when they walk in the door, featuring information on members of Seattle’s small business community who Iulia finds inspirational, and the colorful Connect Wall on their right, which is decorated with words, phrases and pictures that patrons find inspirational or meaningful. “When we opened five months ago, the Connect Wall was empty, so the fact that right now it’s almost full, I feel like that shows that people do want to be seen, do want to express themselves, and want to be part of a bigger community,” Iulia says.

While running a bar is hard work, Iulia feels very fortunate to have a loyal team behind the business, especially given that the turnover rate is usually very high in the industry. “I’ve been lucky with the people I found to work with me,” she says, explaining her appreciation for her chef Amanda Lanning and bar manager and bartender Michael Toth. “Both employees believe in what we’re trying to do here, which makes the business stronger. I’m very grateful for them.”

As difficult as it was to get Connect Lounge started, Iulia will be the first to encourage you to start your own business. “I always encourage people to do what they want to do. Now, I want them to be aware it won’t be easy, and it will take a while.” She continues, “I mean, why are we living if we’re not doing what we want?”

When you visit Connect Lounge, Iulia recommends ordering the mici—a Romanian appetizer that is a grilled blend of beef, pork, lamb and spices—and the Celebration—a cocktail made with jalapeño-infused tequila, prickly pear puree, triple sec and lime juice. You can find Connect Lounge at 2330 2nd Avenue in Belltown, or on Facebook and Instagram. If you come on a Tuesday, leave your phone in your pocket if you want to get an extra dollar off everything at happy hour.

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