When Hunter Lowder suggested to her father that he should buy Holman Ranch in 2006, she had no idea she would become an integral part of the business.
“No, not at all,” she says, when asked if that was what she envisioned at the time. “I laughed when he told me he wanted me to run the wedding business at the ranch.”
At the time Hunter was 26, was the manager of the popular Rio Grill restaurant in Carmel and was contemplating perhaps going back to school.
She knew her parents, Tom and Jarman Lowder, both well-traveled wine and food lovers, wanted to retire and buy a small winery and make a little wine in their sunset years. But buying a 400-acre ranch in Carmel Valley with a 6,000-square-foot historic hacienda, was another story.
“It was definitely daunting, we didn’t know anything about running a ranch,” she says after agreeing to go into business with her parents. “But we had some amazing people to help us conquer the learning curve. One reason we have been successful is we didn’t try to be a jack of all trades.”
Born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, Hunter says her parents were always interested in cooking, wine and traveling, passing that knowledge and passion along to their daughters (she has two younger sisters).
Hunter earned a bachelor’s degree in Sociology and Spanish from Haverford College in Pennsylvania and also took language courses at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in Monterey.
She returned to Philadelphia to earn a second degree in Restaurant Management from Walnut Hill College. While there in 2002, she met Nick Elliott, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in New York. They married in 2004 and moved to the Monterey Peninsula, where her parents had a second home. Both were familiar with Carmel and Monterey from previous visits there, and both fell in love with the area.
Hunter took a management position at Rio Grill, while Nick took a job DJing for weddings and events. He eventually moved into a management position with the DJ company, something that would help him later at Holman Ranch.
“My husband’s experience with weddings and events came in handy,” she says, since he had helped coordinate special events with the DJ company.
From that relatively humble start, Hunter, Nick and her parents set out to make major improvements to the property, taking three years to restore the buildings and property into a world-class special events venue. Vineyards were planted and a 100-tree olive grove came to fruition. And after a few years, Holman Ranch wines and olive oils were being produced.
And in 2014, they bought the renowned Will’s Fargo Steakhouse + Bar and later added on the Jarman Tasting Lounge to sell Jarman Wines, a label named after her mother, who passed away in 2012.
“We really didn’t have a vision at the time. It was really just a wish of my parents to have a small winery and olive grove,” says Hunter. “It has become an ‘empire.’ We really didn’t have any idea that this is what it could be.”
Hunter, who humorously calls herself “The Queen of Everything” in this burgeoning empire, says she finds the hospitality and marketing side of the business the most satisfying for her.
“I enjoy the business side of creativity,” she says. “We (she and Nick) both love the hospitality industry. You really have to love it or it will eat you alive. I really enjoy being able to read what people want and being able to give it to them.”
As for the future of this growing business, she says she’s not actively seeking new businesses, but you never know.
“Things keep happening,” she says laughing. “I think we’ll keep growing, but for now we want to maintain and improve the businesses we have now. We want to grow sustainably so that the business is around for the long term.”
Well, she’s already seen the future in this family business in their 8-year-old son Max, who seems to have acquired their passion for food, wine and hospitality.
“He’s a good traveler, a pretty good eater and he knows the wines we produce,” she says. “He spends time at the winery and at the restaurant, which is great. For me, this is my family business, for my son.”