Survival of the nimblest for small-store owners

Staff writerDecember 7, 2013 

While the majority of business people who bought the rights to operate former state liquor stores are already out of business, some remain determined to find the key to survival in what has proved to be a difficult business. Here are some of their stories.

David Cho

The former New York financial professional hasn’t made any money yet on his Liquor Liquor store on Pearl Street in Tacoma’s West End. In fact, he says the store still has a negative cash flow every month.

The good news is that those losses are diminishing. The store’s sales were once down 85 percent compared with the state’s store in monopoly times. Now they’ve improved to 70 percent below that level.

Cho, who has the good fortune of having cash to finance his purchase of the store rights, inventory and improvements, said he’s focusing on improving the shopping experience from the days of state operation.

He has spent about $200,000 to improve the store’s look, to bring in new inventory and improve his staff’s knowledge and customer skills. He’s even matching prices with the nearby Safeway to retain customers even if that means losing money on some popular items.

Cho said he found the antiseptic atmosphere he encountered in the former state stores was at odds with his experience in New York, where liquor sales have long been privatized.

He wanted to make his store a pleasant experience and attract more female shoppers. So far, that experiment is working, with the proportion of female shoppers growing along with his business.

He still isn’t drawing a salary, but he hopes that his investment will begin to pay in the coming year.

Andy and Mike Thielen

The two brothers own T Brothers Liquor and Wine in Olympia. Like many of the surviving stores, the T Brothers have greatly expanded their wine offerings to complement their stock of spirits.

And their downtown location is relatively distant from big-box competitors.

Their knowledge of wine and their stock of local products, Andy Thielen said, is the best in Thurston County. “Wine is huge for us,” he said.

But spirits sales aren’t living up to profitability expectations.

Andy Thielen said that while he and his brother might be doing better than other small-store owners, the Legislature and the liquor board need to even the playing field for the former state store owners.

Michelle Tate and Teddy Rayford

The co-owners of Pop’s Liquor on Tacoma’s Sixth Avenue have mothballed their liquor store and are converting about two-thirds of the space it formerly occupied into a sports bar and video game parlor.

They plan to open the bar soon.

“We need the cash flow to keep some of those bill collectors away from the door,” Tate said.

They hope to reopen the liquor store when they make progress on some of their accumulated debts.

To build out their new sports bar inexpensively, Tate and her father, Rayford, have scoured Tacoma for inexpensive furnishings and novel decorations. Tate says that despite her father’s so-far unprofitable investment of $500,000 in retirement savings into the liquor store, she has praise for the faithful customers who continue to patronize it and for her landlord who has been flexible about the usage and payments.

Nyong Pang

Pang acquired the former state liquor store in DuPont near JBLM with the help of friends and relatives. Like others, she has bolstered her spirits inventory with wine and beer, which are more profitable.

Even so, she can’t afford to hire help. That means long hours staffing the store herself to keep the doors open while she hopes for some relief from the Legislature.

Julian Mart

Mart immigrated from Romania 22 years ago. He and his business partner bid on Chelan’s only liquor store because it had a relatively high volume in the resort community and the rights to that store weren’t highly contested, thus making the store a comparative bargain in relation to stores in larger towns.

They too have augmented their spirits stock with wine and beer to help pay the bills. They have pared expenses to the bone.

When the store was operated by the state, it had four employees. Now Mart and his business partner, both of whom live in Western Washington, take turns manning the store for two or three weeks at a time. They have rented an apartment in Chelan that serves as their home during their rotations.

Until they recently pared their hours for the winter, they worked 75 hours a week at the store.

Mart said that if the Legislature doesn’t provide some relief, a group of the small liquor store owners are considering mounting a lawsuit against the state.

john.gillie@thenewstribune.com

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