Immigrant Retailers Add Spice on Main Street
An American Tradition Lives On with
Mom-and-Pop Merchants from Six Continents
From colonial times to the present, America has welcomed immigrants. The words inscribed on the plaque at the foot of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor proclaim—“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free….”—and are enshrined in our nation’s conscience and consciousness.
American history is rich in connections between immigrants and alcohol. Our earliest colonies brewed beer, imported Madeira and rum, and distilled spirits from corn, rye, and molasses. Thomas Jefferson tried time and again to grow grapevines shipped over from France and Italy at his beloved Monticello. Three-thousand miles west, Spanish colonists in what is present-day California had better luck during the 16th and 17th centuries, building a chain of religious missions, after which the Mission grape is named and is still cultivated to this day.
All by way of saying, America’s beverage alcohol business could not have evolved as it has without wave after wave of entrepreneurial immigrants entering the wine, spirits and beer businesses. Before and after Prohibition, ambitious, risk-taking first-, second- and third-generation immigrants were present at all three tiers of the beverage alcohol industry, but have proven especially successful at the retail level in recent decades.
Leading from Main Street
With roots as varied as Africa, Australia, the Caribbean, China, Eastern Europe, India, Latin America, the Middle East, Russia, Southeast Asia, South Korea, and not to forget Western Europe, these merchants add spice to the diverse cities and towns they serve.
A recent front-page Wall Street Journal story reported on a study crediting immigrants with all the growth in so-called Main Street businesses from 2000 to 2013, including 31 of the 50 largest metro areas. The author of the report, David Kallick, specifically praised the role these immigrant-owned businesses have played in “neighborhood revitalization.” No dry economic verbiage needed: mom-and-pop wine and liquor store owners are playing an ever-growing role in generating jobs, growth and opportunity in the neighborhoods they live in and serve.
Consider them a quiet but potent force. According to one senior multi-state wine and spirits wholesaler, in markets like metropolitan New York, New Jersey, Florida and California, first- or second-generation immigrant mom-and-pop retailers and restaurateurs can account for as much as 20% to 30% or even more of a distributor’s entire statewide business.
In the tri-state area alone—New York,New Jersey and Connecticut—the Asian-America Retailers Alliance (AARA) represents more than 2,000 members who own wine and liquor stores, convenience stores, and gas stations, says AARA Coordinator Samir Patel, who immigrated from India. Patel says that the group’s annual trade show—September 10, 2015 in Edison, New Jersey—attracts scores of wine, spirits and beer suppliers, importers and distributors seeking to grow their trade with these AARA entrepreneurs.
America’s immigrant retailers readily acknowledge they face steep challenges of language, culture, product knowledge and the complex thicket of regulatory details specific to selling wine and spirits. But the single biggest hurdle? “Trying to put the deal together financially was the hardest part,” says Vipul Patel, an AARA member (no relation to Samir Patel, but also from India) and owner of The Wine Rack in the affluent suburb of Basking Ridge,NJ, since 2013. (Patel bought the store from an owner who was retiring.)
Coming from a convenience store background in which stocking inventory was not so expensive an outlay, Patel soon discovered selling fine wine and spirits is an extremely capital-intensive exercise. Another ongoing challenge, says Patel, is the constant need to acquire more product knowledge. “I am still learning; with wine and liquor you have to learn a lot,” notes Patel, who is very proud of the fact that now customers ask him for recommendations, and he is able to describe products in terms that inspire confidence and repeat business.
In Miami, for second-generation business owner Jose Antonio “Nick” Barrios, whose father (also Jose Antonio) emigrated from Cuba, humility is the key watchword. “My father, who started with almost nothing from Cuba, originally owned a small supermarket from 1971,” he says. “And he taught me everything.”
Owner now of three busy Vintage Liquor & Wine Bar locations, Barrios recalls one critical secret his father shared early on: “Remember all the pricing in your head. And to do what you promise to do.” This discipline, first honed as a young employee in his father’s supermarket, proved crucial in capitalizing on the ins-and-outs of volume discounts and other pricing essentials when dealing with distributors.
Each Vintage caters to a different clientele. The Pinecrest location welcomes to a diverse base of upscale customers who are quite wine-knowledgeable, notes Barrios. That store is Vintage’s largest, featuring a walk-in fine wine cellar with 1,500 selections. Their Midtown Miami location is situated in a growing neighborhood with many young professionals moving in. And Brickell, also growing fast, has a significant Latin American population (including owners of many second homes). One common denominator tying all three locations: an extensive selection of single malt Scotch and Bourbon.
Brooklyn Family Affair
Lucas Huang is a young Chinese-American wine and spirits retailer who also started at a family grocery, where he learned the basics of service and buying. When he and his mother, Lily, elected to switch careers and buy Derby Liquors, a small wine and liquor store at 2123 Nostrand Avenue in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn, location was a key—Huang lives just five minutes from the store. More than half of Derby’s customer base is African-American; the balance consisting largely of Jamaican and Haitian patrons.
Huang adds that he has worked hard to remember how each wine tastes, as more and more customers are asking about the store’s growing selection of varietal types he is stocking. He also happily takes on brands his customers request. Of late, Hennessy Cognac, Brugal Rum from the Dominican Republic and Moscato wines are the top three sellers at his store, which is staffed by his brother Ken, his mother and himself.
From Copiers to Corkscrews
Nine miles west, but a world away from Derby Liquors, Edmund Braithwaite, a Guyanese-American retailer, owns and operates Nostrand Wine & Liquors, acquired in 2002 from a retiring merchant, situated between the Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhoods in Brooklyn. Not far from the famous Brooklyn Botanic Garden, the neighborhood has changed dramatically since Braithwaite first opened. A former senior regional executive for Staples, Braithwaite “downsized” his management skills from typical 40,000-square-foot store to a more manageable (at first), 1,000 square feet at his first location.
Curiously enough, Braithwaite first heard about the liquor store from one of his top Staples customers. As he was ready to take on a more entrepreneurial challenge, he studied the demographics carefully before he acquired the small store. “I used my years of supplier- and customer-service experience from Staples,” Braithwaite says, adding, “When I first opened, my customers were 98% African-American, Haitian and Guyanese. But 13 years later almost 40% of my business is Caucasian; it’s mind-boggling.”
He is planning his third move into a building he bought earlier this year only one door down from his current location. “When I first opened,” Braithwaite recalls, “I sold 70% spirits and 30% wine, now it has totally reversed, and it is a reflection of the changing neighborhood.” He adds, “Today, I carry vintage Port, a huge selection of artisanal bourbons and an ever-growing selection of Old and New World wines.”
Sky’s the Limit At Miami’s El Cielo Restaurant
Andrea Herrera is General Manager of El Cielo, a Colombian-owned restaurant opened in Miami’s chic Brickell neighborhood earlier this year by famed Colombian chef Juan Manuel Barrientos. With a strong lunch, after-work and dinner business driven by clientele of Caribbean and Latin American descent, beverage service has been a key driver in the location’s success, reports Herrera. “Overlooking Miami Bay, we have a beautiful location and we are very near the top financial and cultural institutions in downtown Miami; business has been huge since we opened,” says the Colombia native and 17-year resident of Miami.
Key for repeat business here is how the innovative tasting menus and small plates dovetail with the spirits and wine service. Popular pours include Pisco Sours, Coconut Rum Daiquiris mixed with Macorix, the trendy rum from the Dominican Republic, and fine wines from $70 to $3,000 a bottle.
As our American ethnic quilt becomes more varied, these enterprising immigrant retailers and restaurateurs, and their increasingly diverse customer bases, are certain to become more important customers to both distributors and suppliers in the beverage alcohol business, not to mention our economy.
The author wishes to thank Beverage Media for permission to publish this article, which appeared in the September 2015 issue of the publication.