Ablom Mengstu, owner of Ballard Liquor & Wine Store, is trying to compete with big box stores in the liquor business.
Adapting to a changing liquor landscape
On June 1, the liquor landscape in Washington State transformed, never to be the same again. It was the day Initiative 1183 took effect, which privatized liquor and kicked the state out of the business.
Days of traveling long distances to the relatively scarce State-run liquor stores are gone. The reign of bland, windowless government stores is over. And liquor can now be purchased at the same time as everyday groceries.
Walking into Fred Meyer, one is greeted by large stacked boxes of Jack Daniels, Jose Cuervos and Smirnoff. Long aisles where there was once wine there is now liquor, left mostly unguarded by clerks or any sort of glass casing.
Ballard Liquor & Wine, previously a state run liquor store, is also changing.
Even before, the store was an anomaly among state run-liquor stores. Large floor-to-ceiling windows on the East side of the store provide plenty of light, the floor is spacious and uncluttered and the workers are nice, friendly and not quite so “creepy,” according to Yelp.com reviewers.
But now the state no longer owns the store and a new owner, Ablom Mengstu, who bought it during a statewide auction for $208,501, has stepped up to the plate.
Before purchasing the store, Mengstu owned a trucking company with his business partner Biniam Habte called Best Way Trucking. When the liquor stores went on sale, both Mengstu and Habte thought it was a great opportunity to get into the business, so they went in together to buy two stores, one in Ballard and one in University District.
Mengstu immigrated in 1991 from Eritrea when he was 15. From freshman year to graduation, he attended Ballard High School, where he competed in track and cross country. He said ever since he was in high school, he had known he wanted to own a business of some kind.
Ballard Liquor & Wine is still a work in progress. Several shelves remain empty, promising future products, and it recently received a new ice chest and new fridges, which sit half full with beers and coke beverages. Every day the store is expanding, Mengstu said. They hope to be fully stocked by the time of their grand opening, which will take place at the beginning of August.
“He’s taking his time getting it done right the first time,” Manager P.J. Rowe said.
The store hopes to be a one-stop shop, where people can get all of their alcohol needs, be it mixers, beers, wines, liquors or even olives.
Rowe said that she was hard at work getting a wider selection of liquor and has already added 15 bourbons, 8 gins and more. A quick survey of their selection reveals local names, including Fremont-based Mischief and Interbay-based Sound Spirits, as well as names from Woodinville, Bainbridge Island, Oregon and other places.
The only way Ballard Liquor & Wine can compete is by providing a more specialized section of liquor, personalizing the experience and becoming a part of the community, Rowe said. They cannot compete with the big box stores in selling of big brand names and sheer purchasing power, she said. But, as a smaller, more specialized store, they can do things that the bigger stores cannot.
If the store does not have the brand a customer is asking for, Rowe said that they can order it. They have a strict “Never say no” policy, she said.
Safety is also a big issue for Mengstu and Rowe. Through security cameras, ID-checking technology and good old fashioned eyes, they make sure that no underage kids can purchase alcohol.
A big difference between their store and the big box stores, Rowe said, is that Ballard Liquor & Wine workers are trained to properly sell liquor. She said that teenagers often steal bottles at the box stores because no one is keeping an eye on them and clerks are not trained to sell alcohol.
“That’s not a problem here,” Mengstu said, pointing to how small the store is.
Most all the workers at Ballard Liquor & Wine carried over from before, when the state owned the store. In addition to being previously trained, they are generally helpful, knowledgeable and are able to quickly point the direction to different liquors. Rowe said that they all lived in the Ballard area and knew the place well. Some are lifelong residents.
In fact, Mengstu might be the only new face. He is attempting to quickly change that by working open-to-close shifts Monday-Friday, greeting every single person who walks through the door.
Liquor prices have been a sticking point for many Washingtonians. Though media and proponents widely reported that liquor prices will drop dramatically once Initiative 1183 took effect, the exact opposite happened. Many customers were left scratching their heads the first day, seeing one shockingly low price on the tag, and then one shockingly high price at the register.
Ballard Liquor & Wine is attempting to remedy this problem by posting helpful signs and including taxes on the price tag. Yet, with liter taxes still left out (a calculation is printed on the signs), customers were still trying to puzzle out mathematical equations while selecting their liquor of choice.
Other retailers are starting to catch on to the fact that customers don’t like doing math, or being tricked into thinking things are cheaper than they really are. In the July 5 article, “Retailers simplifying liquor-price tags to include taxes,” The Seattle Times reported that Costco, Total Wine and More and Metropolitan Market all made the switch to display after-tax pricetags. Bartell’s has been doing it all along, Safeway is in the midst of reconsidering and Fred Meyer and QFC have no plans to switch at all – so far.
As for how well business is at Ballard Liquor & Wine, while she would not give specific numbers, Rowe traced in the air with her finger an exponentially rising graph. “Each day it’s going up and up and up,” she said.
Most of all, Mengstu said he wants to be a part of the community. “I really want to work harder to help the police, the fire fighters, the schools, the hospitals,” he said.
Rowe said that the Ballard community has been very supportive of the business and has been a main reason why they were able to stay open.
“We are excited. Everyone here’s excited,” she said.