Where Everyone Knows Your Name

At Liquorama Wine Cellars, in Hyde Park, NY, a landmark wine store open since 1962, there is no point-of-sale system. ‘€œThis is a terrible thing to say,’€ said general manager, Maggie Gephard, ‘€œbut I want our people to use their human computers. We don’€™t need a POS system because everyone knows where everything is, how much we have of it and how much it costs.’€

Quite a feat since the store carries more than 4,000 different labels of wine.

And the people at Liquorama know more than that. More likely than not, when a regular customer walks in the door, that customer will be greeted by name. ‘€œOne of our people, Diane Kidney, I should give her the title ‘€˜President of Customer Relationships’€™ or something,’€ joked Gephard. ‘€œShe knows people’€™s birthdays, if their husband’€™s sick, where their kids are in school, if they’€™ve been watching their cholesterol levels. People love her.’€

Gephard admits she doesn’€™t remember names quite as well as Diane Kidney does. Customers joke with her because ‘€œwhile I can’€™t tell you their names, I will see them and remember what they drink,’€ she said.

And Liquorama gets the full gamut of customers, from locals to tourists, from wine collectors to people whose doctor told them they should drink a glass of red wine a day.

Veteran Staff

Liquorama Wine Cellars has been in Hyde Park, home of the Culinary Institute of America, though Liquorama predates it, since 1965. (The store was first opened, by owners Dominic and Laura Giambona, in Queens, NY, three years earlier.) The store remains at the same location, in the Hyde Park Mall, though the store has expanded into an adjacent storefront and is now about 4,000 square feet in size.

It is run by a long-time staff. Gephard, for instance, can’€™t remember exactly how long she’€™s been there. ‘€œThirty-two years? Thirty four?’€ she pondered. ‘€œI started as a 20-hour-per-week clerk when my kids started high school.’€

Diane Kidney, who Gephard ‘€œsnatched up’€ when the wine shop Kidney had been working for closed, has been with Liquorama for more than 20 years. Although all the staff are well-versed in all the products, they each have their own area of expertise. Kidney’€™s are white wines and sparkling wines.

Michelle Colwell, who ‘€œis really good with German wines and Scotch,’€ noted Gephard, and who also publishes the store’€™s email newsletter and runs its Facebook page, has been with the store for 10 years.

They are joined by some relative newcomers. Patrick Sheehy, three years, is ‘€œour resident tall person,’€ Gephard quipped, and a new father whose 14-month-old daughter is the store’€™s unofficial mascot. Jeremy Pink, currently deployed in Afghanistan, is the reason why the store is decorated throughout with yellow ribbons. And Rob Day is indispensable; ‘€œhe runs our back door, making sure our deliveries are correct and the pricing is right,’€ said Gephard.

However, everyone in the store can do everything. ‘€œWe all can receive product, or run a register or clean a bathroom or wash a floor,’€ Gephard said. ‘€œWe are a ‘€˜family’€™ here: work hard, laugh hard. A staff that is honest, loyal and trustworthy is worth its weight in gold.’€

Last winter, before Pink went to Afghanistan, ice on the roof took down the store’€™s telephone line on a Friday afternoon ‘€“ and the earliest the telephone company could get there was Monday. ‘€œJeremy went out and spliced the wires together and covered it in duct tape and a Styrofoam cup to protect the connection,’€ said Gephard. Because of Pink, she said, ‘€œWe had phones and credit-card service for the weekend!’€

And ‘€œduring the November/December holidays ‘€“ especially the day before the BIG day ‘€“ Michelle and I make sure all of us have a good lunch break with a hot meal brought in and prepared by us,’€ said Gephard. ‘€œIt keeps us going! I am very proud to have a well-functioning, loyal team.’€

A customer, reviewing Liquorama on yelp.com, wrote, ‘€œThe customer service is definitely above average ‘€¦ and the store is clean, organized and intuitively laid out. And when you cannot find something, or are simply not sure, experienced winos are to the rescue.’€

Gephard is definitely a ‘€œwino,’€ in the best sense of the word. The license plate on her car even reads ‘€œZNFNGAL.’€ She was part of the original wine tasting panel at Wine Enthusiast magazine and is currently on the National Retailer Wine Panel for Beverage Dynamics.

But it wasn’€™t always that way. When she started at Liquorama, as a part-time clerk, ‘€œall I knew was red, white and rose,’€ she said. ‘€œThe guys at the store ‘€“ I thought they were the smartest guys on earth ‘€“ and I asked them what the best wine was. They just told me, ‘€˜The ones on the top shelf.’€™’€

That answer did not satisfy Gephard. ‘€œI plowed all my salary back into wine,’€ she said. Although other staff members have taken wine classes, Gephard never has. ‘€œI learned about wine the hard way ‘€“ by drinking a lot,’€ she said, laughing, adding, ‘€œSeriously, industry tastings, the big shows, are a great way to learn.’€

The wine that first got her interested, way back when? ‘€œIt was a 1978 Clos des Lambrays,’€ Gephard remembered. ‘€œWhen I tasted it, it was like ‘€˜Oh, that’€™s what it’€™s all about.’€™’€

And the wine that made her ZINFNGAL? That was a bottle of 1979 Calera Zinfandel ‘€œthat broke all over my shoes during inventory ‘€“ I can still remember that it was $7.99 and to this day, I can remember that aroma that turned me onto zin,’€ she said.

As Gephard became more and more interested in wines back in the ‘€˜80s, owner Dominic Giambona ‘€œwas very good about letting me go,’€ she said. Liquorama added so many wines to its selection that, by 1988, it needed to expand, moving into the space next door that used to house a deli. ‘€œThat’€™s when we put in our specially built wine tables,’€ said Gephard. And talk about personalized customer service: It was during that renovation and expansion that Liquorama made sure that every product was accessible to wheel-chair-bound customers, which remains so to this day.

Although the mall it is located in is less than dazzling, ‘€œour store is filled with a lot of wood, it’€™s warm and inviting. First-time people walk in and are amazed,’€ said Gephard.

Wide Selection of Wines and Spirits

Maybe especially because of those 4,000 different wines, ranging in price from $3.99 to $1,000 a bottle. The store also carries a full selection of spirits, including high-end products such as vintage ports and sherries. (The store’€™s sales run roughly about 70 %wine and 30% spirits.) The store even carries a full selection of not only organic wines and spirits, but also vegan (absolutely no animal products went into the production, not even fertilizer at a wine’€™s vineyard) and gluten-free ones.

Often, Liquorama’€™s permanent staff is augmented by interns coming from the Culinary Institute. Especially motivated students come to Liquorama, offering to help in the store for free for a chance to learn the wine business. ‘€œWe sort of call them our wine slaves,’€ said Gephard. Many of Liquorama’€™s former ‘€œwine slaves’€ have gone on to very successful culinary and wine careers, such as James Tidwell, who went on to become a Master Sommelier and is currently the sommelier and beverage manager of Café on the Green at the Four Seasons Resort and Club Dallas at Las Colinas in Irving, TX.

Liquorama has other deep ties to its community. For 22 years, the store has been a driving force behind the annual International Wine Showcase & Auction, held this year, at the end of September, at the Poughkeepsie Tennis Club. The one-day event features a musical performance, a huge wine tasting, dinner and live and silent auctions. Proceeds from the auctions and the ticket sales ($125 per person) go to benefit the Greystone Programs in Poughkeepsie, a nonprofit organization that provides services to people with autism and developmental disabilities. In fact, it is the only fundraiser Greystone Programs does. The event sold out again this year, with 225 people buying tickets, and made more money than last year.

Though Liquorama does not use a point-of-sale system, it does take advantage of technology. Michelle Colwell mans the store’€™s Facebook page. As ‘€œThe Travelling Wine Glass,’€ Colwell and Gephard write up interesting finds in the area, such as restaurants and bars, as well as announcing events at the store, such as wine tastings, and new product arrivals. And Colwell gets conversations going among the store’€™s Facebook followers about cocktail recipes.

Gephard reported that the new Facebook page is ‘€œjust starting to catch on.’€ One piece of evidence: the store is seeing more and more people coming in with teaser coupons that the store has posted on its page.

New Wine Club

Another recent innovation at Liquorama: a new wine club. As with everything the store does, it is all about personalized service. The wine club, which delivers a bottle of wine per month for a cost that never exceeds $35, also includes recipes that Gephard has personally tested, ‘€œon my poor husband,’€ she said. One popular recipe she sent out in the summer, just when people were wondering what to do with the bounty from their vegetable gardens, was for a basil-beer bread. Another was for chicken tandoori. ‘€œIn some cases, the wife really looks forward to the recipes and the husband to the wine,’€ she said. More than once, Liquorama has received an urgent call from a customer who has lost a favorite Liquorama recipe and is hoping to get another copy. (Which, of course, the store is happy to provide.) In fact, Gephard is considering consolidating all the Liquorama recipes into a cookbook.

Wine-club customers receive a discount if they repurchase a wine that they had through the club. ‘€œAnd they usually do,’€ said Gephard, who has been known to ship out two bottles of wine in a month where she found an especially good deal on a good wine.

Like everything the Liquorama staff does, the wine club is about the interaction with the customer. ‘€œA new wine club customer was just in here today,’€ said Gephard. ‘€œShe said the best thing about it is that it gets her to try something she wouldn’€™t have otherwise tried.’€ And guess what? The customer was in the store to repurchase the wine Liquorama had introduced her to that month.

And when she walked into the store, she was most likely greeted by name.

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