Ron Jansen didn’t follow the typical path to owning a retail store when he purchased Van’s Liquors in 1987. He’d sold his beer wholesale business a week earlier, knew very little about wine, had no retail experience and wasn’t a member of the family that had owned Van’s for more than 50 years. ‘It was a nightmare at first,’ he says. Somehow, he was able to overcome the odds and over the past quarter-century Van’s has grown and prospered under his ownership.
‘It was quite a transition from wholesale to retail for me,’ Jansen says. Van’s was the largest retail account for his wholesale business, Jansen Beverage, and as a result he was friends with the owner, who was the seventh member of the Vanderah family to own the store. When that friend wanted to get out of the retail business and Jansen received an offer for his distributorship, he saw an opportunity.
‘My business had peaked and it’s tough to stay on top of the ladder once you’ve gotten up there,’ he says. ‘So I ended up walking out of one door and into another one.’ And he wasn’t alone. A few months after taking over Van’s, Ron called his friend and colleague from Jansen Beverage, Glen ‘Bart’ Bartelme. Bartelme was promoted to general manager of the distributor when it was sold, but when Jansen told him he needed help running Van’s, he didn’t hesitate to join him.
‘I told Bart there was a job for him at Van’s if he was interested,’ Jansen says. ‘He thought about it for about 30 seconds, quit the beverage company, came to work for me and has been here ever since.’
Modernizing the Store
Today Van’s occupies a much larger store in a different part of town and Ron has semi-retired from the business, but the name still represents wide selection and friendly service throughout the Dubuque area. Bartelme and Ron’s son Jeff handle the day-to-day operations of Van’s, which boasts a 21,000 square-foot building with a 7,000 square-foot sales floor. The store also hosts two annual wine tastings attended by more than 250 people.
The original store’s sales were one-third lottery, one-third tobacco and one-third everything else. Jeff notes that’s not where a business should be from a profitability standpoint, which is why his father quickly shifted the store’s focus to more liquor and wine. Today spirits, wine and beer make up 30%, 15% and 18% of sales, respectively. Tobacco makes up about 22% of the store’s business, but Ron notes that Illinois recently raised its tobacco tax, which will probably impact sales.
‘Our biggest sellers today are Black Velvet 1.75 liter for spirits and Busch Light 30-packs for beer,’ Jeff says. ‘We’ll sell 2,000 cases and 30,000 packs of those over the course of a year.’
While the original Van’s sold a very limited selection of wines, in its current incarnation the store is known as ‘The Tri-State Wine Specialist.’
‘We pride ourselves in carrying things customers won’t find at the grocery or warehouse store, so selection is really our advantage,’ Jeff Jansen says. His father concurs. ‘Van’s has a reputation for product selection,’ he says. ‘I always say if it’s not available at Van’s, it’s not available period. Even if we only sell a case a year of a particular wine or liquor, we carry it to build up that reputation.’ The store’s reputation helps draw customers not only from the surrounding Illinois area but also from nearly Iowa and Wisconsin.
Van’s also maintains a reputation for personal service, going far beyond the big box stores. ‘We have people working here who carry products out to people’s cars for them,’ Bartelme says. ‘That’s not something you see anymore and people really like that personal touch, especially in a small town.’ He adds that if a checkout line is more than three people deep, another lane is immediately opened so customers don’t have to wait to pay.
All three owners proudly note they know ‘80% to 90%’ of the people who come into the store by name, and Bartelme says many have become close friends. ‘You see people regularly and it becomes more than a business relationship,’ he says. ‘I’ve seen their kids grow up, they’ve seen my kids grow up. That’s something I’ve really enjoyed throughout the years.’
Growing Up in the Business
Jeff Jansen has come a long way from the days he used to open doors for his dad, going with him on deliveries as a child. He was 13 when Ron bought the store from the Vanderah family, and says he remembers in 6th grade, when asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, answering ‘a beer man.’
‘I idolized my dad and that’s the business I grew up in, so it was something I always knew I would do,’ he says. ‘Having this business with its potential at my fingertips was a big advantage and opportunity that a lot of people don’t have.’
Following a hiatus to attend college and work in other industries, Jeff came back to the store and began working with his dad on the ordering and store organization. As Jeff took on more and more responsibility, Ron spent more time at his home in Arizona, phasing out one generation from the business and phasing in a new one. ‘I love working at Van’s because I have a lot of freedom and control my own destiny,’ Jeff says.
Loyal Customers, Loyal Employees
Customers don’t come back to Van’s week after week just for the selection and prices; both Jansens know the employees are critical to the business’ success.
‘I can’t say enough how much I appreciate the people who work here, including some that started at Van’s before I bought the store 25 years ago,’ Ron says. Jeff adds that employee longevity gives the store a family atmosphere, which has kept turnover to a minimum over the years.
There are many customers, too, who’ve been coming to the store every week since the store was owned by the Vanderahs. ‘East Dubuque is a town of about 2,500 people, so it’s a small town and you have to rely on relationships you’ve built throughout the years,’ Jeff says. ‘We have very loyal customers and we provide them with very loyal, friendly service. We know that this is a regular stop for people, just like they hit the grocery store every week, and I can’t tell you how nice it is to know people by name and recognize their faces when they walk in.’
His father recognized from the beginning that getting people into the store and giving them a reason to come back was going to make or break his business. ‘There’s not one thing at Van’s that people need to have to survive ‘ it’s all nonessential,’ Ron says. ‘Tobacco, soda, liquor, beer. What do you need those for? That was always the biggest challenge, but I truly enjoyed greeting people on the sales floor and trying to help them spend their money.’
Two Generations of Lessons Learned
‘The most important thing I’ve learned over the years is to listen to customers,’ Jeff says. ‘There’s no magic button you can push, you have to take care of the customers who take care of you. People talk, and they share stories of great service with others whether you’re in a small town or a big city. Mom and pop stores have dissolved over time as people have been trained to shop at Walmart or Target, but with the service and attention we provide customers, hopefully coming into our stores is worthwhile.’
Today Ron is 61, living in Arizona and enjoying life. Every morning he still checks his computer to see how the store is performing. He owns 55% of the company, ‘so I can make sure I stay retired.’ He’s experienced successes and failures with a number of business ventures since he left day-to-day operations at Van’s, but he says he’ll never stop picking himself up and trying something new.
‘I never thought about getting rich or how many hours I was working or how much I had invested, I just wanted to be successful,’ he says. ‘It was a wonderful ride and I’d do it all over again. It was the best experience of my life.’
Winning Over the Taste Buds
Ahead of its time Van’s began holding wine tastings in the early 90’s, long before its regional competition. ‘We wanted to give people the opportunity to learn about products they may not have tasted and open their tasting spectrum to new things,’ Jeff says.
In the beginning, the store held tastings in a restaurant on the third floor of the new store, where customers would gather for a spring wine tasting, spring beer tasting and fall wine tasting. At that time, the 7,000 square foot restaurant was run by Ron’s mother and sisters, which was open for about six years. It was the perfect location for the early tastings, according to Jeff.
‘We’d have 70 to 100 craft brews or 100 to 150 different wines, and we’d get more than 150 people coming to the tastings,’ he says. After the tastings, staff downstairs would initiate hand-sales based on the selections available earlier that day.
When the restaurant closed and the top floor was turned into a storage space, Van’s began partnering with local restaurants and supper clubs for the tastings. Currently, the store runs a spring and fall tasting and attracts nearly 300 people to each. The tastings also serve as charity events, as the store donates proceeds from the fall event to the Hospice of Dubuque and donates proceeds from the spring event to a variety of local charities.
Big Risk, Big Rewards
Even though Ron was moving within the same industry, selling Jansen Beverage and buying Van’s was still a risky proposition. However, he needed a new challenge and didn’t mind giving up a business that shared his name for one built on someone else’s family’s legacy.
‘When I took over in 1987, I was intent on keeping the Van’s name,’ Jansen says. ‘I don’t care about Ron Jansen, I care about Van’s. It’s been a landmark in East Dubuque since just after Prohibition.’
Coming from the beer industry, Ron also knew very little about wine in 1987. ‘I knew every job in the house, but what did I know about wine? Nothing,’ he says. So he spent a week in Napa Valley, driving from winery to winery learning about the different varietals and giving himself a crash course in oenology. ‘After a while, when wine buyers came into the store I was finally able to talk to them,’ he adds.
When Jansen chose to move Van’s to a new location in 1993, he faced another huge risk and a great opportunity. The new store is closer to the Iowa border (in fact you can see it as you cross the bridge over the Mississippi River from Dubuque), has more than twice the storage of the old location and has dedicated parking. However, it was still a difficult decision to move.
‘It was quite a transition from wholesale to retail,’ he says. ‘I was 42 years old in 1993 and I borrowed $1.3 million and really went out on a limb for the new store, but it all worked out.’
Would he take another risk and add a second Van’s? ‘I really thought about opening another store when I was younger, but now the ball is in Jeff’s court,’ Ron says. ‘I had to borrow money to stock my warehouse floors, but now there’s enough money in the business so he could buy whatever he needs.’
While Jeff has considered opening a second location, he has three children under three years old. ‘So between managing the business I currently have and the business on the home front, taking on more isn’t advisable at this time,’ Jeff says. ‘There are opportunities out there and I won’t rule it out, but right now the timing isn’t right.’
Van’s Facts and Figures
Location: East Dubuque, IL
Founded: Following the Repeal of Prohibition
Owners: Ron Jansen, Jeff Jansen and Glen ‘Bart’ Bartelme
Size: Three-story, 21,000 square foot building with a 7,000 square foot sales floor
Sales: Mix of 30% liquor, 22% tobacco, 18% beer, 15% wine and 15% miscellaneous