On a desultory Saturday morning near Boston in mid-August, Randall Bird is easing into his account of how he’d recently gotten thrown out of a pancake joint on Cape Cod after his overheard comment that a short stack billed as ‘savory’ was actually ‘sweet’ had provoked a fight with the chef. ‘He comes out to confront me because he thinks I have a problem with his cooking, but the problem is with the menu writing,’ Bird recounts, as his broadcast partner Ryan Maloney tries not particularly hard to suppress his giggles. Bananas, maple syrup and brown sugar may all be delectable, Bird presses on, but they’re not savory. So what was the upshot? Maloney demands. ‘I was able to eat three or four bites of the sweet pancake before I was removed on a savory violation,’ Bird answers.
Though the familiar, bantering bond of Maloney and Bird resembles that of another Boston-area radio institution, the Car Talk show, this is actually ‘It’s the Liquor Talking,’ broadcast live every Saturday morning for two hours on the 50,000-watt WCRN from Julio’s Liquors in Westborough, west of Boston. And whimsy aside, the anecdote is leading Julio’s owner Maloney and whisky authority Bird ‘ The Spirits Medium,’ as he’s styled on the show ‘ to a more serious point: many of the folks using phrases like ‘savory’ to describe food and beverage flavor profiles really don’t know what they’re talking about. It’s meant as another small step in a broader effort to elevate the discrimination of wine, liquor and beer buyers ‘ and along the way, elevate the profile of a comprehensive, 36,000-square-foot store that’s often described as a Disney World for adults.
A Beverage Alcohol Destination
Under Maloney, a store that started out decades ago as a grocery, has expanded multiple times at the same location, along the way creating destinations in its wine, spirits and beer departments that are almost uniformly accorded five-star ratings by Yelp! reviewers. Commenters refer often to making digressions of dozens, or even hundreds, of miles to visit the store. And with lower-cost rivals like the upscale grocer Wegmans opening nearby, Julio’s also serves as an example of how a consistently high degree of service allows a large wine and liquor store to compete effectively without the need to offer rock-bottom prices.
When the avalanche of favorable opinion on Yelp is mentioned to him, Maloney doesn’t minimize the accomplishment, but characteristically puts it in pragmatic terms: with 25 people on staff these days, he notes, there are ‘25 chances a day that somebody’s having an off-day.’ Given that hard fact, to develop that degree of devotion from consumers is particularly gratifying, he notes.
‘Every weekend we see people coming from Vermont and Connecticut just to shop our store, reflects Tim Korby, Julio’s longtime wine director who’s lately been assigned to build its online business. ‘Now it’s up to us to take it even further.’
Customers encountered at the store on a recent Tuesday evening bear out the appeal of a store that offers a high degree of service ‘ both hands-on and hands-off, as via a self-serve sampling area called Angel Share. ‘I think their theme here is more of a consultative approach’ than a hard-sales one, figured regular customer Peter Thomas, who drives over from Boylston, about 15 minutes away. The message from store employees seems to be: ‘Try a lot of different things ‘ don’t just get stuck drinking cabernets and chardonnays.’ At the same time, Thomas views new rivals like a Wegmans that opened in October 2011 just two miles away in neighboring Northborough as helping to keep Julio’s pricing competitive. Julio’s ‘probably was escalating its prices a bit,’ Thomas recalled. ‘But they knew that they had to compete to survive. And as long as they’re in the game [on pricing], with all the added value they provide they blow the other guys away.’
A Short History
Starting with several small grocery stores, Maloney’s father and two uncles started Julio’s, named for grandfather Julio Colangelo (and pronounced with the hard Italian ‘J’ rather than the soft Latino ‘J’), in just 1,000 square feet of space. As the business developed it eventually was sold to Maloney and a 50-50 partner whom he eventually bought out. Though he doesn’t come from a wine-retailing background, Maloney feels his early experience in the grocery store has stood him in good stead as he’s tinkered inventively with Julio’s offering over the years. ‘I grew up in retail ‘ I worked in the supermarket from age 10,’ he recalled. Today the store occupies 36,000 square feet all told, including 20,000 square feet of selling space: the original 17,000 feet upstairs and additional space carved out downstairs, including a barrel-ceiling mock-speakeasy for whisky geeks dubbed the Jim Beam Cold Storage Warehouse and a 3,000-square-foot event space called Metro Station, after its design cues echoing a Boston subway stop. The store carries up to 3,500 wine sku’s and a beer array that is approaching 1,500 sku’s, making the store a prime beer-geek destination even for shoppers from neighboring states. It has a formidable selection of whiskies as well, which accounts for about one-quarter of the store’s retail space. In recent years, Julio’s has embarked on exclusive collaborations with vintners, brewers and distillers that have encouraged more frequent visits from patrons while further buttressing its credibility with its more discerning patrons. On the communications front, its Loch & K(e)y Society online forum has established it as an influential international voice in whisky, even as ‘It’s the Liquor Talking’ brings Maloney’s down-to-earth charm across to potential new shoppers.
Among the more distinctive store areas that helps cement Julio’s identity with shoppers are the Angel Share Tasting Room, with a flock of automatic Enomatic dispensing stations offering shoppers a chance to sample wines and spirits on their own, and the downstairs Jim Beam Cold Storage Warehouse, a barrel-ceiling vintage spirits tasting room fashioned after a 1920s speakeasy and used to host intimate events like free ‘Whiskey Wednesday’ public tastings. ‘It’s fun to have a clubhouse,’ Maloney likes to joke about that space. Metro Station has a small stage, a multimedia screen and a permanent sound system for presentations, and is configured so it can easily double as an event space, allowing the store to host elaborate food and alcohol tasting occasions that in the past would have had to be sited at nearby restaurants and taverns.
Tobacco & Gourmet Foods
Among other store amenities are a tobacco area with a walk-in humidor called Vigilant Smoke Shop that offers hard-to-find cigar brands like La Aurora Preferido and Arturo Fuente Opus X, and an area designed like an old-fashioned general store ‘ complete with awnings ‘ where shoppers can pick up gourmet foods from the likes of Stonewall Kitchen, more than 300 hot sauces and even the store’s own North Carolina-style vinegar-style barbecue sauce called Graham & Nicky’s Pig Sauce.
The nomenclature of Angel Share ‘ a reference, of course, to the amount of a spirit that’s lost to evaporation during distilling ‘ and Loch & K(e)y, with its play on ‘whisky’ and ‘whiskey,’ suggest that the store is happy to presume a level of sophistication among its patrons. Indeed, Maloney’s decision to name the store’s fledgling online shopping site AngelShare.com rather than some variant of Julio’s was regarded even within the company as something of a risky gambit.
For years, more than half of the store’s profit mix came from wine, ‘and we were really a wine store first,’ recalled Tim Korby, the longtime wine director who now focuses primarily on building the online business at the-AngelShare.com. But when Maloney took over, craft beers, and then whiskies and liquors, were dramatically dialed up in importance so that now wine accounts for a bit more than 40% of the store’s business. The store has cultivated devoted followings in all three categories.
That’s not to say that Julio’s is a slouch in wines these days. Its wine selection ranges from 14 or 15 countries, arranged by country first and then by style, rather than having stylistic groupings with wines from all over the world. The $12-15 price range is regarded as the store’s sweet spot for wine, with the average bottle coming in just shy of $14 at the shelf, Korby notes. That’s a contrast with the more conventional $8-9 per bottle average of most local rivals focused on the lower end in the generally upper-middle-class area.
The core concept, Maloney said, is to sell to women ‘ so the shelves are a bit lower (Maloney allows that he himself is ‘vertically challenged’), warm tones prevail and the lighting is subdued rather than fluorescent-harsh. Maloney confesses no concern about alienating guys with the store’s softer atmosphere, noting that they’re generally comfortable anywhere, focused on mainly on getting what they want and then getting out. The section’s racks make it easy for shoppers to easily read the labels.
As for the overall mix, there are no huge surprises here: 75% of what’s sold is from California (reversing the mix when Korby first arrived in New England in 1980, when 85% of sales were European, he notes) and Cabernet and Chardonnay ‘are king and always will be.’ Interestingly, the past two years have seen a huge resurgence in sales of French wines.
On a recent visit, the wine department featured a large banner advertising Ravenswood wines at a price of $7.99 per bottle or three for $21. End-of-rack specials were touted on colored paper cutouts in a variety of flash-like shapes, and the wine racks were dotted with numerous wine write-ups and ratings. ‘We want every help we can get, since we can’t see everybody who comes in the store,’ Korby confesses. Along with the Angel Share tasting room, it’s another way of reassuring shoppers that they’ve made a sound purchase.
Big Beer Business
The beer section features 19 six-pack coolers and six more devoted to 22-oz. bottles, 750-ml. bottles and other single-bottle items, including one that features new beers and staff picks. Four double-sided racks hold unrefrigerated six-packs and cases, almost exclusively from craft brewers, and there are additional shelving units with a large selection of Belgian beers and single bottles from other foreign countries as well as U.S. brewers. A separate rack features meads and honey wines.
During Beverage Dynamics’ recent visit, a large display was touting a beer of the month; in August, it was Sierra Nevada, with six-packs and 12-packs on display at prices of $8.49 and $12.99, respectively. Nearby displays promoted Ommegang, Founders and Dogfish Head beers as well as Smuttynose Fashionably Old Ale. Neon signs from the likes of Samuel Adams, Brooklyn Brewery, Troegs, Budweiser and Coors Light adorn the wall above the main beer coolers; the walls in the beer section also feature banners from a variety of brewers and a dented Bear Republic race car door. The door is signed by brewmaster Ricardo Norgrove and inscribed ‘Julio’s Rocks’¦’
Adjacent to the main beer section is a 110’ by 15’ space that holds two floor-based rows of 12-packs and some cases from mainstream and craft brewers, both domestic and foreign. About 80 feet of the front row is devoted to microbrews, with mid-August prices ranging from $11.99 for Long Trail 12-packs to $19.99 for ones from Bear Republic. As noted, the total sku count is approaching an astonishing 1,500 items at this point.
Julio’s maintains an active calendar of in-store tastings, including a major spring ‘anything goes’ event that invites more than 50 brewers from diverse regions and styles, as well as a Belgian fest that in August brought in 30 different brewers along with waffle makers and other Belgian food purveyors. Given the burst of startup breweries nearby, an annual November event featuring New England brewers this year will be narrowed to Massachusetts brewers only, with 30 or so expected. Cider and mead festivals also are on the calendar.
Hoppy Fridays feature new releases and once a month are augmented to beer-and-food tastings in the Metro Station events space downstairs.
In the store Welton’s team has been expanding the range of craft beers carried cold, adding three of the coolers during the latest phase of renovations. Though craft customers may have been conditioned to seeking them out on the warm shelf, the expanding array of IPAs and more delicate beers has encouraged him to tilt more of the mix to refrigeration, he said. By now craft beers comprise more than half the total mix, and mainstream beers like Corona and Bud Light no longer drive the business. Rather, they are ‘a convenience thing for us: if you’re throwing a large party, it’s here,’ Welton said. ‘But it’s certainly not a focus for us. Our big focus is craft beer.’
Welton and his colleagues have come up with an interesting way to encourage trial, while also rewarding good customers, via a program called Wild Six. It started as a mix-a-six-pack program to encourage trial without the commitment of a large bottle or six-pack. But while many retailers features a dusty rack of aging seasonals as a way of moving unwanted stock, Julio’s beer team viewed the current ferment, so to speak, in the beer segment as encouraging a move beyond that. ‘We saw it not as a way to get rid of stuff, but to extend our shoppers’ horizons a bit,’ Welton said. So they added a frequent-buyer kind of twist: a punch card where, as a particular customer accumulates mixed six-packs, he or she wins premiums such as t-shirts and key chains, until attaining a full card of 18 mixed six-packs. That earns the shopper a ‘hold’ card that entitles him or her to reserve a coveted limited-release (or enter a lottery for it if there are more hold-card requests than items). The program thus serves to reward loyal customers while offering an equitable way to steer allocated items to deserving patrons. Like so many others in beer retail, Welton has been waiting for some time for the West Coast IPA bubble to burst, only to be continually confounded by the craze’s durability. So now he’s convinced it’s here to stay, and says he’s fine with that. That doesn’t mean consumers aren’t showing a greater willingness to diverge from hop monsters. Sour beers are booming, said Welton, who recalled that Cantrillon bottles that might have sat on the shelf a while three years ago are now immediately snatched up. Barrel-aged beers are doing phenomenally well, and cider has exploded in popularity. Three full-time staffers assigned to the beer department ‘ all of them Cicerone-certified ‘ insure that patrons are well taken care of in their explorations.
Maloney, who’s active in advocacy efforts through his board seat on the state’s Restaurant and Business Alliance, is working to get growlers accepted in Massachusetts, and is confident enough that it will happen that he’s already mapped out a new growler bar in the place where he currently stows his kegs.
Among the store’s more recent major initiatives has been its Internet operation, launched under the brand the-AngelShare.com in February 2012 under former wine director Korby. Seeing the Internet business controlled by a few big names and a player in New Jersey that seems to give its products away below cost, Julio’s has confined its ambition so far to somewhat broadening its audience while providing a convenience to regular customers, most of whom pick up their orders right at the store. The store does two e-mailings each week to its list of more than 7,000 customers, including a general letter on Thursday and a sin-bin letter on Monday that’s usually focused on a single varietal or winery or region of France, offering three to six items at drastically reduced prices. Yes, using AngelShare.com as the brand rather than Julio’s was unconventional, Korby allows, ‘and I was a bit worried about it myself.’ At offsite tastings, employees reinforce the connection by referring to the site as ‘Julio’s Liquors/AngelsShare.com.’ Still, ‘Ryan’s goal is to build it as a brand,’ and Korby feels the company is off to a good start. Maloney’s partnership with the regional Phantom Gourmet TV and radio property has helped broaden the audience within New England ‘ ‘the best advertising we’ve ever had in my 17 years with the store,’ he terms it.
Of course, ‘It’s the Liquor Talking,’ the radio show, accomplishes similar goals. The show originally was launched as a modest podcast before Maloney attracted the attention of WCRN. In its earliest days the show was broadcast from the station’s own studio in Worcester (where the hosts got around the station’s no-drinking-on-the-air policy by sometimes brown-bagging it on the steps of the local public library) before moving directly to the store, in full view of the shoppers. (Announcements on the store’s PA often can be heard behind the hosts’ banter.) Maloney owns the show, which attracts endemic advertisers like Deep Eddy Vodka, and he always makes sure to include a call to action that will drive listeners to the store ‘ say, a free bag of ice for those who visit. Regular segments include ‘Inside the Bottle’ (a play on ‘Inside the Actor’s Studio’) and ‘The Spirits Medium,’ featuring master blender Bird ‘channeling’ his spirits knowledge to listeners. Overall, the show aims to be both informative and totally irreverent, Maloney says.
On the show that August morning, Bird ended the discussion by defining savory as ‘a taste quality that bridges all four of the taste senses without diverging too much in one direction.’ That was too complicated for Maloney, who decided to default to the Supreme Court’s rule of thumb from its landmark ruling on pornography ‘ you can’t define it, but you know it when you see it. And then the pair was off to tout an upcoming event at the Rotary Club.
The Angel Share Room
The Angel Share tasting room has become quite a draw. Owner Ryan Maloney notes that Julio’s was quick to adopt the automated Enomatic sampling machines when they first became available in New England around four years ago, and was first to build a room around the machines as an in-store destination. Initially, a staffer who’d worked both the retailer and supplier sides in England and France was assigned to work the amenity. As traffic grew, the store continued to expand its offerings to the point now where there are 48 wines to taste any time the store is open, and an array of whiskies, too. (Maloney noted that Enomatic is working to upgrade its technology to handle the carbonation of sparkling wines like champagne, and he’s hopeful that will facilitate adding beer to the mix as well.) That staffer recently moved on and now, with a bigger full-time staff, multiple staffers share that duty, Korby said.
Within Angel Share, wines get a half-ounce pour, whiskies a quarter-ounce pour, all measured on smart cards employing a point system to insure that customers don’t consume more than 5 ounces of wine or 1 ounce of spirits before heading back to their cars. The system offers shoppers an opportunity to ‘try before you buy,’ without the hovering presence of a sales staffer, if the customer prefers, Korby said. ‘They can trade up from $15 to a $20-25 wine and walk home confident’ in their purchase, he said. For shoppers who do engage a sales associate, Angel Share serves as a useful tool to gauge their preferences, since many customers lack the vocabulary to adequately describe what they like in their wine. Thus, a sales associate might offer them three styles of Cabernet as a way of triangulating their tastes. Wines featured in Angel Share are all offered at a promotional price ‘ whether an Alamos Malbec reduced from $8.99 to $6.97 or a Donnafugata Mille Note Nero D’Avola Cabernet Sauvignon knocked down from $80.99 to $64.97. So shoppers get to taste for free some very good wines if they’re so inclined.