More than 50 years in business, and 159 stores to date: that’s where Spec’s Wine, Spirits, & Finer Foods stands now. Perhaps the most surprising part about this successful family business is that only three people are operating at the helm of it. John and Lindy Rydman, along with their daughter, Lisa, oversee the Houston-based superstore chain, which has locations scattered widely across the state of Texas.
The Rydmans’ approach to business operations is relatively simple: there’s no master expansion plan in place, yet the company has experienced rapid growth and plans to open at least four additional stores this year.
Ultimately, the philosophy behind Spec’s is to have a retail presence in areas that make sense, to be the best wine and spirits retailer it can be and to continuously strive for improvement in every aspect of its business. Based on the success the company has experienced thus far, that strategy is working out unbelievably well.
Building a wine and spirit empire
So how exactly does a small family operation grow into such a large and profitable retail chain? The Spec’s legacy stretches back to 1962 when Lindy’s parents, Spec and Carolynn Jackson, opened their first small liquor store. Spec had worked for a liquor distributor for nearly a decade before deciding to retreat from corporate life and launch into business for himself.
The first Spec’s establishment was located in Houston, and it was a tiny, 1,000-square-foot store. The business eventually expanded, climbing to 26 locations before Spec began closing some of the least profitable stores. He ultimately whittled down the number of locations to seven in 1996, the same year that he passed away.
Spec was succeeded in business by his daughter Lindy and her husband, John. Both of the Rydmans had worked in the family business for years, so the shift in leadership wasn’t a huge transition for either of them. They also received support from their daughter, Lisa, who formally joined the company after graduating from college.
The Rydman family was interested in growing the business and seeking out new store locations in up-and-coming neighborhoods. Over time, they eventually launched Spec’s stores all across the state. Aside from two sets of twin stores that were purchased from the same company, no two Spec’s locations are the same.
The original location is gone, replaced by a large, 90,000-square-foot warehouse store that serves as the company’s headquarters in Houston. Other stores are as small as 2,000 square feet, with wide size ranges in between.
In addition to dramatically increasing the total number of stores in operation, the Rydmans also branched out to include new products. While wine, beer, and spirits continued to be the retailer’s primary focus, the Rydmans introduced specialty food items and cigars into their product lines. Select locations were equipped with on-site kitchens, allowing the stores to offer party trays and catering menus. Ultimately, the Rydmans invested in opportunities that their customers were seeking in an attempt to offer better selection and service.
“We don’t have the same products in each store. Product selection is determined by market, store size, and customer requests,” John explains. “We try to carry products that people are interested in trying, and we’re constantly looking for new items to bring in.”
Many of those products are local. The Rydmans have always strived to support other like-minded small and family-operated businesses. If you browse through the store shelves at Spec’s, you’ll notice a lot of labels from independent wineries, and you can also purchase specialty food items from small family farms. It’s important to the Rydmans to support their community in that way, and also to give relatively unknown businesses a chance to showcase their superior products.
“Developing relationships with a lot of wineries and other small companies ultimately improves our business, but it also helps get them exposure,” John says. “We want to help people get their good products sold. Family business is what this thing’s all about.”
Such a diverse array of product offerings have distinguished Spec’s from the competition. Currently, 11 Spec’s locations feature kitchens, and 30 to 40 stores boast large walk-in humidors – although all stores sell tobacco products and snacks. Other product selections vary per location and include sandwiches, salsas, pastas, cheeses, caviar and candles.
The Rydmans don’t publicize profit data, but report that despite their extensive additional product offerings, wine and liquor sales never dip below 80% of the company’s total annual revenue.
Texas regulations also allow Spec’s to sell their products to select beverage permittees. In addition to their retail business, Spec’s also acts as a wholesaler to various restaurants, bars, and clubs across the state, expanding the range of their business even more.
Focusing on customers
When you ask the Rydmans what factors have contributed to their company’s growth and success over the years, they insist that everything boils down to one main thing: a focus on customer service.
“My grandfather had a slogan that he always used: ‘You are my only customer,’” Lisa recalls. “We had buttons made with that saying on it. The idea is that the one customer in front of you at any given moment is the only one you need to think about. That person deserves your full attention and best possible service. We’ve continued to pass that motto along to our employees.”
With the help of more than 3,400 employees spread across the state, Spec’s has managed to build a reputation of providing high-quality service and “just being nice,” as John says. There’s no structured customer feedback program in place, but the Rydmans make it a point to reach out to their employees to hear what customers are saying. They also maintain a hands-on relationship with customers themselves. Although the Rydmans generally steer clear of titles (“We all do a little bit of everything,” Lisa says), John serves as the company president, overseeing senior management and business operations. However, he’s also a very present figure in the communities where his business operates and many of his longtime customers have him on speed dial.
“Just this morning I’ve had two calls on my cell phone from customers who are looking for a specific kind of product, and I have three letters from customers in my office telling me about the good experiences they’ve had in our stores,” John says. “We all have our names and contact information out there on the website. We’re absolutely available to everyone at any time.”
Lindy Rydman, who oversees all company personnel, also works the sales floor every Saturday. Lisa, who heads up marketing and advertising, along with Spec’s food departments and charitable contribution efforts, is also a regular fixture at various stores and makes connecting with customers a priority.
Promotions and events
Aside from its hands-on leadership team, Spec’s brings customer service to the forefront in other ways, such as through educational opportunities. At least one store in each market is equipped with a classroom space utilized to run various seminars, courses and tastings.
Events are held at those locations approximately eight or nine times each month, and almost all offerings are free to customers.(In fact, the only time Spec’s ever charged money for a program was when it offered a multiple-course food and wine pairing dinner. Tickets were $35 per person, and a portion of each ticket sale was donated to a local charity). Recent events held in Spec’s classrooms have included “Wine 101” and “Spanish Wines” courses, cigar classes and special tastings hosted by representatives from various wineries.
The superstore also holds Spec Fest multiple times per year in the company’s largest markets. These outdoor, family-friendly festivals feature live music, food samples and a large selection of products available for purchase: more than are generally offered at any one store. An average of 400 to 500 items are also on sale in the store itself during Spec Fest, making it one of the largest sale events of the year.
“It’s a fun way to encourage our customers to come out, have a good time, and browse a large selection of the different types of products we have to offer them,” Lisa explains. “People look forward to it and keep coming back every year.”
Spec’s offers a customer rewards program in the form of a frequent shopper card, giving exclusive product discounts to regular customers. The company also places a huge value on its marketing efforts, including a strong presence on social media.
Spec’s is active on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest and LinkedIn. These platforms are utilized to actively engage customers with the brand, letting people know about products and events and also encouraging feedback. Lisa is especially proud of the company’s video efforts, which have been pushed out on YouTube and other social media channels. A “Wine Down” video series delivers information about different wines to customers in eight minutes or less. Spec Fest activities are highlighted in video features, as are special events, such as when Dan Aykroyd visited a Spec’s location several years ago to autograph bottles of his product, Crystal Head Vodka.
So what does the future hold for Spec’s? There’s no master plan, so to speak, but the Rydmans will continue looking at growth opportunities, all within state limits.
“I don’t see us going out of Texas,” John says. “Although we have so many stores here, the liquor laws are all consistent across the state and we know how to work them. That makes it easier to manage things from an operations standpoint. And there’s also a lot more we can do here for the people of Texas. We’re just trying to get better at what we do and serve our customers as best we can.”
More than focusing on expansion, the Rydmans strive to continually maintain and improve their business. John jokes that his family is used to working 40 hour days, and that they’re all committed to doing the best that they can every single day. Lisa agrees.
“We focus more on what we can do today than what we can do a year from now,” she says. “We are always looking for ways to make improvements in our stores. Our maintenance team is always working around the clock to make store improvements and enhancements. There are always new products to research and new opportunities to explore. If we aren’t doing all of those things every single day, we aren’t doing our jobs.”
It’s obvious that the Rydmans are completely dedicated to their customers and to their company. With that kind of commitment, it’s likely that Spec’s will see continued success over the years. But what kind of succession plan do they have in place when John, Lindy, and Lisa retire? Only time will tell.
Lisa’s oldest son is only 16, so he has a while to go before deciding whether to launch a career with Spec’s. In the meantime, Lisa has encouraged her children to get involved with the company by working at the stores over the holidays, which is what she used to do as a kid.
“It’s our dream to keep the business strong for them, but in the end it’s completely up to them what they want to do,” she says. “Regardless, though, being born into this business is all I’ve ever known, and working here as a child taught me the value of working hard. That’s something I hope to pass along to my children, no matter what.”