How Liquor Barn Grew as a Father-and-Son Operation

Note: This feature ran in a supplement in the latest issue of Beverage Dynamics that celebrated family-owned businesses in the beverage alcohol industry.

As Minnesota trends toward large-scale operators, one Long Lake retailer is growing in an evolving market with a hyper focus on high-end wine.

The store has a long history going back to 1976, when Jack Yunger opened shop when Long Lake was still a small town.  From the opening day, the elder Yunger prided himself on great customer service and ample selection. A few years later, his son Mike graduated from college and started working at the family store.

The family got along great, and unlike many family-owned businesses, the generations worked together easily, despite Jack Yunger’s retirement to Florida. And with the addition of Mike’s son Nick to the family business, they still do.

“My dad and I got along famously,” Mike Yunger says. “My son and I also get along really well.” Of course, there are some “differences in philosophies,” said Yunger.

“Our differences are more generational ideas,” Nick says. “We’re pretty good at negotiating. Neither of us say, ‘it’s gotta be my way.’ I think we get along better than most family-run businesses.”

Mike and Nick are the only full-time workers at the 4,000-square foot store currently, and with a staff of six part-timers, they said they try to keep tight control over the operations at the store. While they hope to hire some dedicated employees to take on more of a managerial role, the tight control means father or son are always in the store. They would especially like to take some more wine tours to expand their already impressive knowledge of high-wines even further.

A Focus on Wine

“We really got into the high end wine about 15 years ago,” Mike says.

He credits the small, affluent community for coming back to the unassuming store, despite a major highway re-routing that drew commuters around the hamlet.

“There are a lot of collectors,” Mike says of the area. “People collect wine and they’re looking for the best.”

The climate- and light-controlled, walk-in wine cellar is stocked with high-end wines, some of which are hard to find in the state, let alone in a town of 2,000 people.

“We’re one of the few stores that get some of the really collectible wines,” Mike says. “We’re on that short list where, if a few cases come into the state, we’re usually among the top two or three that get the phone call.”

The local wine enthusiasts have even grown along with the store. “Many of our customers have a wine cellar a lot like ours,” Nick says.

Wine lovers and high-end collectors are major revenue drivers for the store, which has continued to grow even as big-box operators like Total Wine & More have entered the market.

“We’re 50 percent wine, 25 percent liquor and 25 percent beer. Pretty evenly split,” Mike says. That split is especially attractive because of the high margins.

“Wine you can work on 25-30 percent margin,” he says. “Obviously there’s some loss and there are some skinnier margins that that. But you can get more on wine. I think with beer we’re lucky to get 10 to 15 percent on some SKUs.”

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Small But Competitive

One case of collectable wine does a whole lot more than keep the lights on. Despite the relatively small size, the Yunger family pulls in some pretty impressive sales figures.

“For a mom-and-pop store, we do well,” Mike says. “We’re close to $2 million a year in sales.”

He said that strong revenue doesn’t only come from high-priced collectible wine, but great service and strong community ties. The ability to absorb volume doesn’t hurt either.

“We’re competitive, but we’re not as big as the big boys. But we’re really close,” Mike says. “We’re big enough to buy the volume, and overhead is low so we don’t have to work with the margins that some smaller stores have to work on.”

As for community involvement, the Yungers are ingrained in the community through the Chamber of Commerce, as well as sponsorships of various local intramural teams.

“We know a lot of people on a first-name basis,” says Nick, who returned from college with a finance degree to help run the store.

Most everyone that comes into the store arrives with a, “Hey, Mike” or, “How’s it going Nick?” and it’s been that way for a long, long time.

“We have a lot of repeat customers,” Mike says. “They’ve been coming here for decades.”

Neither Mike nor Nick had an aversion to coming back to the family business after college, though both had different ideas while they were in college. Mike worked in an office for a spell before coming home to the Liquor Barn, and Nick thought he would be wearing a suit and tie after graduation.

“I had a finance degree and I was thinking I’d get a desk job at some firm,” Nick says. “But I started working here right after college full-time and didn’t want to leave.”

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Generational Change

Founder Jack Yunger, sadly, passed in mid-2015. But he set up the store for success over his decades in the business. The most notable business decision was buying a lot and constructing a new building in 1985. That smart decision decreased the capital-intensive rental budget and brought in a stream of tenants, from a video store to a Chinese restaurant.

Mike, who bought his father out when he retired 10 years ago, is hoping to get even more involved in wine and cut down the crowd at the main store.

“I’ve got a vacant spot next door that is 1,000 square feet,” he says. “I’m going to turn that into a tasting room and have some individual tastings over there, so it’s not so crowded over here.”

Once that project is done, he said he will think more about winding down as 27-year-old Nick Yunger grows into the lead position. He says the store will definitely stay in the family.

“We’re a ways from having to worry about that,” Nick adds. “But I definitely see it continuing into the fourth generation.”

Nicholas Upton is a journalist in the restaurant and hospitality industry covering emerging concepts, tracking financing and chasing the entrepreneurial spirit. He’s based in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

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