Legend has it that the partnership between Todd Zucker and Clyde Beffa Jr. had its genesis in a San Mateo, CA, sandbox in 1947. Their friendship was already several decades old when they decided to go into business together opening K&L Liquors in 1976 in the Bay Area town of Millbrae. The business has expanded considerably since then.
Todd Zucker (left) and Clyde Beffa Jr. have been successful partners while running the Bay Area’s K&L Wines for several decades.
Today, it consists of stores in San Francisco and Redwood City, a distribution center, three mail-order wine clubs and a website that’s widely acclaimed as one of the industry’s best. In recent years, the pair has been joined by a second generation, as sons Brian Zucker and Clyde Beffa III, better known as Trey, have come on-board. The company name also showcases the emphasis the owners place on family. The K comes from the name of Clyde’s wife Kay and the L from Todd’s wife Linda. The family dogs are even listed as staff members on the website, with Bailey Beffa credited as vice president of recreation, and Wiley Zucker as vice president of in-store snacks.
As in any successful partnership, this one works because the two principals have gravitated toward roles that suit their interests and personalities. Zucker concentrates on the various administrative, financial and personnel issues K&L faces, while Beffa is the head wine buyer as well as overseeing the wine clubs and monthly newsletter.
After establishing a reputation for pricing that undercut the competition at the Millbrae store, K&L opened its second store, in Redwood City, after California abolished “fair trade laws” in 1978. In 1986 they closed the original unit and opened up in San Francisco. Since then, they’ve changed San Francisco locations several times, getting closer to downtown on each move. The current 6,700 sq. ft. store, close to the SBC Ballpark, opened last April. The Redwood City store, which includes warehouse and office space, is about twice that size.
When the Beffa/Zucker partnership began, only about 35% of K&L’s volume came from wine sales and most of that was jug wine. Today, according to Zucker, they do more than 95% of their business in wine, with a few percent in spirits and about 1% of sales coming from wine accessories and other non-beverage items.
One of the many things that both partners agree on is how much the business has changed since they opened their first store almost 30 years ago, including the changing nature of the competition.
“There’s been a fairly dramatic change in California since the elimination of the ‘fair trade’ laws in 1978, in terms of the independent merchant landscape,” said Zucker. “There are still one or two prominent competitors, one of whom is proximate to us on the peninsula and does an outstanding job, but I would say for the most part the folks whom we were competing against back in the ’70s and early ’80s are no longer in the wine retail business.
“We’ve worked really hard at trying to build a staff of folks who are really passionate about premium wine and making that transition from being a deep discounter of franchised wines to becoming a wine merchant,” he continued. “That was probably the major change we went through. It also required our seeking out and keeping folks who wanted to be in this business on a career basis. We’ve been very fortunate. We’ve been able to build a wonderful staff.”
Although one of the big changes in the California marketplace has been the proliferation of chains and the increased focus on wine sales by supermarkets and warehouse clubs, that really hasn’t had an impact on the folks at K&L. “We had more of a concern going back into the late ’80s and early ’90s because our business was predicated on the sale of franchise brands at discount prices,” said Zucker. “We gradually transitioned into focusing more on premium wines that are not really carried by the grocery chains and the warehouse clubs. So it really has become less of a problem fof us since the early ’90s.”
Interest in Wine Collecting
“When we started back in ’76, I became the wine guy because Todd wasn’t really interested and I had been collecting wine for about five years already,” Beffa recalled, noting that it was a 1971 article in Playboy about collecting wine, which first got him interested. “In those days the jug wine market was a big business and sweet wines were still popular. But people were discovering fine wine, so I started bringing in products from better-known California wineries and a few imported wines.
The next generation of Beffas (“Trey,” far left) and Zuckers (Brian, far right) are both deeply involved in the K&L operation.
“I was always into Bordeaux and we’re well known across the country for our Bordeaux. In fact, it represents 28% of all our business. Between that and California Cabernet, it’s between 45% and 50%,” he continued, noting that both segments contain highly collectible wines.
Even as the K&L inventory and selection increased, for many years the emphasis remained on red wines, primarily from California and Bordeaux. Originally, Beffa bought all the wines himself, but that has changed over time. First, someone joined them when they opened the Redwood City store who was excited about wines from Oregon and other more esoteric regions. “In the last 10 years, we’ve really been hiring people for certain niches. In 1997, we hired this great Italian wine guy, who had been in the business for 15 or16 years and he started buying Italian wines because I had no interest in them. Up until he came to work for us, in the 24-page newsletter there may have been half a page on Italian wines at most; now we have two full pages dedicated to the product and we have huge sales.”
Currently, K&L has nine buyers. “They all have their specialties and are really passionate about learning about what’s coming out. There are so many new products on the market, it’s hard to keep track of them but we do a pretty good job.”
Among the buyers that K&L has added over the years is “Trey” Beffa, who grew up in the business and now serves as the primary California wine buyer. While California Cabernets remain important, the younger Beffa noted that “pinot noirs are very popular right now and merlot is slow. Everything is so vintage-driven. Right now, California wines are selling really well.” His father agreed: “It’s what you’ve got to sell. If it’s not a good California vintage, then people don’t buy it.”
With his team of wine buying specialists, Beffa is always trying to stay at least one step ahead of his wine-loving customers in finding new and exciting products. “It’s not so new anymore, but New Zealand is big, and so are South Africa and Australia,” he observed. “Those wines are kind of a mirror image of the California style. Spain is big, it’s been there forever, but it’s a big category now, becau