Many of the best independent wine and spirits retailers are multi-generational family businesses and many are long-standing partnerships. Miami’s Foremost Sunset Corners is both. Long regarded throughout Florida’s populous and prosperous Dade County as the place to go to purchase the best in beverage alcohol, the store will be celebrating its fiftieth anniversary in December. Owners and cousins Larry Solomon and Michael Bittel are second-generation partners in the business founded by their grandfather in 1954, since none of the original owners’ children chose to go into the business.
Larry Solomon (left) and Michael Bittel, co-owners of the well-known Foremost Sunset Corners, in Miami, FL.
Both men have been around the business their entire lives. Solomon recalls his first jobs as putting bottles in bags and mopping up the lounge in the days when, like many Florida retailers, the business included an on-premise establishment in the same building, but with a separate entrance. (A decision was made several years ago to close the lounge, which allowed the retail operation to expand and fill the 5,000-sq. ft. building.) As adults, the 50-year-old Bittel claims tenure of 30 years and Solomon, who is two years younger, 25 years.
“The way I’d characterize our store is that we specialize in wines and spirits,” said the understated Solomon. “For the most part, I do the operations and the liquor buying. Michael does the wine buying and the wine selling. But what we really specialize in is providing a lot of service.” He pointed out that unlike the supermarkets, warehouse stores and even large beverage alcohol chains, which deal primarily in heavily branded items, at Sunset Corners the emphasis is on the upper end of the business.
“We are extremely knowledgeable about the products we carry. We’re able to go out and find things for customers, specialty items.”
PHOTOGRAPHY BY MATTHEW PACE
“There’s been a world of changes,” said Bittel of his three decades in the store. “Just look at it item by item. Beers are a very important part of our business. Years ago, it was pretty much domestic beers plus Heineken, St. Pauli Girl and Beck’s. Today, we probably carry 300 different kinds of beers. We’ve got all the Belgian beers and many other specialty and imported beers. Back then, it was about $1.29 for a six-pack of inexpensive domestic beer. Today, you can’t buy a bottle of beer for $1.29.”
SUPERPREMIUMS DRIVE MARKET
“If you look at the liquor category, it used to be that there was a fairly small premium brand business. Everything was dominated by either low-end or mid-range products. Today, it’s almost the exact opposite, where our business is dominated by superpremium products, whether they are vodkas or single malts or tequilas. So, that whole pyramid has been turned upside down over the last 30 years.”
Solomon added, “Over the years, you basically had a low end, a high end and a middle in terms of spirits. Let’s take vodka, for instance. What we’ve seen in this store, and it might be because of our clientele, is that the low end of that category has virtually disappeared, primarily as a result of the introduction of different ultra-premiums. Absolut used to be the major ultra-premium vodka, but that’s not the case anymore. You have brands like Grey Goose, Belvedere, and Ketel One that have all stepped up to the plate. Of course, you still need to have your inexpensive stuff on the shelf, your $10.99 jug of vodka, but at our store those sales are pretty much gone these days.”
Any discussion of distilled spirits in the retail market these days has to include the proliferation of new flavors and line extensions in a number of spirits categories. The big question for retailers is always, which ones do they take and where do they put them? It’s a question that Solomon has faced often in recent years.
“A lot of times it’s the customers who are going to make the decisions,” he said. “It’s what they’re looking for that matters.” Solomon added that the downside of all the new flavor introductions is that the suppliers and distributors expect to get more facings on the shelf. “The retailer has a limited amount of space and it can be a little oppressive when you have a vodka in the three regular sizes — 1.75, 1 liter and 750 ml — and they want to make a placement of four flavors in three sizes. That’s 12 additional facings. So you’ve got to make a decision. Maybe you want to carry the product, but you don’t want to carry all three sizes, or you don’t take all the flavors.”
Foremost Sunset Corners, according to Solomon, has long done a big business in single malt whiskies and high-end cognacs, and it’s one of the things that have always set the store apart. “What we like to look for, both in wines and spirits, are the more obscure items that have a lot of quality,” Solomon explained. “You can turn your customers on to these and kind of make a brand within your own store. We’ve been very successful at that through the years.”
In Solomon’s opinion, retailers often don’t know how to make the most of the opportunities they have in front of them. It might be easier to sell a well-known branded spirit, but he’d rather take customers back to the tasting table and turn them on to a new experience. “Our customers come in and they ask for recommendations,” he said. “They’re often looking to try something new.”
STRONG WINE PRESENCE
That’s also true when it comes to wine, which according to Solomon’s estimate, accounts for 60% of the store’s business. (He pegs the spirits portion of the business at 30%, with beer and food making up the remainder.) With wine accounting for such a large part of the operation’s sales, it’s understandable that one of the partners spends the majority of his time and focus on that area. “What we try and do is stay one step ahead of the game. We want to be trend-setters rather than trend followers,” explained Bittel. “That’s the great part of being in the retail business. We have the capacity to follow good wines, wherever they come from. Southwest France is an area that’s particularly strong. Portugal is doing well. Italy is doing very well. We look for pockets of interest. New Zealand is very hot for us. We’re beginning to actually experiment with Greek wines.”
Foremost specializes in superpremium products — in wine, beer and spirits — and offers approximately 300 different beers in the store, including many specialty brands and imports.
To anyone who only knows Greek wine through an acquaintance with retsina, one might wonder about the nature of such an experiment. But Bittel inspires confidence that he knows what he’s doing. “There’s a timely interest in Greek things at the moment because of the Olympics, but that’s just one piece of the equation. For people who are marketing higher-quality Greek wines — and in fact, there are some wonderful estate-bottled wines being produced — this is an opportune time for them to introduce their products to the marketplace. The question is, can you get beyond retsina to more basic reds and whites. We’ve found a few that we like and there’s no doubt that there are lots of them that are of excellent quality. Right now, it’s something that we’re just experimenting with and which has been very well received by consumers.
“I think one of the major differences between retailing today and 25 years ago is that there’s an enthusiasm and a passion for wine and an enjoyment of experimenting with new and different things. People are excited when they can be exposed to something that they haven’t tried before,” Bittel said.
GIVE THEM A TASTE
Bittel’s responsibilities also include overseeing the store’s many wine tastings. “There isn’t a week that goes by that we aren’t doing a couple of tastings,” he said. “We always take the time to make sure that the staff rotates in and out, that they have the same opportunity that we do to try the wine.
“The tastings have different focuses,” he continued. “We do what I call thematic tastings. It might be wines of a given vintage. For instance, in the last 30 days we did a tasting of 25 different wines from the 2001 Bordeaux vintage. We try to have an educational component to everything we do. We also recently had seven wine producers from New Zealand in the store, who poured about 15 of their wines. We conducted a tasting on a Saturday in May, where we had nine different wine producers from Italy pouring their wines. And we try to mix it up a little bit. We’ll sometimes do dinners in restaurants.”
CREATING STORE EXCITEMENT
“That’s another way the business has evolved,” Bittel said. “In retail today, to a certain extent, you’re in the entertainment business. You have to create reasons for people to come to your place of business because the fact is, if you segment out wine from liquor, everybody sells wine today. The grocery stores have an excellent selection of wine. There has to be some reason, other than service, that makes customers say, ‘I’m not going to buy that wine in the grocery store, I’m going to make an extra stop at a retail store.’
“There was big article in our local newspaper the other day, an analysis of retail, that said Americans talk about how important service is, but at the end of the day, what they care about is price. That’s why you have the success of these big box stores like Costco and BJ’s, where they provide no service but sharp prices. I think you need sharp prices, but also excellent service.”
Wine sales, which have been growing steadily, account for approximately 60% of the store’s business.
At the same time, Bittel added, “I think you also need what I call the entertainment component to draw people to your business and create a reason for them to shop your store. You give them that educational experience, that opportunity to try the wine, that opportunity to meet people.”
Indeed, Bittel maintains that you have to sell customers their wine before they shop for food. “If they pick up the fish first, and they don’t have the wine at home already, they’re going to buy it in the grocery store. You’ve got to help them make the wine decision before they go and pick up the fish.”
All of the in-store tasting events are presented free of charge. According to Bittel, turnout can vary tremendously with the biggest crowds (100 to 140 people) coming on Friday nights “in season.” A weeknight event is likely to draw a much smaller crowd. “The one we had last night was from 5:30 to 7:00 and we got about 17 people,” he said. “But I learned a long time ago that the measure of success is not necessarily how many people you had in attendance, but how many customers you made and how much product you sold. Last night was an extraordinarily successful event. We sold six cases of wine. And these were expensive wines, averaging $50 to $60 a bottle. We’ve had events with 40 people at them and haven’t sold that much wine.”
LOVING THE BUSINESS
But whether it’s selling a $50 bottle of wine, a rare cognac or a six-pack of imported beer, like many retailers who have the business in their blood, these two men can’t see themselves doing anything else. “I love the human interaction,” said Bittel enthusiastically. “When people come into the store, it’s because wine and spirits adds something positive to their lives. If they’re buying for a special occasion, typically it tends to be something positive. If they’re getting something to have with friends, it’s a positive element that they add to their lives, and it’s a very social thing. I’ve been blessed over the course of time that a significant number of my own personal friends are people that I’ve met through the store who have the same kind of interests that I have. My wife and I have been blessed with a wonderful life and a lot of that is attributable to the industry that I’m in.”
Similarly his partner can’t think of anything he doesn’t like about the business. “I loved growing up in it,” Solomon said, with equal passion. “It’s all-consuming. I love everything about it.
“The bottom line is that to be successful you really have to have a niche in the business,” added Solomon. It’s obvious that he and his partner have found the perfect niche for their business as they begin the second 50 years of the Foremost Sunset Corners operation.
Robert Keane is a contributing editor to Beverage Dynamics and writes for a variety of other business magazines.