2015 Retailer of the Year: Trig’s Cellar 70

In the Northwoods region of Wisconsin, a vacation destination known for its open spaces and winter sports, our 2015 Retailer of the Year operates a successful chain of beer, wine and spirit shops. Despite the small size of the markets Trig’s Cellar 70 is found in, the chain’s five locations offer a product selection, staff knowledge and level of customer service you’d expect to find in a major metropolitan store.

Cellar 70 is the brand name for the beverage alcohol departments at Trig’s, a chain of full-service grocery stores founded in 1971 owned by Trygve (Trig) Solberg’s T.A. Solberg Company. He prefers to call the stores part of a collection, rather than a chain, because each location is tailored to the needs of its individual community. The same can be said of Cellar 70, which operates in five very diverse markets ranging from a college town to a mill town to a resort town.

“We have a population base of 25,000 in Stevens Point, which is the home of a University of Wisconsin branch,” says store manager Jeff Tewes. “We’re very different from other stores in the northwoods because we have by far the largest craft beer selection in all our markets.”

The Stevens Point store’s product mix is 34 percent beer, 34 percent spirits and 22 percent wine. Tewes adds that according to his in-store data, 35 percent of sales at the store are craft-driven.

“It’s not just college students; our entire customer base has come to think of us as the destination for specialty beers,” he says. “Customers know we have the selection, contacts and availability to provide any product they’re looking for.”


Contrast those numbers with the Minocqua Cellar 70, about 100 miles to the north. “Currently our mix is about 55 percent wine, 30 percent spirits and 20 percent beer,” says store manager John Ackman. “Craft beer takes up about 15 percent of our beer sales so it’s a big seller, but my location is predominantly wine-based.”

The Cellar 70 in Rhinelander also sells mostly wine, but caters to customers seeking value. “Our major employer in town is the Rhinelander Paper Company, so my market is budget-friendly,” says store manager Julie Stone. “We focus on mainstream beer and lower-end wine.”

Cellar 70’s Beverage Consultant, Dennis Kohl, also teaches courses on wine appreciation at the local community college near Rhinelander, which helps open the market to new products.


From a Vacation to a Career

Wine is what Cellar 70 is known for, in large part thanks to Kohl. Many years ago when he lived in Chicago, he would vacation in Wisconsin and shop at Trig’s because it was the best store in the area. “I liked their operation, so I contacted Trig and told him I wanted to relocate to the Northwoods and work for him,” Kohl says. “We talked periodically, then one day I got a call and he said they were ready to hire me.”

That was 1993, when the Trig’s in Minocqua only had a small beverage alcohol department and Cellar 70 didn’t exist yet. Working slowly with Solberg and Lee Guenther, the company’s President and CEO, Kohl built up the wine selection. By 1999, the company decided it was time to use a retail space previously occupied by a video store to create the first Cellar 70, which Kohl calls “our first serious wine department.”

“There were two other liquor stores in the area, but I knew this region was ready for the wine business in a big way,” he says. “I wanted to expand into French wine, Italian, Australian, South American (which no one around here had a great selection of at the time). So we started importing more wine, bringing in finer wines from California, Washington and Oregon – and it grew from there.”

Today, Cellar 70 locations offer as many as 10,000 wine SKUs.


Expanding the Brand

The name Cellar 70 came from the first store’s proximity to highway 70 in Minocqua. When the company decided to remodel the Trig’s grocery store in that location, it brought in the Cellar 70 concept – a process it has continued with each store remodel over the past two decades.

“The The cellar look for the stores came from a trip Lee, Trig and I took out to California to visit with Korbel,” Kohl says. “Between the tasting room and retail store, there’s a Spanish grotto with an arched gateway, decorated with Spanish tile. Trig looked at it and said ‘I like the idea of the archway, but we’d need something more local to replace the Spanish tile,’ so we decided to use cedar with Cellar 70.”

Guenther describes the look as an inverted barrel, which appeals to the store’s large wine- and spirits-drinking customer base. “Depending on the size of the store, there are several of those vaults,” he says. “Each store has a slightly different color, but they all have soft lighting with wooden floors.”

The store sizes vary from 6,000 to 13,000 square feet, depending on the space available during each remodel. For example, the Eagle River Cellar 70 was built from the ground up, whereas the Cellar 70 in Rhinelander was previously a restaurant. More recently, a small Cellar 70 has been added to the Trig’s Village Market in Manitowish Waters.

“We’re always looking for opportunities for more locations, but all of our grocery locations have a Cellar 70 at this time,” Guenther says. “Our only room for expansion at this point is our six gas station and convenience locations. Some of those sell liquor, but none have a big selection.”


Replicating Success Across Locations

When the second Cellar 70 opened, Guenther and Kohl faced a problem – how to apply the concept to a new market, with new customers and new employees.

“Our differentiation is the size, selection and variety of products in the store, but most important is the knowledge Dennis brought to the company when we opened the first Cellar 70,” Guenther says. “Fortunately he was able to train other associates, which really set us apart.”

To this day, in addition to teaching classes at the college level, Kohl holds seminars for store associates on a regular basis. “Anyone in the company can come take my classes,” he says. “When we hire someone, we give them the background they need to meet our selling standards.”

The company also hired two managers with a retail background over the years (Tewes, who has three decades of retail experience, and Bruce Conard, who previously worked as a food and beverage director at a number of hotels and resorts).


Back to the Basics

Cellar 70 doesn’t offer a loyalty card, online ordering, or any other high-tech selling tools (though they do maintain a robust social media presence, primarily to communicate with customers). Conard believes in selling face-to-face and getting to know customers.

“Our stores can really compete with anyone in the big markets, which is impressive given our population base,” Conard says. “Ultimately it comes back to the basics of servicing the customers who walk through the door.”

The company also strongly believes in print media. “I think we have the finest ad in all of our markets,” Tewes says. “Our Thanksgiving eight-page layout will account for about 50 percent of our sales that weekend. Then we’ll run a similar spread for the Christmas and New Year’s timeframe.”

The store managers also write a weekly wine and food pairing column in their local newspapers, which results in selling out the featured wine every time, according to Conard.

“We built this brand on service, quality and commitment to the customer,” Guenther says. “We make it our number one priority to be in the forefront of their mind for any product they may be looking for.”

Maintaining Community Relations

One reason for Cellar 70’s success has certainly been the relationship the company has built within each of its communities, something especially important for the off-premise industry.

Conard says getting out and networking with non-profit organizations and charities is just another aspect of serving the customers.

“It’s hard to measure, but I think one reason for our success is that we’re constantly giving back,” Guenther says. “People know that and they talk about the causes and events we’re involved in, whether it’s a wine tasting fundraiser or something else. Community involvement is a cornerstone of our business, and it’s very important to us.”

The stores also reach out to the community by holding large in-store events, like the annual wine show in the Stevens Point store that draws 700 people in a town of 25,000. “Our competition doesn’t get involved with the community like we do, and it’s been a huge benefit to us,” Tewes says.


Benefits of Being in Wisconsin

“We’re very fortunate in Wisconsin that we have the laws that we have,” Solberg says. “Many states have very restrictive laws about what retailers can sell and how much, but Wisconsin allows us to really serve our consumers.”

While the state has always taken a fairly liberal view to alcohol sales, it’s become less restrictive over the years.

“When I first came here, we couldn’t taste wine in retail,” Kohl says. “Trig Solberg was one of the spearheads in getting the law passed in the legislature that allows us to taste wine, and now they’ve added beer. We’re very fortunate we can offer products to our in-store customers before they make a decision to buy.”

Currently there’s a bill making its way through the Wisconsin legislature that would let retailers offer spirit tastings as well.

The other legal hurdle in many states that Cellar 70 doesn’t face in Wisconsin is the ability to offer a single entrance and checkout for grocery and beverage alcohol customers.

“Especially in tourist areas, you want to be all things to all people,” Guenther says. “So for the grocery stores having everything attached with a common entrance is a huge advantage to Trig’s and to the Cellar 70 brand. It’s a one-stop shopping experience for customers and adds a dimension to our business. The ability to shop both sides of the store without two stops means that wine, beer and spirits have become part of the regular grocery list for most of our customers.”


What’s Hot in the Northwoods

Cellar 70’s biggest sellers match up pretty well with national trends, although the stores do skew more toward higher-end wine (since that’s their specialty) and whiskeys (given their northern location and cold winters). Bourbon has become such a popular category for Cellar 70 that the 2014 Thanksgiving ad featured a 10 percent off promotion for all Bourbons across the board.

“Single malt Scotch is a big category for us and we can’t really keep up with it,” Ackman says. “Like with Bourbon, the younger generation is really getting into it. As much as Dennis doesn’t like to hear it, flavored whiskey is getting younger people involved in the category and hopefully as their palettes change, they’ll come to appreciate the higher-end Bourbons and Scotch.”

As Tewes mentioned when discussing the Stevens Point product mix, craft beer is a driving trend as well.

“There’s no price limit I’ve seen yet where craft beer tops out,” he says. “We’re selling $20 to $25 four-packs of beer.”

For wine, Tewes says that red blends continue to do well, and Moscato is still very strong. “Wisconsin definitely has a sweet tooth,” Kohl adds.

No matter what the category, Kohl stresses the importance of interacting with customers, learning about their taste profile and brand preferences, and understanding their needs.

“Hand-selling is the one biggest thing that sets us apart from the competition,” he says. “People come to us to learn about beer, wine and spirits. They know our staff is always there to offer explanations and answer their questions.”


Meet the Staff

Each Cellar 70 location is staffed by consultants with experience in various markets throughout the midwest. The company’s experts include:

  • Dennis Kohl: Cellar 70’s head beverage consultant, who has been with the company for more than 20 years, Dennis has been in the business since 1979. He taught wine appreciation at the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago, and now teaches a wine and spirits course at Nicolet College. Dennis is also a member of the Beverage Dynamics national retailer wine panel.
  • Bruce Conard: With Cellar 70 since 2003, Bruce is a
    graduate of the Chicago School of Wine and previously worked for Hyatt Hotels and Resorts in Chicago.
  • Jeff Tewes: In charge of advertising and marketing for all Cellar 70 locations, Jeff has more than 30 years of retail and management experience.


Trig’s Cellar 70 Quick Facts

  • Trygve (Trig) and Tula Solberg created the first Trig’s store in 1971 in Land O’Lakes, Wisconsin.
  • Today the company operates in five locations in Northern Wisconsin: Rhinelander, Minocqua, Eagle River, Wausau and Stevens Point.
  • The first Cellar 70 opened in the Minocqua location. Today each Trig’s store has a Cellar 70, offering more than 10,000 SKUs of wine and a wide selection of beer and spirits.
  • Parent company T.A. Solberg Company, Inc. employs more than 1,000 associates. Aside from Trig’s grocery stores that include Cellar 70 departments, properties include Trig’s Central Bakery and Trucking, Trig’s Recycling Center, the Tasmania Northwoods Resort, Trig’s Village Market in Manitowish Waters and Tula’s Café in Minocqua, as well as several convenience stores and gas stations.


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