Note: This feature ran in a supplement in the latest issue of Beverage Dynamics that celebrated family-owned businesses in the beverage alcohol industry.
Eighty years after opening, Peco’s Liquors maintains a homey feel. The Wilmington, Delaware business has been a family enterprise from the beginning. And it is built into the former home of its founders, Joseph and Frances Peco.
“The employee break room used to be my great grandparents’ kitchen,” says Ed Mulvihill, a fourth-generation owner.
It’s a fitting metaphor. The business opened in 1936 as a storefront extending off the Pecos’ house. During the decades, the retailer has expanded, and survived setbacks — including fire and corporate competition — thanks to loyal employees, customers and family members who’ve carried on Peco traditions of determination, community spirit and innovation.
The American Dream
The history of Peco’s reflects the America dream. Joseph Peco emigrated from Italy into the U.S. in 1906. He was fifteen years old. Like so many immigrants, he sought opportunities for a better life.
He spent his youth working in various shops. At one job, he delivered beer barrels to a local brewery, lending an early insight into the alcohol business. But for Joseph to realize his American dream of self-employment, it first took a return to Italy.
He traveled back to his country of birth for a childhood friend’s wedding. There, Joseph met his future wife. He and Frances later married and returned to America, where she encouraged her husband to reach for his goals.
“She told my great grandfather to bet on himself,” Ed says. “She gave him that push.”
And from Frances’ encouragement was born a legacy.
The couple chose to open Peco’s Liquors on Route 13 in Wilmington. This spot was well situated between Baltimore, Washington D.C. and Philadelphia. Joseph and Frances must have had a good eye for location. In June, Peco’s will celebrate 80 years at that same address.
Adaptation and Survival
A business can’t remain open for eight decades without innovation, setback or changing of the guard. The first major transformation at Peco’s was in 1942. Joseph decided to close the store’s small delicatessen and focus solely on selling spirits and beer.
When he passed in 1954, Frances took over of the business. Eventually, Peco’s came under the control of her and Joseph’s daughter, Rita. Rita’s husband, Frank Gazzillo, left his bricklaying job to become the store’s new manager. He would run Peco’s for 50 years. Frank adapted and persevered. He led multiple renovations, including adding floor space, a wine cellar and a walk-in humidor. The business and its offices expanded into the house.
Frank’s greatest challenge was the fire of 1986. “It burned the whole store down,” Mulvihill says. “He was told it’d be a year before he could reopen.” The blaze occurred just before Memorial Day. Frank had the store rebuilt and opened again in time for Labor Day — about three months later.
“My grandparents were people persons,” Mulvihill explains. “They had a lot of friends. The community helped them rebuild the store. It was like George Bailey in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’ They had the steel delivered to rebuild the store before they even had the permit for the construction.”
Time marched onward. Rita and Frank’s daughter, Francine Mulvihill, joined the company in 1993 as director of operations.
Her focus on modernization — continuing from generations before her — was passed down to her son, Ed.
Peco’s has remained a successful, family-operated store in modern times, when many mom-and-pop shops have closed after losing business to Big Box stores.
This is not for lack of competition. “We’re ten minutes from the first Total Wine & More, their flagship location,” Ed Mulvihill points out. “It’s been challenging. The price for me to buy from my wholesaler can be more than the cost for consumers to buy the same item at Total Wine.”
“It’s pretty frustrating,” he adds. “It’s often a balancing act with pricing. I’ve been in dialogue with my vendors about that. But I’m not calling for price control.”
Instead, Ed looks for other methods to distinguish Peco’s. The closeness to Total Wine “is also been a blessing in disguise,” he says. “They are who they are, and we are who we are. And that’s all about specialize, specialize, specialize.”
Breaking Ground on Growlers
One way Ed allowed Peco’s to stand out — while continuing the family tradition of innovation — was by leading the charge in Delaware to legalize in-store growler fills.
Growlers are nearly ubiquitous today. But not that long ago — as the craft beer craze grew faster than politicians could pass legislation — growlers were less common. As recently as 2013, alcohol retail stores in Delaware could not fill growlers. Ed recognized the need and the opportunity.
When he joined Peco’s four years ago after graduating college, he “saw that business was good. But it could be better.” In order to lure customers away from Big Box stores, he ramped up Peco’s craft beer selection. This included an 18-door cold box filled with microbrews. He got ahead of the Big Boxes in this rapidly expanding category.
During this period, Ed visited a New Jersey store that featured a growler section. The appeal was apparent. He called the Delaware Alcoholic Beverage Control Commissioner. “I asked him whether I could do it in my store,” Mulvihill recalls. “He said no. There was no law saying that we could or could not.”
So Ed sought to amend state law. As luck would have it, the local state representative was a regular customer at Peco’s. Ed explained to her what a growler was, and she got on board with the idea.
The change took two years. When state legislation to legalize growler-fills finally passed, it did so with much support. “The breweries like it, the distributors like it, and the retailers like it,” Mulvihill explains. “It’s good for all of our businesses. It’s a win-win-win.”
And the growler law was a big victory for Peco’s. He installed a fill station with 16 taps. Being at the forefront of this movement, Ed added growler business to his store three months before any other retailer.
“We had the market cornered,” he remembers. “Now there are 25 locations in Delaware doing growlers. Though it’s still a relatively small number.”
Into the Future
What’s next for a business so steeped in history?
“I always tell myself that I’m not going to do anything new this year, and then I go out and add something like food trucks,” Mulvihill says.
It sounds like more of the same of what has sustained Peco’s for 80 years: innovation, and embracing both the industry and the community.
“The people in this business — the sales reps and customers — and being a part of the community are what attracted my great grandfather to this business,” Mulvihill explains. “I love this industry. I look forward to maintaining our traditions here for a long, long time.”