Note: This feature ran in a supplement in the latest issue of Beverage Dynamics that celebrated family-owned businesses in the beverage alcohol industry.
Chuck Hanson remembers the first six-pack he ever sold. It was 1957. His brother, Fritz, and brother-in-law, Jim McVay, built a beer store at 17th and Irvine in Costa Mesa, California, using land they’d inherited from Fritz’s in-laws.
“Fritz’s father-in-law really encouraged him to use the land wisely—to do something with it,” Chuck Hanson recalls. “So we said, ‘It might as well be beer. Everybody knows beer.’” The trio built a tall, a two-sided clock outside the store and named it Hi-Time.
After a customer pulled that first six-pack off the shelf and paid for it, the three went home and celebrated with a $2 bottle of Champagne. “That was the nice stuff,” Chuck says. “And we thought, ‘This is going to be easy.’”
The Early Days
Before entering the beverage alcohol industry, the Hansons were fishermen in Juneau, Alaska. Their mother was very adventurous and exposed her sons to different ways of life. After moving to Beaumont, Washington to pursue a job in health care, they soon relocated to Cuba. That move was followed by a return to Washington, and finally a stint in Hawaii.
In December 1941 the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Chuck says, “We were stuck there for a couple of years.” Once able to leave, the family settled first in San Pedro, before moving to the Costa Mesa area.
The area was largely uninhabited at the time the store opened, but customers didn’t take long to find the store. Some of them, like the actor John Wayne, became regulars. Wayne had an interest in little-known liquors, Chuck says, recalling a 1950s interview in Playboy where Wayne said he drank tequila. The now-ubiquitous spirit, Chuck says, took off after Wayne mentioned it to the magazine; Hi-Time now carries more than 100 varieties.
Expanding the Family
Chuck’s interest in wine piqued after seeing his brother Harold’s wartime photos of underground wine caves. Harold served in the Army in France, near Burgundy, and after returning became the store’s general manager. He held that position for 40 years – even in retirement he still comes by occasionally. Chuck then became the store’s primary wine buyer.
Current CEO and General Manager Diana Hanson Hirst’s uncle McVay passed away in 1982, having sold his part in the business 10 to 15 years before. The toughest stretch for Hi-Time came a couple years later in 1984, when the business moved to 250 Ogle Street in Costa Mesa. The family didn’t have much extra help during that time, Hirst says, so the transition was stressful and they had to work hard to ensure customers knew about the new location. Nearby they built a 3,000 square foot, three-story, underground, temperature-controlled wine cellar—one of the largest in the country and, at the time, one of the first in the area. (The wine cellar is pictured above as the featured photo.)
Expanding the Business
“We started importing from Germany and had low prices,” Chuck says. “We traveled to Los Angeles, met the people and saw what they were doing. Then we started advertising with articles in the newspaper about wine. We always said yes to anybody who offered us a tasting.”
The retail space, redesigned in 2004, is 24,000 square feet and boasts three floors. It has a basement wine cellar, a main floor of hard-to-find spirits and exotic liquors from all over the world, a comprehensive selection of North American microbrews and a walk-in beer refrigerator with more than 1,000 beers from 25 countries. The third floor is offices.
Including family members, Hi-Time has 50 to 60 employees, some of whom have been with the company for decades (a receptionist has been there over 20 years and a bookkeeper began when she was 15 and is now in her 50s). “They feel like family,” Hirst says.
The older customers have known Hirst since she was a child. Now their kids are customers, and their kids’ kids are customers. Hirst began working at Hi-Time at the ripe old age of six. “We had an ice machine and I recycled soda bottles with my brother, Keith. We generally drove everybody crazy,” she says.
In high school, Hirst ran the registers, and in college worked on ordering bulk jugs of wine. Later, she took on more responsibility from her dad, Fritz, who is semi-retired. “He still comes by here at least four times a week,” Keith says, “and he is actually pulling orders here as we speak.” When he’s not at the store, he’s at his ranch fishing.
At 85, Chuch still works two days a week. He walks to work, then heads upstairs to look over invoices—on the day of our interview, he was sitting in one of six wine-buyers’ offices, surrounded by 50 to 60 specialty wine baskets already being prepared for Christmas gifts. Chuck loves chatting to customers so much, he says, that when he descends the stairs for a cup of coffee, he may not make it back up for a couple of hours.
Managing Family Relationships
As general manager and CEO, Hirst has tried to get out in front of family quarrels by encouraging each member to focus on a different area of the business. Her son Charlie, 31, handles online sales and helps customers with high-end bourbons; Kyle, 28, helps open and close. Her nephew Jordan, 25, is into the beer side, managing keg-delivery systems and home setups. He also places orders, and handles mixers and sodas.
Her brother, Keith Hanson, and his wife Tracy also work for Hi-Time. Tracy does the gourmet food buying. “She’s gotta work somewhere, so we put her to work here,” Keith chuckles, adding that she has worked there since she married him about 25 years ago.
Hirst’s cousin (and Chuck’s daughter), Vicki, manages purchase orders and receiving. Her brother Don is the store’s gardener and head of customer service. Keith Hanson, 56, son of co-founder Fritz Hanson and Diana’s brother, has been head liquor buyer for 20 years.
He and Tracy’s two children, son Jordan and daughter Skylar, 23, work at the family business when not in college. “Only one of them will be working in the store; Skylar will be pursuing the medical field,” Keith Hanson says. “I hope Jordan will take over my area so I’ll get more time off myself,” he adds.
Through the Generations
Four generations of Hansons now work for Hi-Time, and Chuck says it’s working well so far—but he is also cautious. “They say that after three or four generations, you’ll fold,” he says. Another family-owned wine store in the neighborhood ended up going out of business when the kids started bickering after their father died. “They sold to a big corporation,” he adds.
After more than half a century, it’s safe to say being a family business doesn’t work for everyone, but it works for the Hansons.
“You work a lot of hours, but you have flexibility,” Hirst says. “Being your own boss is very nice. When I go away, I know I have family I can trust and depend on.”
Sarah Protzman Howlett is a freelance writer and editor based in Boulder, Colo. A veteran of Condé Nast Publications in New York City, her work has appeared in O, The Oprah Magazine; Prevention; Denver’s 5280; and trade magazines across various industries.