Colorful flare is at the heart of Miami culture, and this is reflected by Jensen’s Liquors. Owned by second-generation operator Eddie Cruz, this lively chain now counts six units, in and around the city. That’s excellent growth for a business that began with a single shop, near Little Havana, in the ‘70s. Jensen’s has expanded and evolved with Miami.
Cruz grew up with the business. His father, Eduardo Cruz Sr., first purchased a bar and package store named Jensen’s in 1978. It was located not far from Calle Ocho, SW 8th Street, the landmark heart of Cuban culture in Miami. From a young age, Cruz worked for his father. He has witnessed a lot of change.
“When I was growing up, Little Havana was not a great place,” Cruz says. “There were many difficult influences. But now Little Havana has changed a lot. There are now a lot of different influences, with great diversity. What were not good neighborhoods before are great neighborhoods now.”
“And it’s becoming little pockets of neighborhoods, too,” he adds. “Before, it was all one big neighborhood. Now, you have Allapattah, Wynwood, Brickell. There are so many different areas.”
This increasing diversity in Miami has served as a backdrop for the expansion of Jensen’s. As Cruz adds new stores to the chain, each new business takes on its own character. Often this is a direct reflection of the particular neighborhood and the local culture.
In one store hangs high-end artwork, a nod to the globally celebrated art scene in Miami. Visit the Little Havana location of Jensen’s, in an urban neighborhood, and you’ll find televisions constantly broadcasting sports. Another location has a surfboard theme, while bikes hang from the high ceiling in another. One store by the Miami River has an aquatic theme. The soul of the city is immense, and you’ll find every single bit of it in Jensen’s.
Family and Expansion
The Cruz family has a background like many multi-generational stories in the beverage alcohol retail industry. When Eduardo Cruz Sr. bought Jensen’s nearly four decades ago, it was a local bar. Cruz’s father transformed the business into a liquor store, with a small bar in the back. In the early ‘90s, Cruz Sr. made Jensen’s into retail only.
Cruz grew up working for his father, and eventually went into the family business. Together they acquired three additional stores. After selling two, father and son each kept one store for themselves. Then Cruz Sr. sold his store, the original Jensen’s, in 2002.
Cruz bought back that shop in 2009, and had added on four other stores under his ownership in the meantime. In March of 2019 he acquired a sixth.
When buying, “I look for bustling neighborhoods with good corners, where they can be close to the corner liquor store,” Cruz explains. “Corners with high traffic.”
Did Cruz dream of this day as a kid while working in his father’s store?
“People think I set out to do this, but I never set out to have six stores,” he says. “They just happened, one by one. I picked up a new store, on average, every seven or eight years. The dream, in my mind, was the opportunity to own just one store.”
It’s a humble appraisal from a successful proprietor, who was ultimately able to continue and expand the family business. After all, in 2009, Cruz did repurchase the original Jensen’s — seven years after his father had sold it.
“The store came full circle with me,” Cruz says. “I grew up in that store.”
The family legacy is poised for future growth. While they prepare for or attend college, Cruz’s sons work for Jensen’s. “I’d love to see them go into this business because my father saw me do it and I’d love to see them,” he says.
And he envisions a handful more locations for his chain.
“I’d like to add a few more stores,” Cruz says. “Locations somewhere in underserved communities. Places where I can go in and put my name on a store because the people already know my name.”
For decades and generations, the name Jensen’s has proceeded itself as a mark of quality.
“The future is bright,” Cruz reflects.
Miami may claim its own unique culture, but what’s popular in local liquor stores is not terribly different from the rest of the country. And these days, that begins with bourbon.
“Bourbon is what everybody’s buying right now,” says Robert Graciano, general manager, Jensen’s. “It’s really hot. We sent out an email to our Miami customers when we got bottles for our last Willet store select, and we sold that entire barrel in less than 30 minutes. Those were $150 a bottle, and they sold like water.”
All the trendy whiskey brands move quickly at Jensen’s. Graciano points towards the popular Sazerac/Buffalo Trace whiskeys as hot items, along with Four Roses. Barrel picks remain a key point of differentiation in attracting customers who are curious for additional whiskey options.
“Eddie and I have done eight different picks together,” says Graciano. “We went last October, and the February before that. We try to find something that has the flavor profile that people are looking for. That’s high-rye, sweet and spicy.”
Another barrel pick that turned out especially well was a visit to Barton 1792 Distillery in 2018. Cruz and Graciano selected a barrel of Barton 1792 Full Proof. Two years later, Jim Murray named that same whiskey the best in the world in his Whiskey Bible 2020.
“That was one of my favorites from all of the picks that we’ve ever done,” says Graciano.
Jensen’s takes pride in its selection of high-end spirits.
“We have a guy who comes here from Hollywood [FL, about 30 minutes north] to buy bourbon,” says Graciano.
Cruz does not see the whiskey boom diminishing any time soon. Same for the category’s trend towards premiumization.
“In Little Havana, $20 for a bourbon was once thought of as a lot,” he says. “Now I have $125-to-$200 bottles that sell every day.”
Miami has become a trendy city for the wealthy, a place of leisure and luxury. Jensen’s, again, has reflected this change, stocking the proper SKUs. Single malts are a favorite among this clientele.
“We have one local who’s one of the biggest whisky collectors in the world,” Cruz says. “He buys 50 to-60-year-old Macallans from us.”
When most drinks enthusiasts think of Miami, the word that likely pops into their minds is cocktails. The city has turned into a hot spot for mixology.
“Bartenders and mixologists come into my stores looking for help in making high-end cocktails,” Cruz says. “The Miami cocktail scene is huge. We have celebrity chefs here opening restaurants and making amazing drinks.”
As such, top-shelf mixology components are regularly stocked at Jensen’s. This includes high-end Triple sec, Orange Curaçao and elderflower liqueurs, which in particular are selling very well. Organic liqueurs are another popular SKU at current moment.
When it comes to beer, the trend remains, “IPAs, IPAs, IPAs,” says Cruz. “They love it here.”
Same goes for local breweries, of which Greater Miami boasts many. Some of the more popular at Jensen’s include Wynwood Brewing, Biscayne Bay Brewing, Miami Brewing, Abbey Brewing, Lincoln’s Beard Brewing, Funky Buddha, Concrete Beach Brewery and Tarpon River Brewing in nearby Fort Lauderdale.
“Growlers are still huge for us as well,” Cruz says. “I’m setting up a station right now in the store I most recently bought, with eight to ten taps.”
For Jensen’s locations closer to Miami’s famous beaches, boxed wine remains a best seller. Overall, the business, like others, has seen a boom in rosé. Cruz also notes that wine brands founded by celebrities, like Brad Pitt and Jon Bon Jovi, have had loyal fans.
In terms of regions, Californian wine has moved to the top. “In the ‘80s, France was huge, but now that has dropped off,” Cruz says. “We sell a lot of Californian wine. Napa is huge, and Chilean wine now, too.”
Jensen’s cannot keep Juggernaut Hillside Cabernet stocked, Graciano says, because it’s become so popular. Norton Wine is also moving at a high rate, as is The Prisoner wine label.
By building great relationships with vendors, Jensen’s is able to stock one of the most impressive collections of high-end spirits in the area. This includes tequilas priced from $20 to $200, all of which are selling consistently.
The retail chain aims to stock items that are more difficult to come by, like high-end rums and single malt Scotch, says Graciano.
“I’ve been working here since 2004, and we always have a good selection of everything,” he adds. “We always try to see what are the newest releases. For example, when I first started we had maybe four or five options for The Macallan. Now we have 10 different Macallans behind the counter at higher prices. We’re always trying to see what they’re releasing. We love when customers come in the store and say, ‘I’ve never seen that before’. We always want to have something that’s unique.”
Jensen’s added an online sales component three years ago. Beyond local business, the store ships products to the states that allow direct-to-consumer alcohol orders.
“It’s done really well,” Cruz says of the digital store. “Better than I thought. It’s grown significantly.”
Currently, the digital store account for approximately 4-5% of total sales. Jensen’s hired an outside company to help in this regard.
The company has also significantly grown its social media in recent years, which has become all the more important in the age of COVID-19.
“We concentrate on social media to bring people into the stores,” says Cruz. “Whenever we see drinks that we like, we put them up on there. We have a robust social media presence.”
With a customer-service focus, Jensen’s counts employees among the store’s largest assets.
“Staff are the first face of our store for customers,” says Graciano. “It’s important that staff can find what customers are looking for while treating people good.”
When hiring, the general manager looks for potential employees who will enjoy the job.
“If they’re interested in the job, I can see that whenever they show new products or explain the difference between items,” Graciano says.
Jensen’s regularly tastes staff, including cashiers, on new products whenever these items arrive. “That way people can have the nicest experience when they come in,” Graciano says.
New opportunities await Jensen’s, as do fresh challenges. Like communities across the world, Miami has suffered under the constrictive spread of COVID-19. Local businesses have had to adapt.
“We’re only letting three to five people into the store at a time,” says Cruz. “We’re taking it day by day and just trying to get through it.”
Living in a city renowned for its culinary and cocktail culture, “We see restaurant and bar people getting hammered,” Cruz says. “Our heart goes out to them.”
Another challenge facing Jensen’s is the rise of Big Box chains.
“Back in the day, all the liquor stores were independent, so we really only had to deal with Walgreens,” Cruz says. “Now you have Total Wine and ABC. They’re hard to deal with because they’re such big competition.”
To help keep customers from making the switch, “We match pricing within our zip code,” Cruz says. “If a customer comes in and says that they can get the price at Total or ABC, we’ll give it to them for that price. We don’t want to lose a sale.”
And if Jensen’s does not have the product in stock, the store can usually get it in within 24-48 hours. But customer service is about more than just product and price.
“Everybody is going to have the low prices now,” Graciano says. “We have the customer service and the knowledge — knowing every detail about our products.”
The future is indeed bright for Jensen’s. And as its home city continues to grapple with new realities under COVID-19, Cruz says he will keep an eye out for ways that his business can support locals in need.
“Miami has allowed me to shine,” he says, “so I want to give back to Miami.”