For Jonathan Swain and his family business — Kimbark Beverage Shoppe — running a retail store on Chicago’s South Side is about more than just profit.
“Before joining the family business, I was working in community development in the South Side,” says Swain, whose who holds both a law degree and an MBA from Duke University. “One of the biggest needs we have here are jobs. Eventually, I realized that one of the best ways I could contribute to my community was as a job creator.”
In this way he follows in the entrepreneurial footsteps of his father. John W. Swain Sr. started out as a pharmacist and worked his way up to district manager for Walgreens. Wanting to start his own business, Swain Sr. purchased Kimbark Beverage in 1974. He expanded it into the adjacent space in the ‘80s, totaling 4,400 square feet. The store and its surrounding shopping center originated about a decade earlier, as part of a Hyde Park urban renewal project in the ‘60s.
This theme of urban renewal has never left Kimbark Beverage and its owners. Civic duty remains important to Swain, now president and principal of the family business. After initially working in Chicago politics and community development, he continues serving as Commissioner of the Chicago Board of Elections.
Swain, however, did not always envision himself as a proprietor. From a young age, his initial ambitions took him in a different direction. “Other than stuffing newspapers on Sundays and hanging out here just because I was happy to be around my dad, I did not grow up in this business,” he says. “My sister owned this business before me.”
Swain took over 12 years ago.
“What brought me back to this business was my commitment to my community,” he says. “Although the business wasn’t unfamiliar to me, I still knew I could learn everything else I needed to about the business, because I would have my family around me.”
Today, Kimbark Beverage employs 19 people. Swain and his family have always had an eye towards helping those in need.“We hired people who had spent time in prison even before that was a tax credit,” he says. “We believe that people deserve a second chance.”
“Our family has always lived in Hyde Park; we are part of this community, too,” he adds. “A lot of this has to do with giving people from our neighborhood the opportunity for jobs.”
The Swains contribute to local charities and organizations. This includes founding the Hyde Park Brew Fest.
Growing out of beer tastings inside the store, the event launched seven years ago. In its first iteration, the Hyde Park Brew Fest attracted about 500 people. Today, 50,000 people regularly attend. The event features top DJs in hip-hop and house music, along with craft vendors, food and other drinks that reflect the revitalized culture of the Hyde Park community.
Part of the proceeds benefits the Hyde Park Chamber of Commerce — once again supporting local job creation.
“You can do well and do good at the same time,” Swain says.
He sees the festival itself as making a positive impact on local culture.
“There have been a lot of narratives about the South Side of Chicago,” Swain says. “Our festival tells a different side of that story. In particular, the story of African Americans. When you look at our festival, you see the best of Chicago.”
Kimbark Beverage supports black culture and business beyond its neighborhood and city. The retailer highlights black-owned alcohol brands from all around.
“We connect with the African American business community,” Swain says. “When there are brands you believe you can support, you do so.”
In wine this includes Brown Estate, a black-owned Napa Valley winery founded in 1995, and Vision Cellars of Sonoma Valley, the brainchild of owner and winemaker Mac McDonald. Recently, Kimbark Beverage began stocking The McBride Sisters Wine Collection, out of Oakland, along with Maison Noir Wines, a New York-based business from the sommelier André Hueston Mack.
Kimbark Beverage also stocks Cheurlin Champagne, a brand co-owned by Chicago native and NBA legend Isiah Thomas — even though Thomas “left Chicago to go play for Detroit,” Swain says with a laugh. Joining that brand on the shelves is Love Cork Screw Wines, founded by Chrishon Lampley.
On the spirits side, the Chicago business features Uncle Nearest. This Tennessee brand is named for Nathan “Nearest” Green, a former slave who later became the first African American master distiller officially recognized in America. Green mentored a young Jack Daniels in the 19th century, and is likely who taught Daniels the Lincoln County Process. The brand Uncle Nearest is owned by Fawn Weaver.
Part of the appeal of carrying these brands is the simple fact of keeping them active as SKUs.
“One of the big challenges for these brands is that they need to get distribution, and then they need to keep distribution,” Swain explains. “We try to add and promote whatever we can, especially at this moment, when more people are focused on supporting black-owned brands.”
And obviously it goes much deeper than that.
“We support black-owned brands because they’re part of our ecosystem,” Swain says. “A lot of things in America revolve around race. That includes people not liking black people because of the color of our skin, and also exempting black people economically. We’re helping redress the negative impacts of American policy on black people in terms of income and wealth creation.”
“I was an economics and African American studies major at Duke, which is located in Durham, one of the original hubs of black business in the south,” Swain adds. “And Chicago has a great history of black business owners, such as George Ellis Johnson [founder of Johnson Products Company], John Johnson [founder of the Johnson Publishing Company] and Al Johnson [the first African American to own a General Motors franchise]. This is the lens through which I view questions about race in America.”
Damage and Recovery
Those same questions about race in America have fueled national protests in 2020. Following the recent rash of horrific, unnecessary killings of black citizens — Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, Atatiana Jefferson and more — people have flooded streets across the country in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Unfortunately, other individuals have taken advantage of this national moment to enact chaos and looting. “There are protesters, and then there are people conducting criminal activities in this country that have nothing to do with the protests,” Swain says. “And there are also looters who are taking advantages of opportunities. Obviously I don’t condone violent protests or looting.”
During the Chicago protests, looters targeted Hyde Park businesses, including Kimbark Beverage. At 1:30 a.m. on May 31, people broke into the store. They destroyed cash registers and tried to access the vault. A lot of product was stolen.
“Thankfully, we were not hit as hard as the rest of Chicago,” Swain says.
Still, the damage was done. Swain decided to board up the store to prevent further looting. He photographed the front of his business and posted it to social media, promising to respond later to what had happened.
From that one post, things improved rapidly.
An outpouring of support followed Swain’s photo and comments. “Calls, texts, emails, so many people were asking to help,” he recounts. “People from all around the country were asking, ‘How can we help?’ To see that, that was huge.”
Swain attributes the national response to Kimbark Beverage being located on a college campus. For many who attended nearby University of Chicago, seeing their old liquor store damaged became a call to action.
Fortunately, Kimbark Beverage had the proper insurance to cover its losses. But the store did have to close for 12 days for repairs — which affected employee wages. To pay the staff, Swain created a Go Fund Me. “Our goal was $20,000,” he says. “We filled that in three days.”
Looking at the boards nailed across his store entrance, Swain saw beyond the destruction, envisioning a constructive cultural moment. He invited local artists to spray-paint the boards. The resulting artwork became a local attraction. People popped by to snap photos.
Another positive outcome from the looting and subsequent recovery was that Kimbark Beverage ended up on the news. “We were able to tell our family story through many media outlets,” Swain says. “It helped energize me and my father [who has been battling health issues]. We were also able to tell our story in a way that helped change the narrative around what had happened. We were able to keep the focus on racial injustice, and the response from the community.”
That response included customer lines out the door when Kimbark Beverage eventually reopened. “It was some of the best business we’ve ever done,” Swain says. “People were driving in from the suburbs to support us. It was overwhelming to see how much our business mattered to our community.”
Swain also reports tremendous sales on the emancipation holiday of Juneteenth. “People went out and shopped black-owned stores,” he says. “The response was phenomenal. All of this was why I got into this business: the connecting with and the strengthening of our community. Yes, it’s about selling alcohol. But all of this really put a pin in it for me, and the impact of my family being in this business.”
Business Trends During COVID-19
Kimbark Beverage counts around 2,500 SKUs. Like other retailers, the store has recently seen a surge in sales for spirits, rosé wine and hard seltzers. The business has also experienced a number of consumer trends during the COVID-19 crisis that are common for retailers everywhere.
For instance, sales of domestic and name-brand beers have picked up dramatically. “There was a lot less exploration with craft beer,” Swain says. “People were just going to their go-to craft beer.”
Consumers also began buying more large-format bottles of vodka, a pandemic-driven trend that has not declined at Kimbark Beverage. With so many bars closed in Chicago — a famous cocktail city — more citizens now experiment with mixology at home. This has driven purchases for at-home cocktail kits, amaro, vermouth and all kinds of bitters.
Also benefiting from the shuttering of bars are the many brands of ready-to-drink cocktails.
Overall, the bourbon movement remains strong at Kimbark Beverage, along with other high-end spirits. This includes premium rums like Diplomatico and Plantation. Swain has also seen a huge push towards top-shelf añejo tequilas such as 1942, Clase Azul and Cincoro Tequila. The latter is Michael Jordan’s brand, which spiked after the release of the popular Jordan documentary, “The Last Dance.”
Nationwide product shortages during the crisis have also affected Kimbark Beverage. Swain has had trouble procuring certain bottles of Hennessy and Rémy Martin. Same for Modelo and Corona beer, Moet & Chandon Rosé, Don Julio and Stella Rosa Rosé.
“A lot of top-selling SKUs are out of stock,” Swain says. “It’s a real problem when I cannot buy certain things, because so many consumers are locked into their brands and will look for them wherever they are.”
“With Modelo and Corona, we’re trying to buy all of them that we can, whenever we can,” he adds. “There have been a lot of shortages in beer.” Caused, in large part, by the current can shortage.
Like so many other beverage alcohol retailers, Kimbark Beverage adapted as the pandemic began. They cut hours, and increased digital deliveries significantly, utilizing Drizly, Minibar and in-house services. Safety measures include plastic shields for the cashiers, hand-sanitizer stations, wiping down the store on a regular basis and making sure that staff and customers wore masks. The store began selling masks and hand sanitizer.
Swain also took the opportunity to learn more about his business.
“One thing the pandemic helped me with was getting a better sense of what SKUs I am really making money on,” he says, “because people are really going back to their favorite brands. Especially with wine and beer.”
“I always say that dark clouds have silver linings,” he adds. “For example, in my community during the pandemic, there has been a refocus on small businesses. In the past year before this, we got a lot of new businesses that were large and corporate. Those ate into our top-line revenue. But the pandemic has given a renewed focus on supporting small businesses.”
Swain also believes that the mass closures of bars and restaurants have forced distributors to pay greater attention to retailers — especially the independents.
“We’ve always been the places that can put a bottle in someone’s hand and say, ‘Trust us,’ and they will,” he says. “But before this, I think that independents were being forgotten in terms of legislation, deal structures and marketing. This is a moment, right now, when smaller independents are being reinvigorated as part of the ecosystem again. And I hope that continues to stay, because I always try to be a champion for the small guys.”