When a corporate attorney in New York decided to move back home to the Twin Cities region in Minnesota, you might think he’d return to the career he’d previously known. After all, it’s a major move, and you couldn’t blame someone for taking an easier route. But Jon Halper, CEO and owner of Top Ten Liquors, had other plans for his future ahead.
“I initially left law to pursue a career in retail with Wilsons Leather,” Halper explains. “I came into the company to help create their real estate area. I took over responsibility for their growth through real estate expansion. It was a great use of my legal abilities and allowed me to develop business skills as I found space for expansion and negotiated deals.”
“As we grew the company,” he continues, “I began looking to buy my own retail business when I happened to find four liquor stores in 2014 that were owned by one person — two in the Blaine and Andover [of the northern Twin Cities area], and two in the east in Woodbury and Cottage Grove. That’s what started us on this journey, and it’s been a lot of fun. We’ve really built a great team.”
Today, Top Ten Liquors operates 12 total locations throughout the Twin Cities region, and has more locations planned beyond.
Dating back to when he was still practicing law, Halper says he’s always had an eye for entrepreneurship, with the goal of owning his own business.
“Practice of law provided skills I use every day,” he says. “Law school teaches a way of thinking — looking at issues from all sides, understanding different perspectives and coming up with practical solutions. Those skills apply in business.”
“My family has always been on the retail side, and so it’s kind of in my blood,” he adds. “When I found my original four stores, although I didn’t have industry knowledge, by the time I took it on I had a lot of experience.”
The Right Products and Stores
Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, many industries have faced an increase in sales as people began going out less, and entertaining at home more — the alcohol industry being one of them. But Top Ten’s sales had already steadily increased before the pandemic, throughout the past couple of years, as the company focused on offering both tried-and-true staples and unique, up-and-coming products to its customers.
“On one hand, we’re a chain and understand that we have to have a product assortment in our stores because we have many customers looking for many different things,” Halper says. “At the same time, we try to find unique, amazing products that you can’t find everywhere. A core point of differentiation for us is what we’re able to find and bring into our stores.”
“Our team buyers/planners focus on finding great product at a value for our customers,” he adds. “The quality of our buying offers us a competitive advantage over others. We focus a lot on the quality and technical accuracy of what we buy, and we work hard to offer the product at competitive pricing for our customers. We work hard on behalf of our customers to identify what we think they will enjoy.”
Halper credits Siri Nyman, Top Ten wine buyer and event coordinator, with the company being able to identify and establish relationships with unique manufacturers and distributors throughout the Twin Cities, allowing Top Ten to offer its wide range of products.
“When she started with us seven years ago, she immediately started bringing in these great wines that weren’t available at other places,” Halper says. “She has had so much success, and we’ve continued to grow because of it.”
According to Halper, growth has been gradual along the way, adding one to two stores each year (and three last year — the company’s most aggressive yet). But whether acquiring an already established location or building a new one, ideally a store layout is approximately 10,000 sq. ft., and much consideration goes into each design.
“We look for high-traffic, high-density areas. We like to be around grocery stores to drive a similar type of customer. We’re suburban focused due to municipal liquor laws,” says Halper, noting that throughout Minnesota, select municipalities determine liquor retail regulations, rather than a unified statewide system. “To find the right location, we sometimes have to be patient.”
“It all starts with scouting the best real estate we can find — we always want to be in great communities and great locations,” says Omar Torres, vice president of marketing for the last two and a half years.
Originally from Puerto Rico, Torres ran his own agency, Entrevero Design Firm, working for clients such as retail giants Best Buy and Target (essentially introducing him to the Twin Cities region, in which they are headquartered). After a stint at Gander Outdoors, he began work with Top Ten as its director of marketing, before being promoted to his current position.
Torres has a degree in architecture as well. “I like to say that I’m the brand architect,” he says. “I personally oversee the design and construction of new stores, and I’ve designed the last three that have opened. We try to provide a store that has wide, clear aisles and is well-lit — where product really shines. We don’t want to have a dark store where you can’t really read the labels. We want spaced out, well-stocked product. That’s what you’ll find at all of our locations.”
But while patience and persistence are needed to establish new locations, in order to make sure both the stores and products are known to potential customers, Top Ten relies heavily on Torres to ensure customers are knowledgeable in their decisions.
“We always try to promote the best offers at the best price — that’s the most important,” says Torres, who oversees all marketing functions such as offers, promotional and advertising channels and content. “But we also support those offers with really good content behind it. After we find what we want to promote, we also provide information to our customers. We offer content to guide the customers’ decision-making process with more knowledge.”
“We’re product and people focused,” he adds. “We always want to provide great product at a value — that is the mean reason we do what we do.”
According to Torres, Top Ten’s strategic buying allows the company to not only offer a wide variety, but also competitive pricing.
“Our goal is to always let the customer know that we are competitive with pricing. Once they come to the store and experience our customer service, and the in-store experience, we’ve got them forever,” says Torres, noting the company often utilizes tools such as email newsletters, weekly ad specials, social media and in-store displays to reach its customers. “How you can identify Top Ten Liquors as a brand is with service, selection and savings.”
Loyalty among its customer base is also important. Currently, Top Ten’s loyalty rewards program has more than 350,000 members.
“We offer very competitive pricing so we can offer a comprehensive shopping experience in addition to our selection and service,” Halper says. “People look at life as a different experience today than they did prior to the pandemic. People bought and redecorated their homes, and are beginning to understand how much great product is available to them at their local liquor stores. I believe that trend will continue.”
Top Ten Focuses on Service
Beyond physical footprints and product trends on shelves, one aspect that sets the Top Ten Liquors brand apart from its competition is its knowledgeable and talented staff — which the company makes a deliberate effort to both train and retain.
“As a company we really try and put forth a strong customer focus, and offer great service to our customers,” says Halper. “That formula has worked really well for us.”
Through its staff training, Top Ten has been able to sell different brands that customers might never have considered before.
“Everyone knows that during the pandemic, national brands have performed very strong because people tend to buy what they know,” says Halper. “But because we have such great people working at our stores, a lot of brands beyond national ones have done very well for us because we have trained our people so well. Our customers rely on us, and we’ve been able to help grow those brands as a result.”
“A lot of new brands can be intimidating for people to try out, so we try to have really friendly, personable people to work with and expand what they like to drink,” he adds. “We want people to be able to buy beyond what they already know.”
According to Torres, hard seltzer is a current popular trend that’s undeniable in the industry, but upcoming trends could also include wine (during the holiday season), and spirits such as Irish creams, whiskeys and tequila.
“Nobody can deny the growth of seltzers, and the market growth has been incredible. But the customer always wants to discover what’s next,” says Torres. “We’re also kind of seeing the same behaviors seltzers had in previous years with pre-mixed cocktails — those are growing rapidly.”
During the pandemic, Top Ten locations adapted to offering delivery through services such as Shipt and Instacart, as well as curbside pickup.
“We were very quick to create a safe, clean shopping experience for our customers,” says Halper. “We focused on both protecting our staff as well as our customers, and I think many customers appreciated how proactive we were and built a trust with us as a company.”
While many industries have had trouble both finding and retaining employees since the pandemic started, Top Ten has employed new strategies to ensure its workers are happy.
“Everybody is having a terrible time finding employees, and it’s been very challenging,” says Halper. “We raised our minimum wage to $15 an hour, because we felt it was appropriate for us to be leaders in offering a higher wage for our employees.”
“It’s been challenging, and we all wonder where everybody went,” he adds. “But we’ve hung in there and have found some amazing people.”
Another employee perk is an education or training reimbursement program — for which Top Ten will reimburse any employee 200% of the cost to pursue additional training and education.
“We want to emphasize training and education,” says Halper. “Benefits like that have helped us bring in some really great people.”
“We want to take our staff to the next level,” adds Torres. “We only grow if our staff grows with us.”
New Concepts, Challenges Ahead
In the future, Top Ten plans to implement a new store concept, developing a combination wine bar, boutique grocery and liquor store in Minnetonka, Minnesota — a widely considered upscale neighborhood that was once home to legendary musician Prince.
“We’re really excited about the concept. We plan to have more than 100 different wines by the glass and really work to tailor food and a whole experience,” says Halper. “It will really allow customers to try a lot of different product and be educated throughout the process by our quality staff.”
In addition to the by-the-glass offerings, it will also introduce a boutique grocery store that will be focused on the “best of the best,” including cheese, charcuterie, spices, chocolates and more.
“We’ll offer all sorts of things that are very complementary to what we are doing on the wine side,” says Halper.
A tentative opening date is set for spring/summer 2022, dependent largely on potential supply chain-related construction delays.
With past success and future expansion plans firmly in place, challenges undoubtedly still lie ahead. These will likely include wage pressure, product and employee shortages, and overall rising costs. However, both Halper and Torres remain confident the sky is still the limit for Top Ten.
“It’s a very competitive market, and as prices go up it will create a pressure point,” says Halper, noting looming product shortages are due to both environmental issues and importing backlogs. “We’re also under pressure because you’re up against numbers from a year ago. It’s exciting and challenging all at the same time.”
“When I started here I could see the making of something special,” says Torres. “We want to be the largest liquor store chain in Minnesota.”