For the second consecutive year, Beverage Dynamics has named Gary’s Wine & Marketplace our Top 100 Retailer of the Year. Why? This New Jersey-based business continues to grow and evolve at an exceptional rate.
Gary’s began in 1987, when Gary Fisch purchased a 1,200-square-foot store in Madison, NJ. That first, small location — known then as Shoppers Discount Liquor/Wine Warehouse — quickly expanded into the adjacent retail spaces. At the same time, Fisch was making a name for himself by excelling in the areas of fine wine imports and selection, and world-class customer service.
So it only made sense for the company to take the name of its founder, as Fisch’s work and reputation cemented his place among the great northeast retailers. Today, the company counts four locations in New Jersey and one in Napa Valley. The family legacy continues as Gary’s son Mike has entered the business, reshaping it at just the right time to help adapt with the pandemic. We recently caught up with Gary and Mike Fisch to talk about this evolution, among other topics.
Beverage Dynamics: Mike, what was your process of joining the family business?
Mike Fisch: I started my career at Ernst & Young as consultant for financial services firms, helping them make tech transformations. I was a CPA there for three years. Then I went to Wharton for my MBA in finance. If I was to go into our family business, I wanted to make sure that I brought in new ideas and best practices from my experience in the MBA world.
Gary Fisch: The original plan was for Mike to go work for one of the importers or suppliers, because that’s a great training ground. But then Covid came in and it was too important to our operations that Mike come back to help keep us alive.
MF: While I was at business school, I was still working full time for our business. My first big project was to integrate our POS data into Microsoft Power BI. That’s a great way to learn the intricacies of our numbers, how our customers behave.
I was also working on our mobile app with City Hive, as well as our last-mile delivery opportunities. Everything I was learning at school was telling me that the future belonged to the Drizlys and GoPuffs of the world. I was working on route optimization, and putting the right tech in place. This was all before Covid. Then we had to close our stores. Suddenly, our little app was getting thousands of downloads a day. We switched overnight to an ecommerce website with City Hive. All that work and the subsequent years have been stressful — yet gratifying.
BD: What’s your focus now?
MF: On various aspects of the business, such as bringing in best practices to our accounting systems.
GF: Before we switched to Microsoft Power BI, all decision-making was based on a traditional retail POS system. It was not heavily modern. I would joke that my version of ‘analytics’ was walking the floor and seeing a hole in the Rhône section and saying, ‘We need more Rhône’. Mike would ask, ‘How can you back that with data?’ Now, we can see all the data behind everything to make decisions. Mike has trained all our staff on this. The importance of that cannot be stressed enough. Now we’re a data-driven company.
MF: I’ve also gone into each department and taken a look at best practices. I’ve increased efficiencies while lowering costs. It’s been great working with Gary and his business partner Joel. They’ve been in business for 35 years. I’m new, and can sometimes be overly optimistic or naive. It’s a great combination, because I’m bringing in new technology and practices, and they’re more grounded in what’s tried and true. They’re thinking about what’s the trade off, and not just innovation for the sake of innovation.
GF: When I started in ‘87, I was solely focused on retail. I always grew my business from the bootstraps of being a retailer. Mike says that I close my eyes and push forward based on my instincts.
Mike has taken everything to the next level. He is understating how much he has accomplished. Most recently, in HR. The technology he has brought into our HR department allows me to have a retailer focus while making sure that someone else is focused on the nitty gritty of how checks are written, or how employees are talked to by HR.
MF: Other tech efficiencies include how we respond to customer reviews online, or people asking for donations. We’re created processes for using low-code or no-code tech. You don’t need a big ERP. Programs like Airtable and Zapier are able to create processes like those that larger companies build in-house. With new technologies, it’s so easy to create these processes yourself. Stuff like sending automatic emails and responses. There’s fewer back-and-forth emails. Everything is now in one place, and a bit more organized, a bit more optimized. That all counts; it compounds over time. Now we’re able to take on more things and execute better for the customer. And that’s the most important part.
GF: What Mike has allowed us to do is look forward. What other opportunities are there for Gary’s Wine & Marketplace? Without him, we were like a running back, just trying to look ahead as we go forward. Now we’re like a quarterback, looking down the field at all the different opportunities.
BD: Gary, what have you learned from 14 years in the Wine & Spirits Guild, including time as president?
GF: The guild is a group of independent, family-owned, multi-generational retailers. In any given market, you will have your big guys like Walmart and Costco come in and dominate. But you still need that independent retailer who’s community-driven. Retailers who contribute to local charities, who are living and working in your neighborhood.
We’re always working with the guild on new opportunities and best practices. We ask each other: What technologies are you using? What are your pay rates? How’s hiring? What’s your competition look like? There’s opportunity to have really open dialogue with other independent retailers.
The guild allows us to find, taste and bring into our stores wines that would not normally be available to us. As a company our size, we can’t buy enough to get the excitement of a bigger company. Working with the guild, we are able to source some great wines at much-better pricing. We get a better selection of directly sourced product, which saves our customers a lot of money with great value.
BD: We imagine your Napa store, opened in 2019, has accomplished similar things?
GF: That store allowed us to go from a regional New Jersey operator to a national chain. What happens in Napa cannot happen anywhere else. Every day, winemakers stop in our store for lunch. It’s allowed us to have such close relationships with the winemaking community. We can keep our pulse on the wine business in a much better way.
We’re working with the guild to bring some of these opportunities to other guild members. It’s a win-win. Many Napa wineries only make 300-400 cases per year. They’re not looking for national distribution. With our Napa store, we can get these wines without going through the whole process. It’s taken what we’re doing in New Jersey and put it on steroids.
This interview was edited and condensed for publication.
Kyle Swartz is editor of Beverage Dynamics magazine. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @kswartzz. Read his recent piece The 2022 Spirits Growth Brands Awards — Honoring the Hottest Brands.