For nearly three decades John Stein has walked through the doors of Lincoln Street Liquor, not always knowing what to expect. It’s not that the business owner’s days are filled with unpredictable chaos; no, the surprises come in the form of liquor salesmen whose companies are promoting the newest flavors to hit the shelves.
“Let’s see,” Stein said. “This week the three top salesmen had six new items to look at. They’re adding a lot of flavors – the new offerings this week were grapefruit vodka, blueberry vodka, pineapple rum…”
Did he see this day of flavored liquors coming, when back in 1987 Stein and his wife, Lisa bought the store and moved back to Rhinelander from Green Bay? Probably not; trends, he said are the hardest thing to predict. Take the craft beer craze.
“It didn’t come out of nowhere, but it was somewhat of a slow start,” he recalled.”There were virtually no craft breweries at all in the late 80s and that’s kind of when it started. The companies like New Glarus, and others on the east and west coasts started then, and are now the biggest. And they are extremely sought after.”
Now, according to brewersassociation.org, Wisconsin is one of thirteen states with at least one hundred breweries. Just a few months ago, in November 2014 the U.S. passed the historic mark of 3,200 brewers…and that number continues to increase at a rate of 1.5 per day.
Stein takes pride in the stores extensive craft beer selection. “It’s probably been in the last five years that people have taken notice,” according to Stein. “The nice thing about craft beer is that if you like it, you find something new and even the most expensive (craft beers) are affordable.”
Knowledgeable staff can generally steer customers in the right direction if they are looking to branch out into the world of stouts, India Pale Ales (IPAs) and dark, dark, dark beers. In fact, according to Stein, the staff is one of the store’s stand-out features.
“The thing that this store did really well from the beginning, and does to this day, is customer service,” he says with certainty. “It amazes me that many people don’t consider that as something of importance anymore. They are so used to the big box effect. If they can’t find something or something makes them mad they just leave. If that happens here we try to stop them and find out what’s going on. If we don’t have it, we want to get it, if you’re mad about something we want to know why. Customer service is number one.”
Lincoln Street Liquor also offers quantity discounts for people looking for that, and Stein says they have a quick ‘in and out’ location.
Competition from larger stores in town is something they have learned to live with, finding their own niche in the Rhinelander market.
“The one advantage we have over bigger stores is that we can move faster,” he explained. “We can adjust to the micro-brew craze, we can adjust to different tastes in wine and we can put in the very small single batch whiskeys that are only available for a short time. Bigger stores often have a corporation to work though.”
As a wine collector and wine drinker, Stein has a soft spot for the beverage. He recalled that when he bought the business, Rhine wine and Chablis were the go-to favorites in the area.
“I was relatively knowledgeable about wines, but my timing was off. In the late 1980s and 1990s there wasn’t so much of a wine craze back then,” he remembered. “About the time it really hit, Trigs had expanded. It became hard to compete.”
Like trendy flavored liquors, some of the wine labels are trying to grab market share. Many are experimenting with interesting names, and brands that are named after popular television shows.
“Like everything else they are throwing out ten new ones a week and you really have to pick and choose,” Stein said. “The wines only have a split second for you to notice them on the shelf. I’m of the old school where I didn’t want to put gimmicky stuff on the shelf, but you know what, that’s how people shop.”
Using his experience with wines to his advantage, Stein is working on filling more shelf space with the better, hard to find wines. “For example, Pinot Noir is finicky; it’s a hard to grow grape, and the good ones are hard to find. In recent years I have expanded the high end because people are looking for that.”
And if they are looking for something and can’t find it, Stein and his staff can most likely get it.
“Special orders –we can do that very easily,” he said. “We had a customer in over the weekend who was looking for something that they liked very much but couldn’t find anywhere. We called them back within the half hour and found it; it’s here ready to pick up today.”
Move faster, adjust faster, and listen to the customer better.
It’s a customer service mantra and a company mission that has worked well at Lincoln Street Liquor for nearly thirty years. And like the stream of salesmen coming in the door peddling up-and-coming wine, liquor and beer, it doesn’t look to be changing anytime soon.
Lincoln Street Liquor is at 1011 Lincoln Street, and can be reached at 715-369-1248.