Bottle Shops and Liquor Stores Had a Big Year, but What Happens When Things Go Back to Normal?

When bars closed, specialty liquor shops and wine stores were saving graces. As bars prepare to reopen, store owners hope their new customers will stick around

Since March 2020, most bars and restaurants have either been shuttered or limited to takeout and delivery, with some on-site service permitted during less dire points in the pandemic. But Angelenos didn’t stop drinking. Since people couldn’t go out to drink, they drank at home, and that meant good business for the city’s liquor stores and bottle shops.

While the pandemic has ravaged independent businesses in the food and beverage industry, liquor stores have been an outlier, especially the sorts of outlets where Angelenos could grab good craft beers and the specific ingredients they needed to mix the cocktails they couldn’t go out and get. Beer, liquor, and wine stores around Los Angeles County saw business boom in 2020, with new customers and delivery helping drive growth. While bars that don’t serve food were shut down as soon as local restrictions were put in place, liquor stores were deemed essential businesses. But as L.A. County’s case rate drops and officials ease restrictions on bars and restaurants, that boom time might be coming to an end.

“Our business has more than doubled in sales since the pandemic started,” says Joe Keeper, owner of Virgil Village liquor and bar supply store Barkeeper. According to Keeper, a lot of their business prior to last March consisted of bartenders coming for specialty ingredients or tools for work, but with bars closed, that pre-noon business went away. At the same time, more people outside the industry started coming in hoping to stock up their home bars. Staff both recommended spirits and bartending gear while offering tips on cocktail making. Keeper even had to hire some new employees to keep up with the demand.

That was also the case to the north at Silverlake Wine, according to co-owner Randy Clement. Demand picked up soon after the Safer at Home order went into effect in March. Online orders spiked, and that led to a complete shift in the business model.

“When the restaurants closed and the city began to shut down, we immediately took people, asked anyone who was out of the job. We’d call and ask if anyone wanted to be a driver for Silverlake Wine,” Clement says. “We went from delivering to three zip codes for free to 30. That was overnight.”

Other changes included adding a pick-up and to-go window for people to shop curbside, adding multiple phone lines for orders, and expanding and refining the website.

What they were selling changed too. Perhaps it’s because people were trying to recreate certain favorites or because people’s tastes are changing, but stores tell Los Angeles that some spirits and varietals became more popular.

“Rum’s finally having its time,” Keeper says. “We’ve sold a lot of rum this last year.” And Clement says that people are gravitating toward unconventional or less common wines, like orange or natural wines at his store, perhaps out of a desire to try something new as the pandemic and restrictions carried on.

Because of certain county restrictions, not every specialty liquor or bottle shop did as well during the pandemic. Echo Park’s Sunset Beer Co. relied on customers drinking at the store’s bar, which wasn’t an option once restrictions went into place. Another blow, which affected many businesses in the area, was the lack of in-person crowds for Dodger games. Without swarms of baseball fans descending on the neighborhood multiple times a week, the store was losing at least half its revenue at the start of the pandemic, according to general manager Bennett Erickson. Regular customers stopped by and stocked up, and the store cut back on some inventory, he says. The store’s staff took safety seriously, offering only to-go window or pick-up orders, rather than in-store shopping.

The loss of in-person bar revenue was also a factor at Stanley’s Wet Goods in Culver City. Prior to the pandemic, the wine, beer, and spirits store had solid revenue from customers who’d sip in store. The onset of COVID restrictions meant the store had to halt its regular in-store wine and beer tastings. What made up for that decrease in foot traffic was an increase in online sales and delivery to a wider area, as well as new cocktail kits with instructions, which they launched in the latter half of 2020. The store had one big piece taken away, but another was bolstered, says owner John Stanley.

Another change that benefitted liquor stores and bottle shops was the amount of alcohol customers purchased each time they visited, at least in the first few months of the pandemic when people were still trying to limit trips to the store.

“The first month or two, you’d see a couple people who said, ‘I need 48 lagers, 72 IPAs,’” Erickson of Sunset Beer Co. says. “We were putting together $200 to $300 orders a few times a day. Then as people got used to how things were going, I guess pandemic fatigue set in, it wasn’t as much. Now with the weather and some easing of restrictions, that’s changing again. People are coming and leaving with 12 to 16 cans, which was how our model was before the pandemic.”

Keeper says his staff could judge just how serious the pandemic was at various points based on how much liquor was being ordered, and how Angelenos felt about safety based on app-based sales.

Now the big question is, after a year of adapting to a different business model, what happens when things go back to “normal”—or at least close to it. After months in the most restrictive Purple Tier, Los Angeles County has now entered the Orange Tier, which allows restaurants to offer indoor dining at 50 percent capacity and lets bars open for outdoor service. The vaccination process has also hit its stride, with means that each day more and more people are partially or fully protected against COVID-19. Bottle shops and liquor stores aren’t expecting the boom in sales to continue, and they point to parts of 2020 to explain why.

Stanley says that even in the summer months when restrictions were slightly eased, sales dipped back toward their usual levels, only to rise again once cases rose and rules were put back in place. “As soon as people are able to go to restaurant, get some cocktails,” he says, “I think people are going to do that.”

Even if this year isn’t as good as last, Keeper says he hopes that the new customers they’ve gained will stick around, even if they don’t patronize his business quite as frequently.

Erickson also expects that some people might be eager to go out to bar after months of not being able to, but there’s likely going to be just as many who aren’t in quite as big of a rush. The ease of restrictions and rising vaccination numbers could mean more in-store business.

“We still got a lot of people who support us,” he said. “And as soon as we’re ready to serve at the bar, they’ll be here.”

RELATED: L.A. County Officially Allows Orange Tier Reopenings Today. Here’s What Changes

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