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12.2010

Massachusetts Beverage Business

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Article By: Kirsten Amann

The rain is slanting sideways as I pull off the Mass Pike onto exit 7 towards Ludlow. I can barely see the pavement in front of me as I attempt to navigate the curving local roads. The trek from Boston has been surprisingly treacherous, but my singular purpose is compelling: I’m here to visit Randall’s Farm & Greenhouse and meet Ludlow legend, Uncle Mickey. When I finally arrive and inform a cashier who I’m here to interview, her eyes light up: “He’s definitely a local celebrity.”
Michael Jaciow – known affectionately to staff and regulars as “Uncle Mickey” – has spent over thirty years at the helm of the package store at Randall’s Farm. When he took a part-time position there in 1953, the store was basically a stand selling goods from its eponymous farm, and he sold eggs and produce to locals. Today, over half a century later at 93-years-old, Uncle Mickey helps a new generation of Ludlow locals determine what will go best with the Chapoutier Shiraz/Viognier blend they’ve picked up to drink with dinner.
“There’s been a lot of changes over the years,” he tells me. Today, Randall’s Farm is a gourmet market that includes a deli, a greenhouse, a creamery that sells homemade ice cream, and beer and wine. The market offers a selection that rivals any gourmet shop in urban Boston, from a stocked gluten-free section to a collection of increasingly trendy organic wines. Despite the changes in his 57-year tenure, Randall’s Farm remains a community hub with both class and soul and Uncle Mickey is at the center of it all.
Michael Jaciow was born in Ludlow on February 25, 1917. After graduating from high school, he went to work at Ludlow Manufacturing for several years before enlisting in the Air Force in 1942. “They were difficult times,” he says, “but they were also fun times. You met a lot of great fellows. Many of them didn’t make it home with you and that was tough.” He served in the 321st Fighter Control Squadron achieving the level of Staff Sergeant before being honorably discharged in 1945. After the war, he returned to Ludlow and married Ida Racci. They’ve been married 54 years and have four children and five grandchildren.
Uncle Mickey returned to his job in manufacturing after the war, building a career as a draughtsman. “He has a very technical, mechanical mind,” says Karen Randall, his niece and the second-generation owner of Randall’s Farm. “Back in those days, you used to be able to buy a kit to make your own TV or stereo, which is the kind of thing he would do. Growing up, if anything ever broke, we’d take it to him – we’d joke that we were taking it to Victor Engineering, because he lived on Victor Street. If he were working nowadays, he’d be an engineer.”
In 1953 Uncle Mickey took a position working nights and weekends at his brother-in-law Bill’s establishment, Randall’s Farm. “When they wanted to purchase a liquor license in 1969, I became a silent partner,” he says. “The liquor license cost us $2O,OOO, which was a lot of money at that time.” He became deeply involved in package store operations, taking over the buying and pricing, merchandising and bookkeeping, all while maintaining his career as a draughtsman. His role evolved into a full-time position when he retired from Scott Graphics in 1976.
When he wasn’t working, Uncle Mickey still found time to develop a tournament-winning golf game. “I started as a caddy at Ludlow Country Club when I was in high school,” he says, “and played every Sunday.” He was a three-handicap golfer and won many local tournaments, continuing to play regularly at Ludlow Country club until very recently.
The package store at Randall’s Farm has evolved significantly since buying their liquor license more than forty years ago. “In the beginning we sold mostly beer,” he says. “We carried Pabst Blue Ribbon, Schaefer and Schlitz, and some wine,” mostly inexpensive bulk wines like Chablis and Chianti, consistent with locals’ tastes circa the 197Os. “Most of our customers were local people on the way home from work, looking to pick up a 6-pack, a case or even a single beer.”
In Uncle Mickey’s time, he’s seen more than one trend reverse, and reverse again, such as the change “from all returnable bottles to all non-returnable bottles back to returnables again when the bottle bill was passed.” Brand trends have also managed to do a 36O: “the trend was to inexpensive beers in the early ’7Os and ’8Os . . . today our sales have gone to more expensive specialty beers and local breweries, like Berkshire Brewing Co. and Paper City – now considered microbreweries but formerly known as just local breweries.”
In 1997 Randall’s Farm relocated and expanded, revamping the focus of the package store. “As we’ve grown he’s adapted to all the changes in the industry and in our business,” says Karen Randall. New space allowed wine to take center stage and a new generation of drinkers increased the demand for modern trends. Varietal wines took over space previously occupied by domestic beer and jug wines with Uncle Mickey at the helm of purchasing, not missing a beat. As the focus of the beverage program shifted, he worked closely with reps to develop a selection of wines both sophisticated and accessible. But his buying decisions always come down to what’s in the glass: “It’s important to taste everything and I taste as much as I can,” he says. “The wine selection has evolved with Korbel replacing Cold Duck as the inexpensive popular sparkling wine. He’s carefully cultivated a customer base new wines, prompting salesmen who’ve asked him to bring in new products to put on weekend wine tastings that are “not common in a small package store like ours.” A go-to sampling for him is to pour Zinfandel Port to “those looking for a red wine on the sweet side.”
Uncle Mickey’s meticulous nature defines his work at Randall’s Farm as much as it did his career in manufacturing. “He is relentlessly cost-conscious,” says Karen, “always with the best interest of the store and the bottom line in mind. He’s always looking for ways to save us money by buying products on promotion and purchasing strategically. In the old store, he used to break up cases of beer to sell as six-packs.” Today, he works hard to negotiate the best deals and find the best wines for the best prices. He continues to take meetings with reps on Wednesdays (a day he used to spend working on his tournament winning golf game) now in conjunction with his co-buyer, Sales and Marketing Manager Jeffrey Czech.
In the past 5O years, Uncle Mickey has witnessed the consolidation of many different distributing companies. George Saucier was a favorite salesman from Burke Beverage, “which no longer exists,” he says. “George would bring six pack bottle holders for different brands of bottled beer so I could make up six packs from loose pack cases of beer to make a few extra pennies.” Having grown up during Prohibition and the Depression, Uncle Mickey is always looking for ways to add to the bottom line.
From the front office to the deliverymen, Uncle Mickey has always cultivated good relationships with distributors. He has spent many a Saturday morning ride with his wife Ida to local distributors to stock up on beer or wine if  they’re “running low because business was better than anticipated.” He is a familiar face at Horizon Beverage and Williams Distributing. “Receptionists and bookkeepers at the distributors are accustomed to his calls,” says Karen, “placing orders and looking for credits and checking on him when he hasn’t called an order in.”
Even at 93, Uncle Mickey tells me he is “always looking for new stuff”. He places the same importance on tasting for staff and for customers. “He’s famous for his little tastes of wine,” says Jeff. His drink of choice is “wine, mostly. Sometimes I’ll take a wine home to enjoy it with food and see how I like it and see how it changes,” as a means of educating himself on how to sell it. “I also enjoy Southern Comfort Manhattans, straight up with a cherry,” he merrily adds.
A typical day on the job is “all business. I fill the beer cooler, stock wine and beer, organize bottles,” he says. Karen assures me each labels is “arranged facing out” with meticulous care. “There’s always customers coming in,” says Uncle Mickey, “so I greet them and help make suggestions on what to buy, or offer them a taste of something so they know what they’re buying.”
“You meet a lot of nice people on the job,” says Uncle Mickey, “and that’s a pleasure.” He draws his own set of local fans on a weekly basis. “Our routine on Fridays is always to stop at his table and say hi,” says regular customer John Zebrowski. “When he sees us coming he can be counted on to have two toothpicks in hand, one with a piece of cheese, one with a piece of fruit for our six-year-old daughter. He has always gone out of his way to say ‘hi’. She looks for him to be certain she can give him a high five and say ‘Go Red Sox!’”
Uncle Mickey has worked an average of six days a week for most of his tenure at Randall’s Farm, only recently reducing his week to five days. What drives him to work so much and so tirelessly? “I think it gives him a sense of purpose,” says Karen. “That, coupled with an amazing work ethic and his Depression-era upbringing, which taught him to be frugal and work hard and never take anything for granted.” They don’t call it the Greatest Generation for nothing. But Uncle Mickey’s perspective is succinctly humble: “This has been a very enjoyable job,” he says with a smile.

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