Article By: Lew Bryson
Marty Siegal, the owner of Marty’s in Newtonville, has been working in liquor retail for 44 years. (“We’ll make that from when I turned 21, let’s keep this legal,” he told me, adding that he got married that same year.) The family’s liquor business dates from 1948, when Marty’s grandfather got into the liquor business after being in groceries. That’s a long time to be in retail: people coming through the door, always wanting something, sometimes just a bottle and go, sometimes a special bottle for a celebration, but every day, a bottle, a six-pack, another bottle . . . how do you keep it fresh for 44 years?
“It isn’t for the money,” Marty says. “I’m really not motivated by the money. I’m motivated by doing something right. When people come in and say, ‘What a great store!’ that makes my day. When a retailer calls and says, ‘What a great product this is!’ from our importing business, same things. It doesn’t get better than this! It’s a big turn on.”
Talking to Marty about his time in the business is a pleasure. This is a man who learned from older heads in the industry, and knows in his marrow that it’s about people more than products. His son, Sean, who runs their tandem Atlantic Importing wholesale business, gets it too. “The liquor industry is small,” Sean says, explaining how their business is growing so quickly. “People know each other, so it’s an instant connection. They’ll have friends who are also small, and they’ll tell them, these guys are good, you should work with them.”
Marty grew his business by learning from friends in the industry, picking up a couple ideas that were radical in the early 197Os and running with them: wine could be more than generic Chablis and Burgundy; cheese and fine foods could fire people’s imaginations; you can build your own retail business by offering great products to your retail competition through wholesaling.
WINE AND CHEESE PARTY
He’d started small, working at his father’s store on the corner of Harvard and Commonwealth Avenues. “It was a much smaller store then,” he recalls; the original store only had a 25 foot frontage. “My first jobs were delivery, stocking the shelves and waiting on customers on the counter. Then I got interested in wine. I used to hang around Berenson’s – that’s the Wine Press [on Beacon Street] now – on my days off talking to Richie Hogue, the wine salesman for their importing and distribution company, Hooper and Richardson. They cultivated a clientele that wanted the finer wines and liquors. I wasn’t really interested in the Seagram’s and Budweiser customers; they were buying on price.
“Another great guy was Marvin Golden from the Wine and Cheese Cask,” Marty says, collecting the influences that pointed him in his future direction, “a great guy, ten or fifteen years older than me. He got me interested in fine cheese and foods at his store in Somerville. I was so turned on; all I’d ever had was sliced white American! I thought this was just fabulous.
“My dad had no interest in wine, no one else in the store had any interest,” Marty continues, “and I grabbed this opportunity to show him I was worthwhile in the store. I said to my father, ‘We’ve got to do this! Gourmet foods and coffees, wines, imported beers – people will love it, they’ll come in to get all these things, we’ll be a destination.’ And my father let me do it! We expanded the store dramatically; he had purchased the building by this time. We put in a gourmet department and expanded the wine department. It was a beautiful store. This was in the 197Os. It was very exciting.”
Things changed now, as Marty became the mentor. “That’s when I met Tom Schmeisser – who’s my most important employee, still with me,” Marty says proudly. “When he first came, he took over my job as the delivery kid, and handled the beers in the store. Didn’t know much about the liquor business – well, he didn’t know anything about it. He was from Wisconsin, his dad had a potato farm.”
Marty and Tom learned together, in what was a very exciting time in the American wine selling business. “We went to wine tastings, we went to the Heublein auctions, the Frank Schoonmaker dinners,” he recalls. “We were getting so turned on by waiting on customers and showing them things they’d never had before. This was very early in wine. This was breaking the trend of people coming in and asking for B&G wines, and turning them on to the Château wines, because they just had so much more to offer.”
By now the Allston store had expanded several times, and an opportunity came up to buy the Blanchard’s store in the Newtonville neighborhood. “I was so excited,” Marty says. “This was a store I’d looked at when I was 16 years of age, one of the largest stores in Massachusetts. When this store came up, I remortgaged my house to put a down payment on it.” He bought the store with the same real estate partner his father was in with on the Allston store. When real estate went sour, Marty was able to buy the Newtonville business and property outright in 1994, and bought the partner out in the Allston business . . . but didn’t get the property there.
Meanwhile, they had started an importing company, Atlantic Importing, to bring in products that they couldn’t get through other wholesalers. Marty was running that business with another employee, and then his son, Sean, stepped up – “I actually dropped out of eleventh grade to come to work for my father,” he tells me – and made a proposition.
“As the brands we were selling for our own store became more popular, I said we should start selling to other stores as well,” Sean remembers. “As we picked up certain brands, their expectations grew as well, and we were guided towards major distribution. We’re bringing in products that are high quality, from family-owned businesses. We’re not looking for the next gimmick. We taste things and we want to find the connection behind them, the vineyard behind it, the family behind it. We’re looking for products that give a great value for the price.”
Marty laughs about that principle, and what it’s led to. “People are so interested in new things today,” he notes. “They consider wine and beer to be affordable luxuries they can use to entertain family and friends, part of the enjoyment of their life. They like bringing unique things to parties, showing off, not bringing the same stuff. I try to inspire that in my customers. They come in and say they’re going to the dinner party, and start asking about this brand and that brand they heard about. ‘That’s all mainstream,’ I say, ‘why not get this: it’s unique, it’s better, and it doesn’t even cost more.’ We wind up downselling more often than upselling! Look, it costs less . . . and it’s better!”
Sean likes to bring up their Villa Marchesi wines. “Villa Marchesi is our focus item, the hottest selling brand we have right now,” he says. “It’s our main label, a pinot grigio from Friuli. We also have our Tuscan red blend, primarily sangiovese. But we have a lot of highly-rated wines from all over the world: France, Italy, Spain. We have one of the only 9O point Parker wines for $9.99 – Monte Buena from Rioja, Spain. We’re selling almost a container a month. We cover the whole state, from Great Barrington to P-town, we’re also selling wine in Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Rhode Island; we’ll be opening New York, New Jersey and Florida this year.”
Marty’s proud of Atlantic’s beer selection as well, and rightly so. “We have a fabulous beer list, Avery, Dogfish Head, Stone, on and on,” he says, noting that they are the biggest volume Dogfish Head distributor in the US. “We’ve picked them well. We have an advantage over the other wholesalers: we have retail as well as wholesale experience. These are products that are being placed in great restaurants, in Whole Foods, at Julio’s Liquors.” Sean notes that their specialty ciders, particularly J.K. Scrumpy’s – “family business, high-end and organic,” he says – is on fire recently.
Marty’s hardly done; he’s not your rest-on-the-laurels type. “We’re starting to renovate and expand the Newtonville store,” he says, and you can hear the excitement. “The permits are in place, contracts are signed. We started work in early March. Bigger food area, more wine, a mezzanine level, and a freight elevator, better entrance and exit. It will be an ongoing project. It’s going to be a beautiful store.”
He’s not afraid to try a different tack, either. When the rent on the corner of Harvard and Commonwealth got just too high, he left, and found a new spot at 1O3 North Beacon – Marty’s Big Buys. “It has almost a club store appearance: lighting, racking systems,” he says. “We run it with a low overhead. It’s a good selection, but not what we have at Newtonville. Some people like that, it’s easy.”
You can’t talk to a man with this much experience and not ask what’s different, and how he sees things changing more. “Wine has changed so much, people are much more educated than they ever were, and the restaurants are much, much better,” Marty says. “They’re learning the difference between great wines. It inspires curiosity. Then the beer boom is amazing, something I never guessed would happen, small breweries popping up all over the country. It’s taken over the whole store. The money people spend for these beers blows my mind. Wine came on a lot slower than the beer thing, but the beer thing is here to stay.
“They’ve gotten into flavor and character,” he says, and recalls his own experience waking up to flavor. “It used to be American white, sliced. Even the Scotch had to be blended. They wanted things passive. Now it’s the reverse. The things they’re after in wine, food, beer, spirits, it’s just amazing. But you have to take the time to talk to them! We try to make our service over the top. Remember: no customer, no business!”
Marty sees change coming with the changes in Massachusetts law about ownership of multiple retail licenses. “A lot of stores are like convenience stores of liquor,” he explains. “They carry the mainstream products, they do X amount of business just because of their location. But there will be no new licenses, and [chain] stores will buy the ones that are out there. So these small places are going to take the same road as the hardware store, the pet store, the stationery store: they’ll be gone. They’ll have a chance to sell their license, to get their money out, but you’re going to have to get good, get better or you’ll be gone.”
Clearly Marty intends to still be around, and he’s ready to help others, the same way people in the industry helped him. “The ones that offer a unique service to their customers will survive,” he says. “There are hardware stores that survive in the face of Home Depot, and there will be liquor stores that do the same thing. Not having the same stuff you can get everywhere will be their salvation. And not to toot our own horns, but Atlantic Importing has those products. If you get those products, you will be a destination, and customers will tell their friends, ‘You’ve got to go there.’”
Marty and Sean Siegal: reinvesting in industry mentorship (and having a great time doing it).