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04.2014

Massachusetts Beverage Business

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Article By: Kirsten Amann

“You’ve never been in a liquor store, right?” Rick Gordon quips as he walks me through the aisles of Gordon’s Fine Wines & Liquors in Waltham.  It’s mid-afternoon on Friday before Labor Day weekend and shoppers are bustling by us as he guides me through the aisles.  He shows me the large selection of kosher wines, 3OO single malt Scotches that line the back wall and their craft beer section boasting over 5OO varieties – gesturing as he talks with a perpetually unlit cigar.  With an entire room devoted just to Burgundy, and a culinary center that hosts packed classes on everything from wine basics to moonshine, I’ve never been in a liquor store quite like this one.  These unique qualities – along with a never-ending drive to grow and diversify, an exceptional commitment to customers and community, and nearly 8O years in the industry – are what make Gordon’s Fine Wine & Liquors the Massachusetts Beverage Business retailer of the year. 

We talk shop in the culinary center, which features stadium seating for 4O people and a full kitchen for cooking demonstrations, where Rick’s sons, David and Ken, join us.  Retail has always been a family affair at Gordon’s, which Rick’s grandfather opened in its original location across the street in 1934.  “Grandpa and Grandma ran the store,” Rick says, which meant they were literally always there.  So much so that that store also had a kitchen, one that was used, not to educate oenophiles and gourmands, but to cook lunch and dinner for their children.  By the time Rick’s father took over store operations in the 195Os, he had literally been running around the place his whole life.  He expanded the business to become a wholesaler, importer and distributor, which lasted until 1983, when Rick took over operations.

Once at the helm, Rick began to develop the fine wine end of the business.  “I took inspiration from what I saw happening in New York at the time,” he remarks.  Surrounding himself with fine wine experts was key to building their program and continues to be a linchpin for wine sales at Gordon’s.  “Our clientele are knowledgeable people, people who travel and have been exposed to great wine and spirits.  They want to walk into an establishment where they can have an in-depth conversation with someone about what they want to buy.”

Offering high quality, diverse products and accessible information disseminated through emails or knowledgeable staff, is a forte at Gordon’s.  “The wine department produces daily email blasts with stellar content,” says David, a self-proclaimed cork dork.  The Burgundy room is another example, which Rick developed because “there’s so much excitement in Burgundy.  You could be looking at a wine anywhere from $5O to $5OO.”  A staff member who specializes in Burgundy helps customers navigate the varied years, bottles, and price tags.

But fine wine drinkers aren’t the only customers who breeze through the doors of the three Gordon’s establishments (two stores in Waltham and one in Watertown).  “We have every type of customer here,” says Rick, and in turn, they offer something for everyone.  In addition to wine enthusiasts, scotch aficionados and craft beer mavens flock to the Main Street (Waltham) location, making it a destination, “but we have everyday wine drinkers here too.”  Just half of a mile away, the Moody Street location is a completely different animal.  “That store and the Watertown store are more neighborhood-y with a good selection of wine and beer.”  But no matter what they’re buying, Rick’s mission is to make sure that “each customer is treated with the utmost respect”. 

Rick always knew he wanted to work in the family business.  “I really enjoyed working in the store on Saturdays as a teenager,” he says.  “Boy, was I in heaven,” Rick says of the move 12 years ago to the current location.  “I never thought I’d outgrow this space.”  Never say never: the Gordons are scheming ways to expand.  “We need more space for everything,” says Rick.  “Distillers and brewers are making such good products, it’s hard to meet the demand.”  He sees growing trends in craft beer, bourbon and rye, and wants to expand in virtually every category because “the industry is becoming so specialized”. 

It was “like father, like son” for David and Ken when it came time to decide whether to join the family business.  Both knew they wanted to work for the company from an early age.  David worked alongside his father for five years and designed the culinary center before briefly leaving to start a tech company.  Now he’s back “in a bulldozer’s capacity” looking to drive new projects for the company, including a fourth store.  Also on his plate is changing over all the computer systems for the store to enable the retailer to more closely engage with the customer.  “It will allow us to keep details on customer purchases, trends, and communicate with customers via email to let them know when new products arrive,” says Rick.  One more strategy for supplying customers with accessible information about their products.

Ken spent time working at E&J Gallo in California, then as a distributor rep in Massachusetts before joining Gordon’s as manager of the 13OO square foot culinary center four years ago.  He spends his days overseeing daily operations, meeting with reps, loading up trucks and, as he says with a smile, “getting yelled at” by dad.  “We’re always looking to do creative wine events at the store,” Ken says.  Most of the time, these classes play host to packed rooms.  Subject offerings are diverse and include “Wine Beginners”, which can be taken as a one-off covering six major grape varietals or as an 8-session series broken down by region, and spirits education courses like “The Perfect Gin & Tonic” which explores the flavor differences between several different gins and allows students to build their own tonic in class.  Culinary classes run the gamut from “Dinner Party 1O1” with a changing focus on regions and seasons, to “Cooking for the Family”, which focuses on topics like “Comfort Food”, “Getting the Kids Involved” and “Fresh Mozzarella Making.” 

“First Fridays” at the culinary center are an elegant twist on a Friday night wine tasting, This complimentary event is a walk-around tasting from 5:3O to 8pm on the first Friday of every month, featuring a jazz duo and hors d’oeuvres, with cocktail attire recommended.  SomSmack!, their “sommelier smack down” has been a great success: the contest features two sommeliers dueling to select the best wine pairing for an 8-course meal cooked by chef Paul Turano of Tryst.  Competitors have ten minutes to taste a course then scour the store to select the perfect wine for each dish.  Guests then sample each course and each wine and vote for a winner. 

Occupying space on Waltham’s Main Street for 78 years has certainly made Gordon’s a mainstay of the town’s businesses.  Gordon’s serves its community by supporting non-profit organizations like the Charles River Museum of Industry, the Decordova Museum and the local Boys & Girls Club.  In addition to showing support through charitable giving, Gordon’s will occasionally partner with these groups for fundraising events.

When I ask Rick one piece of advice he could pass along, sons David and Ken both roll their eyes and say “I know what it’s going to be.”  David adds, “Let’s all say it together now.”  Rick’s mantra?  “Appreciate every customer who comes through the door and never take anything for granted.”  He likes to deliver on it as much as possible.  Despite his myriad duties, Rick’s favorite place to be is in on the action on the floor assisting customers.  “I’m hands on; I want to be where the people are.  And customers like seeing the owner in the trenches.” 

“Every day in retail is a challenge,” Rick tells me.  “You can never accept just what’s here.  The industry is always changing.”  And the Gordons are certainly keen on changing with it.  “Owning your own business only gives you reason to work harder.”

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