Liquor Boy, now open in St. Louis Park, founded by sports agent and grocer's grandson
It's only a hair past 3 p.m., but John Wolf has already put in a full day's work. "We're loading about 10,000 cases in tomorrow for the new store," he explains. "I've been up since 4 in the morning."
It may seem like insanity. But Wolf, the grandson of grocery store magnate Arthur Applebaum, knows it's all part of the game.
After buying Chicago Lake Liquors in 2000, Wolf opened Liquor Boy in St. Louis Park last week. Part wine and spirits, part warehouse, it's a concept that looks toward the future, has roots in the past, and is anything but ordinary. Just like its owner.
A ex-sports agent for high-profile personalities like Jim McMahon and Deion Sanders, Wolf shares many traits with his former clients. Intense focus. Dogged determination. Constant pursuit of the next challenge. And the gargantuan 10,000-square-foot Liquor Boy is his largest undertaking yet--an ambitious project that contains a few threads from the old family business.
Wolf's maternal great-grandfather was Oscar Applebaum, a Russian immigrant who began selling fruit and vegetables on the streets of St. Paul in the 1920s. As the years wore on, his sons (including Wolf's grandfather, Arthur) and other relatives joined the business, later evolving it into a full-fledged grocery chain bearing the Applebaum name.
As a child, Wolf would tag along with his grandfather to the store on weekends. Arthur had a reputation for being a tireless worker, and often went in seven days a week. Applebaum devoted a great deal of time to his customers--talking and listening to people who came through the door. "He knew everybody's name," remembers Wolf.
But grocery retail can be grueling. "Either you like it or you don't," says Wolf of the demanding schedule. "The hours are terrible." Yet there was something that intrigued him.
In the late '70s Applebaum's was sold, and eventually became part of Rainbow Foods. Although Wolf was barely a teenager at the time, he was sad when the sale was announced. "I always thought I would go into the business," he says. Little did he know he would one day follow a similar path.
After graduating from St. Paul Academy, Wolf got a BA in economics from the University of Wisconsin. He considered banking, or maybe sales and marketing. But soon, a much different opportunity caught his eye.
In 1989, Wolf was watching an ESPN broadcast of the NFL draft, which featured a brash young phenom from Florida State who was projected to be one of the top picks. Deion "Prime Time" Sanders was center stage, and ESPN was broadcasting live from the home of his agent, Steve Zucker.
Wolf was instantly hooked. "Sports, business ... I loved them both." Immediately, he began harassing Zucker for a job. "I drove him so crazy," he laughs. His persistence paid off, and he was offered an internship at Zucker Sports Management Group. "I was in charge of managing McMahon and Sanders, and we had half the Chicago Bears," Wolf says. "I didn't know what I was doing. It was trial by error."
His clientele grew, and he added more basketball and football players, as well as golfers and even sports anchors. With clients spread around the country, Wolf could be based anywhere. So in 1996, he decided to return home to the Twin Cities to be closer to family. And in the process, saw a chance to shake up his career as well.
Owner John Wolf
"When I moved back, I wanted something else, in addition to representing the players," Wolf says. "I wanted something much more tangible."
Retail seemed like the perfect fit. The memories of his grandfather's supermarket still lingered, and the idea of having his own storefront was too much to resist. He built a couple coin-operated laundromats, but they lacked the energy and excitement of a traditional retail space.
When Wolf was in Chicago, he'd stumbled across Sam's Wine & Spirits, an enormous warehouse wonderland. "I'm not a big drinker. In fact, I hardly drink," Wolf says. "But for a shopping experience, I just liked the whole feel of it. I said, 'I want to open a store just like that.'"
Unfortunately, it turned out to be more difficult than he bargained for. When Wolf contacted liquor distributors, he was slapped with the cold hard truth: "This market can't handle a 20,000- or 30,000-square-foot store. If you really want to get into the business, you should buy a store."
But as Wolf found out, most of the best establishments were family-owned, and selling wasn't an option. By the time Wolf got to Chicago Lake Liquors, he assumed he'd get another no. But much to his surprise, owner Darrell Ansel put a price on the table. Less than a year later, the store belonged to Wolf.
A permanent fixture in the neighborhood, Chicago Lake was thriving when Wolf stepped in as the new owner, so Wolf's task would be tricky: Make something great even better. Unfortunately, he didn't know anything about selling wine or spirits.
Similar to his early years as a sports agent, it was baptism by fire. But what Wolf lacked in industry expertise, he made up for in instincts and resolve. And much like his grandfather Applebaum, he ascribed to one simple philosophy: Know your customer.
Like Applebaum, Wolf spent tons of time in the aisles, learning what people wanted--and perhaps more importantly, what they didn't. For some owners it would be a burden, but for Wolf it came naturally. "I love being on the floor," he says. "It's my favorite thing to do."
Wolf's acute knowledge of his shoppers has helped him refine his selection and bring in new buyers--doubling sales since he took the reins.
Never one to rest on his laurels, Wolf also launched the 2011 Minneapolis Beer Festival, which hosted 4,000 beer fans. Then he expanded it to the Twin Cities Beer Fest and moved it to the Mall of America in 2012. "I'd never been to a beer festival before that," he reveals.
But without a doubt, his most monumental project has been Liquor Boy, the new warehouse-style store.
"Liquor Boy is completely different," Wolf promises. "Something people have never before seen in the Twin Cities." Liquor Boy is three times larger than the average liquor shop, with cement floors and towering ceilings. Cases are piled high on pallet metal racking, and rows of product stretch from front to back. There isn't a basement, storage room, or excess inventory stashed behind the building. Everything in the store is out on the floor.
Like Chicago Lake, Liquor Boy will offer discounted prices (up to 40 percent) on name-brand items every day. While the selection will be impressive, Wolf knows that more isn't always more. "I'm going to give you unbelievable choice, but I'm not going to give you everything under the sun. There's a point of diminishing returns, and it can become intimidating. So I'm going to simplify it."
That means a robust yet well-edited line of products--including four hand-selected brown liquors that have been bottled exclusively for Liquor Boy: two bourbons (Elijah Craig and Evan Williams) and two whiskeys (Bernheim and Jack Daniel's). There's also a wine bar for tastings, and samplings will be a common occurrence.
Once Liquor Boy is up and running, Wolf's next move is anyone's guess--including his own. But he'll undoubtedly be on the look out for the next big thing. As for his own family, which includes four boys, the question remains whether they'll follow in his footsteps.
Wolf, of course, wants them to do whatever whatever makes them happy. But he can't help but smile at the thought of them joining the family business. A tradition he never intended to carry on, but in many small ways, certainly has.
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