Budding entrepreneurs are generally advised to begin their venture with a carefully thought-out business plan. But for Jay Patel, proprietor of the Ohioville Liquor Store at 501 Main Street in New Paltz, no such strategic planning was involved, he says. “Thirty years ago there was a movie, ‘The Accidental Tourist.’ Well, I somehow became ‘the accidental wine and liquor store entrepreneur.’”
Prior to 2008, Patel was working with his cousin, Charlie, at the Country Farms convenience store two doors down from the liquor store he has now owned and operated for ten years. “The economy was in stagnation mode, and the absentee owner of this store had enough of it, and was looking to bail out. My situation today came about strictly because I was in the right place at the right time.”
Even so, there is a lot involved in taking an opportunity that arises and making a go of it. But with May 8 being the tenth anniversary of his business, Patel has clearly done just that. He’ll celebrate the occasion by offering a 10 percent discount on all standard and magnum bottles and cases of wine that day.
Patel is originally from Gujarat, India’s westernmost state. He came to the U.S. in 1998 for better economic opportunities. His wife, Meena, has worked in the store over the years, but spends less time there these days and more as “mom’s taxi,” Jay says, taking their two children to all of their various extracurricular activities. Jay Jr. is a sophomore at New Paltz High School, and daughter, Devi, a freshman there. Both have been in New Paltz schools since kindergarten. The Patel family has rented in New Paltz for years, but recently bought a home for the first time, and are enjoying the process of settling in.
Recently we sat down with Jay Patel to talk a bit more about what it’s like to own and operate a liquor store business.
What is the most challenging part of your business?
In the beginning, it was a huge challenge just staying afloat. There was a major sweat equity in the original cleanup and renovation of the interior, as well as the initial costs of new flooring, new shelving and new lighting. And a major impediment to opening this type of business is the cost of goods; inventory has to be bought and paid for. But in a bit of good luck, the store was way understocked at the time, which gave me time to add stock on a gradual basis. Over time, I have learned there is a myriad of variables in this business that are difficult, but it is up to me to make them manageable.
What do you find most challenging these days?
I’m often asked to give discounts for affinity groups — seniors, military, etc. — but to offer those, I’d have to raise my prices overall. I’ve opted instead to price very competitively across the board and offer discounts only on special occasions or on pre-ordered full-case buys. I also offer some ongoing specials and seasonal promotions, and once in a while, closeout specials. We also make a point to carry lots of value-priced wine and boxed wines to fit the everyday budget: a lot of the wines are $10 or less, and we have hundreds of bottles under $15.
What do you like the most about your business?
No question: the daily customer interaction and the variety of the customer base. This store’s profile is ‘the working person’s store.’ The mainstay of my business is our loyal regular customers. We do hardly any business with the SUNY students, but we do get quite a few of their faculty and employees. And the tourist percentage as part of the equation is always increasing. A little niche we have developed over time is Canadians: they stop off at our store in the beginning and then before the return trip, they buy the amount they are allowed to bring back to Canada. Last but not least are the senior citizens who stop in regularly.
How is the work/life balance in your line of work?
For the first several years, this was truly a ‘mom and pop’ store; myself and my wife (during school hours for her when the kids were younger, and sometimes on weekends). She would cover the cash register when I had to take in deliveries or do the restocking. But this store is open 73 hours a week, so even though I still work some 12-hour days, over time I have added part-time sales assistants, cashiers and SUNY students to do shelf-stocking on major delivery days. Now that both our children are in high school, we take time to go to our son’s football and track events and our daughter’s school presentations.
What personal attributes or skills does a person need to do this type of work?
In terms of attributes, simply being a people person; outgoing, warm, friendly and welcoming. Knowing and supporting the local community through PTA and sports team support and other projects is neither a skill nor an attribute, but it is a requirement for success for a local business. The skills required in this business mean being a jack-of-all-trades. I am the head of every department: sales, customer service, purchasing, shipping and receiving, human resources, accounts payable and receivable, IT, government compliance officer and last but not least, maintenance/porter. In addition, being fully conversant and knowledgeable about wine and spirits is mandatory, and keeping up with industry trends is an ongoing task.
What changes have you observed in your business over the past ten years?
For one thing, the tremendous surge in domestic production and consumption of local and New York State products: we do well with wines from Brotherhood [Winery] and products from Tuthilltown Distillery. Local hard cider sales went from zero to now having ever-increasing shelf space and sales: Brooklyn Cider House down the street generates business, because their customers can buy their products here for the same price and we’re open more hours than they are, and year-round.
We’ve also seen changes in customer preferences. Wine knowledge and regular consumption have dramatically increased, and we now carry organic and vegan wines as well as gluten-free vodkas.
Has technology had a major impact on your business?
Yes. A store such as mine is highly dependent on our computerized point-of-sale system, and the software to verify a customer’s ID is now highly sophisticated. Websites have become increasingly important, and certain marketing tools; using a smartphone, for example, to scan a bottle label for additional information or an interactive experience.
[Patel demonstrates using a bottle of “19 Crimes” wine, whose labels feature a different sepia photo of original members of Australia’s penal colony, who landed there after being arrested for one of 19 crimes. A scan with a smartphone and an app makes the bottle ‘talk’ onscreen, the convict explaining the crime they were sent down under for. The corks are labelled with the numbers 1-19, creating a collectible for adults not unlike the old days of bubblegum packaged with baseball cards.]
What advice would you give to someone contemplating going into your line of work?
Don’t expect instant gratification! And holidays are the gravy of this business; everybody else’s holidays are your heavy workdays. You are on duty or on call 364 days a year — we only close on Christmas Day — and you can’t call in sick. Expect the best but plan for the worst: a snowstorm in January with a power outage or a rainy Fourth of July weekend can decimate your sales. And you’d better learn and follow the rules, because this is a highly controlled, regulated and observed business.
For more information, call (845) 255-1120 or visit http://theliquorwinestorenewpaltzny.com/index.html.