While many businesses have shuttered or slowed down as the coronavirus has spread across the nation, it’s been a different story for liquor stores as Minneapolitans have rushed to stock up on beer, wine and spirits.
“I guess the best word to describe it is bonkers,” said Bryan Keeler of Lowry Hill Liquors.
That’s the way many wine and spirits shops across Southwest Minneapolis feel about the rush of business since cases of COVID-19 began to rise in the state, prompting the city and state to ask people to stay in their homes and shut down dine-in restaurants and other public gatherings. Many stores have altered their business to meet the situation by offering curbside pickup and increased delivery.
“It’s a stressful time, and what are people going to do, they’re going to have a cocktail or two,” Keeler said.
On March 25, Gov. Tim Walz announced a stay-at-home order that will be in effect through April 10. Liquor stores were classified as essential businesses that can stay open, but speculative fears the stores would close drove a rush on spirits the week of March 17, many Southwest stores believe.
Dan Campo, owner of South Lyndale Liquors at 53rd & Lyndale, said the store had a huge rush of business on March 20 before Walz spoke because of rumors a stay-at-home order would be issued that day.
“People were saying ‘I hear the governor is shutting down liquor stores today, I’ve got to stock up,’” Campo said. He’s hoping the clarified order will calm people down.
South Lyndale has added a rapid-pickup option for people to order ahead and is maintaining delivery service, though increased demand has put them a bit behind. On March 25, the shop closed early so Campo and his staff could catch up on putting together curbside and delivery orders. After the doors closed, he gathered employees and told them liquor stores would be considered essential services during the stay-at-home order. Many workers expressed relief they’d continue to have their jobs.
Customers have been buying a wide variety of items and nice wine vintages, Campo said. They expected to have runs on certain goods, but that hasn’t been the case.
“People aren’t necessarily buying junk; they’re buying what they want to drink,” he said.
At France 44 Wines and Spirits in Linden Hills there has been a huge jump in sales, according to wine and education specialist Karina Roe.
“Many people are stocking up,” Roe said. “But we’re also seeing ‘normal’ purchases of just a few items.”
The store has added a robust curbside pickup program that Roe said has been very popular. The shop is currently updating its website to allow customers to place orders online; for now they are calling in to clerks. In the store, France 44 is only allowing 15 customers inside at a time, and has placed yellow tape strips 6-feet apart approaching the register; outside, more yellow strips mark where customers should wait while the store empties out enough for more to enter.
On March 25, France 44 got new signs to mark curbside pickup spots and around 5 p.m. a steady flow of vehicles came in-and-out to grab orders.
Lowry Hill Liquors has added more curbside-pickup options and deliveries so people can buy without entering the shop, Keeler said. The hours have been reduced and they are trying to sanitize as much as possible in addition to reminding customers to spread out and only touch what they need.
Laid-off workers find jobs at spirits shops
At a time when many businesses are temporarily laying off workers, liquor stores are adding staff, including several people from the service industry.
France 44 has added wine and beverage experts from several high-end Southwest restaurants, including Grand Cafe, P.S. Steak and St. Genevieve. Roe said she and her colleagues had studied with many local sommeliers.
“It’s been a perfect fit to have these knowledgeable, experienced and service-orientated professionals help us in this unexpected busy season — we truly couldn’t do it without them,” Roe wrote in an email.
Until last week, European wine expert Kristin Watts was working for a local alcohol import company. Now temporarily laid off, she’s found work at South Lyndale Liquors, a couple blocks from where she grew up. She stopped in to make a last minute pickup for a client before the restaurant closure, and Campo asked if she wanted to work. Now she’s using her knowledge to help customers find wines they like when other options are sold out.
“It’s staying connected to the product I love and helping people on the frontline of our industry,” Watts said.
South Lyndale Liquors has added four new employees since the outbreak began, including laid-off workers from local restaurants, Campo said. He’s looking to hire a couple more people.
“I’m so proud of my staff,” he said.
At Lowry Hill Liquors, some employees who are considered high-risk for COVID-19 and others feeling ill have been staying home, while others are working more than ever, Keeler said. Lowry Hill Liquors is giving bonuses for workers this month, he said, and while many employees have said they’re happy to have the work, the increased business and stress are wearing on people.
Customers at Lowry Hill Liquor have been nice and understanding throughout the outbreak, Keeler said. They’re staying an appropriate distance from each other, being kind and patient with staff and even helping older customers carry items.
“It’s kind of nice to see people coming together, even at a liquor store,” Keeler said.