For liquor stores, sales surged during the pandemic. What will happen when drinkers go back to bars?

Salon spoke with a dozen liquor store owners across America about how the pandemic has permanently altered business

Published June 15, 2021 4:00PM (EDT)

Young woman choosing wine  (Getty Images/Aja Koska)
Young woman choosing wine (Getty Images/Aja Koska)

Sales surged for liquor stores in 2020 as many bars and restaurants closed or scaled back service and people kept drinking at home and elsewhere. Now, as states' case rates drop and COVID-related restrictions ease, the boom could be coming to an end — but that doesn't have to spell doom for these essential businesses. 

While owners aren't exactly complaining about increased sales, they're also glad things are starting to return, somewhat, to the way they were pre-COVID. Salon spoke with more than a dozen wine and liquor store owners and managers across the U.S., most of whom say sales already are starting to level off as drinkers venture back out to local watering holes. As they see it, that's a good thing — a chance to breathe after a remarkably tumultuous year and focus on why they got into selling alcohol in the first place. In fact, some are not only relieved, but confident their new customers will stick around, and plan on integrating some of what they've learned while battling unprecedented hurdles.

Happy Cork— Brooklyn, New York 

New York City is known for its epic nightlife, but Sunshine Foss, owner of Happy Cork in Brooklyn, is confident the customers she's cultivated over the last year will continue to shop at her store since it offers something they can't find in bars and restaurants. Happy Cork — which opened in 2019 and spotlights Black- and women-owned wine and spirits brands — saw a boost in sales in 2020 as drinkers looked to support Black- and minority-owned businesses, Foss says. While she couldn't specify precisely how much sales rose, it was significant. 

"We started off begging people to come in and now there are lines around the block," she says. But, she adds, most local customers knew of Happy Cork's focus from the get-go — well before the death of George Floyd sparked a global reckoning on racism and police violence against Black Americans and prompted many companies to release statements professing their commitment to greater diversity, inclusion, and equity in the workplace and beyond. 

"People wanted to buy Black, and we were at the forefront because we were already stating that this is who we are," Foss says, adding that customers "can't find such a large assortment" of Black- and women-owned wine and spirits brands under one roof elsewhere in the neighborhood.

Foss doesn't anticipate sales will plummet as drinkers go back to bars because many learned from 2020 that they relish making drinks at home. She also attributes this to broader cultural changes driven by the shift to remote work, to which companies around the world had no choice but to adapt. 

"A lot of people want to stay home longer because they've kind of become accustomed to it, which has changed the way people are drinking and speaking to each other," Foss says. "There's way more communication now. The virtual world brought a lot of people closer." 

Happy Cork also capitalized on the rise of celebrity-backed wine and spirits brands to attract new customers, holding virtual tastings with the likes of John Legend (Legend Vineyard Exclusive) and Mary J. Blige (Sun Goddess wines). "We call it 'Cocktails & Convo' or 'Wine & Convo,'" Foss explains. "We were able to bring in two varietals [from Legend's LVE wines] that are not anywhere in the market, so that is exclusive to us. We do things that are super-unique to keep people interested, but also drinking better."

From these kinds of events, Happy Cork's customer base expanded during the pandemic, transforming the store into a destination for drinkers beyond the city's five boroughs, "so we're going to keep on doing what we've been doing in that virtual space," Foss says. 

Still, she's taking a cautious approach to welcoming customers back into the store and doesn't plan to bring back in-person tastings immediately. Yet as people become more comfortable shopping in person, Foss anticipates a boost in in-store business. "We have an app as well as an online delivery service," she says. "About a month ago you would see a lot of sales going through our website. Now people are coming from all over — driving from Long Island and Staten Island and New Jersey — venturing out and saying, 'Hey, I've been following you guys.' It's also a beautiful space, so people come and take pictures."

Astor Wines & Spirits — Manhattan, New York

Larger wine and spirits stores also saw gains in 2020. "We certainly saw a substantial hike in delivery business last year because of COVID [due to] pantry hoarding," Rob Fisher, chief operating officer at Astor Wines & Spirits in Manhattan, tells Salon. "We had a big increase in new customers because they couldn't go out and buy locally, so they would come and buy from us [online], and I think they're going to stay because there's been sort of a mind-shift around, 'Hey, I really like this delivery thing.'" 

Grain alcohol, which Astor hardly sold prior to March 2020, "zoomed off the shelf" at the beginning of the pandemic as customers stocked up on the potent spirit to make hand sanitizer, Fisher says. Sales have since returned to "more normal levels." On the wine side, "mid-price range items seemed to really take off," Fisher notes, because "people were buying so much more and wanted to buy more bottles, so they didn't go for extremely high-end products." The store also sold more aperitifs than usual, possibly because people were drinking more cocktails and seeking out lower-proof spirits and liqueurs.

As drinkers return to bars, Fisher says that Astor is "sustaining, and we'll keep doing what we're doing." He notes that people have become comfortable with delivery and that foot traffic is also starting to pick up, but "the piece that really needs to come back is office workers" who used to shop in the store after work. And while some people will prefer the camaraderie of their local pub to drinking at home, that's nothing new. 

"We've always competed with bars," but it's more "symbiotic" than rivalrous, Fisher explains. "We feed on each other — people go into a bar, try a new product that they really like and say, 'Hey, I'm going to [buy] a bottle of this.'"

Horseneck Wine & Spirits and Vanderbilt Ave Wine Merchants — Greenwich, Connecticut and Brooklyn, New York 

Horseneck Wine & Spirits in Greenwich, Connecticut also saw sales rise during the pandemic, owner Greg Rubin says. And while he expects a dip as customers start drinking and eating out again, he believes the return of catered events, tastings, dinners and other in-person gatherings will make up for it. 

Rubin also owns Vanderbilt Ave Wine Merchants in Brooklyn, where the pandemic forced his business to improve its ability to deliver to different parts of the city. "We overhauled our delivery process and offerings," Rubin says, including adding the option to order by text and other upgrades as "necessity is the mother of invention." Because of these changes, Rubin foresees "not reverting really at all" to the way he ran his business pre-pandemic. 

"Our delivery system is better than it was, our website is better than it was," he adds. "We're better off now than we were a year and a half ago in a lot of ways."

In addition to early-pandemic stockpiling of "big brands people knew and trusted," Rubin's customers later expanded their palates through virtual tastings, "and we ended up introducing them to new products — nothing out of the ordinary, but maybe a new producer in a classic category." He also noticed "a lot more gifting around the holidays, [as people] felt compelled to just send a hundred-dollar bottle of something." 

Additionally, the pandemic helped Rubin bolster his staff by adding some "incredibly seasoned folks" from the hospitality industry—deeply knowledgeable wine and spirits pros who "normally would not have been available to a retailer" but were "starting to think about retail as a viable career path."

Beyond these practical changes, however, the pandemic prompted Rubin and his staff to double down on "bringing a very high level of hospitality to the job," he says. They had to navigate how to be hospitable while still adhering to safety protocols, and think about how to offer in-store tastings in a post-COVID world. Rubin says they may not have asked themselves those questions as critically as they did if it weren't for the pandemic. 

"I think at the end of the day, people were craving human interaction, kindness, comfort and grace," Rubin adds. "There were few people customers talked to for months outside of their own family, and they wanted to be with people who they could just have a genuine conversation with. In a way we're kind of like bartenders, and we're happy to be that place for folks."

Norfolk Wine & Spirits — Norfolk, Massachusetts

Delivery and online sales also took off during the pandemic for Norfolk Wine & Spirits in Norfolk, Massachusetts, which posed a challenge for owner Bikram Singh because at one point he was the only delivery person. 

Early in lockdown, the store — like other specialty spirits shops — went from being a boutique for hard-to-find whiskies, tequilas and other spirits to selling major brands like Tito's Handmade Vodka and Woodbridge Wines to drinkers seeking "comfort-zone bottles." Like many owners who previously introduced customers to different products through in-store tastings, Singh switched to Zoom, which expanded his customer base and connected them with distillers and winemakers they otherwise might not have known. 

Singh also set up what he calls "virtual hybrid" tastings, which were limited-capacity in-person tastings at local restaurants led by bartenders and brand ambassadors, with the option of joining virtually while tasting from home. Meanwhile, Norfolk Wine & Spirits' parking lot played host, on certain days, to food trucks hawking pizza and lobster, drawing hungry crowds and more people into the store.

"There was no respite" during the pandemic, Singh says. "It's been an exhausting time and a constant learning experience, being a small store with limited resources." 

He's more relieved than concerned that online orders and deliveries have begun to subside, as it allows him to focus on what the business is known for — rare, coveted wines and spirits — but also catering to a new wave of cocktail enthusiasts fueled by more than a year of at-home drink-mixing. 

"There are only so many opportunities that we can pursue as a small business," Singh says. "If we say we want to be a liquor delivery company, we just don't know if we have the bandwidth. On the other hand, there's a huge following for cocktails and mixology, and that is part of our core competency — education, quality, craft. That will continue to increase, even with people going out. There are a lot more customers who look at us now as someone who can guide them in this journey, and that's something we want to continue to do."

The Urban Grape — Boston, Massachusetts

The Urban Grape, co-founded in 2010 by husband-and-wife team TJ and Hadley Douglas in Boston's South End, also metamorphosed during the pandemic. 

"We spent the past year and a half rethinking our business model and leaning into finding customers where they are," Hadley, Urban Grape's chief marketing officer, says. "We had to get to them — not only via delivery, but also change our marketing [and] website to make it easier for them to shop online and bring events into their homes. We got very comfortable figuring out how to always be bringing our services to our customers as opposed to waiting for our customers to walk through the door." 

Part of that meant significantly expanding delivery service from a single driver and van to roughly 100 deliveries a day within a 60-mile reach, TJ, the company's chief executive officer, wine buyer and head salesperson, says. 

"The pandemic has shown us and trained our customers to receive contactless delivery," he adds. "So often in sales, it's all about convenience." 

Agility also was key in navigating the pandemic — and prepping for the aftermath. The Urban Grape pressed pause on in-store shopping in late March 2020 to protect staff and customers and finally reopened on April 14. "And man, I can't tell you how happy people were to come in," TJ recalls. 

"They shopped with us because we'd built a wine counter outside that kept people safe and they could order behind plexiglass, but we had our doors closed for 54 weeks and we're up about 65% [in sales]," TJ says. "It makes you think, 'Do we need to have a storefront?' The answer is yes, but we did such great business using our 2,300 square feet in the middle of Boston as a warehouse for a year, and we just flipped it back over to a fine wine and spirits shop."

Similar to Foss at Brooklyn's Happy Cork, TJ and Hadley have, since before the pandemic, sought to champion Black-, women-, and LGBTQ-owned wine and spirits brands, both on their website and in their store. 

After the killing of George Floyd gave rise to global protests, the Douglases found themselves doing more than selling wine. "This time it was emotionally meeting customers where they were, but also offering education," Hadley adds. "Taking the time to bring these producers onto Zoom calls, getting people into the wine game and also [explaining] why it was important to support BIPOC producers." 

That initiative paid off. 

"A good portion of our new customers found out about us because they were searching, specifically, for a Black business or a Black brand or a female business to support," TJ says. "It was a very intentional spend. Our demographic has been enhanced because we have many more Black and brown shoppers now. Typically, wine is not marketed to Black and brown people, but if someone can see themselves in a space, it's going to feel more welcoming, and that's what The Urban Grape has provided. They're happy to have a place where they can not only support but feel supported."

Schneiders of Capitol Hill — Washington, D.C. 

Schneider's of Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., also saw a "big uptick in business," particularly online, when the pandemic hit in March 2020, vice president and fourth-generation owner Elyse Genderson tells Salon. 

Finally, the store is welcoming people back inside, "with masks, for now," Genderson adds, although free local delivery is still an option. 

During the pandemic, Genderson observed strong sales of bourbon and gin from local independent distilleries as more customers sought to resurrect classic cocktails at home; sales of reasonably-priced imported wines — Pinot Noir, Sancerre, Burgundy — rose too. 

And while 2020 pushed many businesses to the edge, Schneider's also weathered a turbulent start to 2021. Streets were blocked off following the insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6, reducing foot traffic. 

"That was a real hit at the start of the year," Genderson says. "But now we're coming into summer, people are happy, vaccinated, ready to visit with friends, celebrate and drink good wine, so we see a bright future."

Genderson isn't really concerned about sales dropping as people return to the area's venerated drinking dens. "It's great that everything is opening up and our colleagues and friends in the restaurant industry are coming back to full capacity," she says. "Nothing makes us happier. We've always coexisted."

Juice at 1340 — Chicago, Illinois 

Chicago's 1340 Beer Wine Spirits closed on Dec. 31, 2020, after more than five years in business, but reopened in early May under the name "Juice at 1340," helmed by partners Danielle Lewis, Tim Williams and Derrick Westbrook. 

Williams tells Salon the group will focus on collaborating with other Black- and women-owned restaurants to expand the business' presence beyond the four walls of its bricks-and-mortar location. 

"There's a saying that if you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together, and I think we've taken that concept to heart in everything we do," Westbrook adds. "We're stronger by connecting with other small businesses. Ultimately, we're all on the same team because once people feel comfortable shopping local, they will remain local, so it's kind of our job to lift up other businesses, along with continuing to work on our own." 

Since Juice at 1340 operates as both a specialty wine and spirits shop and tasting room, it allows customers to explore a variety of eclectic beer, wine and spirits while also stocking up on what they need for a sophisticated home bar. 

"We're really fortunate to be able to do both," Lewis says. "Importantly, in the last year, new habits were formed." While drinkers will go back to bars, many have a better understanding of what can be done at home since they've been making their own cocktails for over a year. 

"Getting to come to a shop like this, talk about spirits, wine, beer and cocktails with us and then being able to take that home and do it themselves — I think those things will continue as much as they'll go back out and visit their favorite bars," she says. 

Locally made beer is a prime reason customers come to Juice. 

"We focus a lot on Chicago and Illinois breweries, and this store has always had its following for those small craft beer guys," Lewis says. "Even in the last month, we've noticed how strong that still is — people still come in here every Wednesday and wait for a new release from Hop Butcher or Pipeworks or whatever the local breweries are doing, and people have missed that because we're one of the few retailers that carry it." 

Juice also offers an ample range of cocktail ingredients beyond base spirits like vodka, gin or whisky. 

"People are interested in craft cocktail mixers we make in the shop at a far higher rate than they are in the base spirits," Williams notes. "My assumption is they have a stockpile of booze and need some help working through it. People are really getting down with the DIY of [home bartending], and anything that allows them to sink their teeth in and feel like it's a customized experience — that's reflective of a year of doing things on their own, and I don't think people are necessarily willing to let that go just because bars and restaurants reopen."

Independent Spirits Inc. — Chicago, Illinois

The start of the pandemic was jarring for Scott Crestodina, owner of Independent Spirits Inc., also in Chicago. 

"We're pretty old-school retail — brick-and-mortar, fundamentally — and overnight we became, to a large extent, an online retailer," Crestodina says. "Fortunately, we have a system where our entire inventory is online in real time. Having the website in place was crucial — it made all the difference." 

Especially as certain wines and spirits suddenly flew off the shelves. At the beginning of lockdown, "the very first thing that happened was all the Sancerre was gone," Crestodina recalls. As time went on, "we also sold a lot of cocktail tools and common cocktail ingredients. Vermouth became very popular. People couldn't go to bars and had a lot of time on their hands."

Another big challenge Crestodina didn't anticipate was "two-thirds of the staff stopped showing up," he says. "But we got through it." He and the rest of his team survived by shortening hours to reduce interactions and limit contact, while accepting they would "just have to work harder," Crestodina says. "It got busier overnight, so we filled every order we could, as fast as we could, and it lasted about a year." 

Now, with restaurants reopening, business has returned to a "fairly normal level in the last few months, which is great."

"A lot of our clientele, just based on the nature of our business, are restaurant staff, so it was really sad to see all those people lose their job," he says. "Fortunately, that's turning around now."

Independent Spirits won't be resuming public tastings, which had been a big part of their business, anytime soon. Moving forward, Crestodina says that it's hard to say what's going to change in his business and when. 

"I have no idea what comes next," he adds. "There's a new normal every few months, it seems. I don't anticipate extending our hours back to normal until we're not wearing masks again, which I'm guessing could be quite a while. That's the nature of retail — just roll with whatever comes and hope it's not too detrimental."

Purple Corkscrew Wine Shop & Tasting Room — Avondale Estates, Georgia 

Like Juice at 1340, Purple Corkscrew Wine Shop & Tasting Room in Avondale Estates, Georgia offers wine lovers a bar and shopping experience under one roof. The business lost a hefty chunk of revenue from having to halt in-store tastings — which brought in around 60% of revenue before the pandemic — but retail sales rose by around 40%, proprietor Steffini Bethea says. 

And since customers could no longer taste wines in-store before buying a bottle, they had to take Bethea's word on what's good, which she says built trust. Now, even as drinkers go back to bars, Bethea is confident Purple Corkscrew's customers, old and new, will stick around. "I'm very optimistic," Bethea says, noting that in June Purple Corkscrew will celebrate nine years in business. 

"We've deepened the trust of customers we had before, gained the trust of new customers, and built this relationship that's going to be difficult for people to veer from," she says. "It's almost like we've been together for a year and as long as we continue to maintain our quality of service, we'll continue to grow. The future is bright."

Cork'n Bottle — Crescent Springs, Kentucky

Meanwhile, sales picked up "anywhere from 15 to 20 percent" for different wines and spirits at Cork 'n Bottle in Crescent Springs, Kentucky, general manager Eric Bollmann says. "Everything was a lot more localized, which helped fine-tune our customer base." 

Specifically, the store offered single barrel bourbon releases, which "helped us focus on local customers that shop here more often rather than people that just go buy bottles and flip 'em for money," Bollmann adds. As customers took advantage of curbside pickup, "mixers went out of stock," as did "syrups, a lot of liqueurs and different odd things people were requesting because they were making their own cocktails." 

Several major spirits brands ran out too, however. 

"Patrón was out of stock for three months," Bollmann says. "Rémy Martin, Hennessy, D'Ussé — any cognac product is hard to come by.  Tequila's hit or miss," and ready-to-drink margaritas and other canned cocktails also became "a lot more popular."

In addition to gaining local customers, Cork 'n Bottle attracted drinkers from across state lines, including Ohio, in search of bottles they couldn't find in their state-run liquor stores, according to Bollmann. "People see the benefit of coming to a store like ours where we can provide suggestions and let them know when a product is going to come in," he says. 

Business has slowed somewhat as drinkers step gingerly into bars, but Bollmann isn't concerned. 

"It's a breath of fresh air," he says. "It's nice that things are getting back to normal, people can live their life and it's their option to come to Cork 'n Bottle." Eased restrictions also means the return of in-store bourbon and wine tastings, which "can bring in some good dough because customers are coming in, trying some different bourbons and then they shop."

The Austin Shaker — Austin, Texas 

For Kirstyn Litchfield, co-owner of The Austin Shaker in Texas and a former bartender of 20 years, increased retail sales as a result of bars being closed was no reason to celebrate. 

Not just because bartending is "close to my heart," she says, but also because the store's wholesale business to bars was gone. 

"When the pandemic hit, none of us really knew what was going on," Litchfield says. "We just tried to roll with the punches, followed the guidelines, kept wearing masks and when the state of Texas declared us an essential business, we just kept doing what we were doing. Our sales went up, but … I would prefer bars to be open, always — especially in Texas, [where] half of our business is wholesale to bars."

For staff and customers alike, the pandemic made clear "our whole lifestyle is always on the brink of something like this happening again," Litchfield says. "We're just more aware of making sure that we're [diligent] as far as cleanliness and sanitizing." 

Moving forward, Litchfield is set on "continuing to do what we do best — sell great spirits to the people." 

As far as drinkers going out again, "I do not see it as competition," Litchfield adds. Echoing Fisher of Astor Wines & Spirits, she views it as "a symbiotic relationship," as she regularly suggests customers try something at a bar before committing to a bottle. Similarly, if they taste something they like at a bar, the bartender often points them to Litchfield's store. "It's cross-promotion," Litchfield says. "A win-win."

OST Liquor — Houston, Texas

When Chris Cooper opened OST Liquor in Houston, Texas in June 2020, he sought to fill what he saw as a void in the local liquor store landscape. Cooper saw some larger liquor stores as "really cookie-cutter, really price-driven" and wanted OST Liquor to focus on spirits and craft cocktail education, while also highlighting minority-owned spirits brands.

He also wanted to give customers a more personal experience than the "transactional, 'give me your money and see you later'" one they might have in other stores where the bottles are locked in cages or behind bulletproof glass. OST Liquor also made drinkers' lives easier with its mobile app and online delivery, "and we connected with other marketplaces like Drizly and Uber Eats to extend our reach," Cooper adds. "None of the other places that we're competing with in our area were doing that."

Additionally, Cooper capitalized on take-home cocktail kits at a time when DIY cocktail making and to-go cocktails already were on the rise. He describes the "double-cup" cocktail kits sold at OST Liquor as "the retail side on how to serve drinks to-go—we took the idea of 'value bags' and transformed it into actual cocktails." 

The kits are not only convenient, but also make it easier for customers to try new spirits before committing to a full bottle. "The smaller size really opens you up to trying something different," Cooper says, adding that during the height of the pandemic OST Liquor was selling around 900 to a thousand cocktail kits a week, which has since leveled off to "about 650 to 700."

Unlike liquor stores that were in business since before the pandemic, Cooper opened OST Liquor in the thick of it, so he has nothing to compare with the boom he experienced from the get-go. Granted, business was "slow" in January and February of 2021, but given OST Liquor's strong start, Cooper is optimistic robust sales are "going to be the norm" moving forward. 

Like Litchfield, he's counting on his store's sales ramping up as bars' business does. "Our business structure is set up to support all these different avenues within the industry," he explains. "Around the same time things started opening back up, we started revving up our on-premise accounts, supporting those bars and restaurants."

TopLine Wine & Spirits — Glendale, California 

In the beginning of the pandemic, customers of TopLine Wine & Spirits in Glendale, California were stockpiling liquor to "medicate" themselves, social media director and retail sales manager Cat Chin says. 

But over time, TopLine expanded its selection of amari, vermouth and other specialty spirits made by smaller distilleries in response to customers' increased thirst for homemade cocktails. 

As drinkers go back to bars, Chin isn't concerned about TopLine's bottom line taking too great a hit. She believes customers will continue to shop there, not just for its eclectic selection of spirits and wines from lesser-known winemaking regions, but also friendly, laid-back staff. 

TopLine doesn't offer online ordering or advertise but Chin says people learn about the shop from word-of-mouth—and from interviews with distillers, winemakers and brand ambassadors on TopLine's social media accounts. "We're just going to continue as we've been doing because it seems to work," Chin says. "We try to find the best product we can for the best prices. That's always been our main goal. The fact that we have really interesting wines — Lebanese wines, Israeli wines, Slovenian wines — we do try to select interesting products, and that helps our business."

Flask & Field — Los Angeles, California 

One of the biggest challenges Miriam Yoo faced at the start of the pandemic was shuttering the inside of her downtown Los Angeles specialty wine and spirits shop, Flask & Field, and transforming it into an e-commerce operation. 

While liquor stores, in general, saw an uptick in sales during the pandemic, Yoo says significantly curtailing in-person shopping at Flask & Field "definitely affected our business negatively." 

But if eliminating in-store tastings hurt profits, that was offset by increased revenue from gifting services and virtual tastings, Yoo adds. And she considers herself more fortunate than owners of other struggling small businesses. "We obviously were able to survive," Yoo says. "It's easier to get someone to buy a bottle of wine" than splurge on a pricey pair of shoes.

While Yoo noticed people buying different products at various stages of the pandemic — early on they sought comfort in red wine and later invested in sturdy bar tools for at-home happy hours — her customers return to the store for the same reason. "People will always be drinking wine and spirits, but they come to us for natural wine, something cool, small-batch," she says. "Our customers pretty much have stayed steady in their buying patterns."

Yoo says she spent no money on advertising during the pandemic and, like TopLine, relies on Instagram and word-of-mouth to draw new customers. 

The store gained plenty over the last year and a half, she adds, which she attributes to being "authentic" and direct about what she believes in, whether it has to do with wine, politics, or how she's feeling. "The people who come to us have a genuine nerdy appreciation for wine, so they just like to be at a place where someone else is nerd-ing out over the things they like to nerd out about," she explains. 

But Yoo also sees a greater purpose beyond the day-to-day grind of keeping Flask & Field in business. She says she embraces her ability as a woman of color and business owner to spearhead change in an industry that's reckoning with a lack of diversity and sexual harassment problem

"There are not a lot of Asian women that front a wine shop or a liquor store," Yoo says. "I think a lot of customers who are Asian or people of color really found us during the pandemic and were like, 'Hey, I didn't know you guys existed, and it's cool what you're doing.' We didn't shy away from talking about things during [the] Black Lives Matter [protests] and really using our business to not just be for-profit but really fuel some sort of social change. People resonate with a voice that sounds real."

Yoo continues: "I think that we see retail in general as part of that unsustainable toxic capitalist system where employees aren't cared for. All I can do as a business owner is change that within my own business [by] taking care of my employees. Yes, we're a business, but we can also … change the world [by] creating a community where my associates are treated with dignity and respect. A small business can succeed and do things differently, instead of just being in survival mode."


By Zak Kostro

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