West Vail Liquor Mart celebrates 40th anniversary this year
VAIL, Colorado – Since 1972, West Vail Liquor Mart has been one of the town’s main sources of adult beverages. That’s a lot of Bud – and wine, and, well, you get the idea – under the bridge.
Since 1988, Tom Mullen has been part of the crew at West Vail. He, along with his wife, Laurie, have owned the place outright since 2004.
A Midwesterner by birth, Mullen was in working in Denver for a liquor wholesaler before coming to Vail. A co-worker told him there might be an opportunity in the high country, so Mullen talked to store founders Charlie Crowley and Howard Gardner and moved to the mountains.
Another opportunity opened up a few years later, but Mullen stayed after talking to the owners, and learning there might be an opportunity to buy into the business. It was a great opportunity for Mullen, and a chance for the store’s founders to ease out of the business.
“Howard and Charlie were really prescient about having a plan,” Mullen said.
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As Mullen bought into the business, the operation was, ultimately, a family affair, although Laurie only started working at the store about five years ago, coming from a career in the sales and marketing side of the lodging business.
“Tom and I saw an opportunity to both work in the business we owned,” Laurie said. “It was a chance to focus all our energy here.”
Couples who work together often clash, but the Mullens said they’re generally able to keep work at work. Having separate offices helps. It also helps that Tom handles more of the financial side of the business, while Laurie focuses on human resources and marketing. Laurie also serves on the Vail Local Marketing District Board.
There’s a common perception that liquor stores are one of the few recession-proof businesses. That’s not exactly true, especially as a store’s customer base changes over the years.
That’s been the case for the Mullens.
“The population center of the valley has changed over the years,” Mullen said. “That’s created opportunities for small businesses to the west, but where our revenue comes from has changed.”
There have always been resort customers, but as Vail’s decade-long construction boom faded, the people who built those new buildings have stopped coming in.
“There have always been peaks and valleys in the business, but the peaks are higher and the valleys are lower now.”
Keeping the store’s revenue stream flowing also requires understanding what people want.
Over the years, what’s on the store’s shelves has evolved along with popular tastes. A lot more cooler space is devoted to “craft” beers these days, brands and varieties that no one had even imagined in 1972.
Smaller companies are starting to spread across the liquor world these days, even in spirits.
“It’s growing, but it’s still minuscule,” Mullen said. “But as we’ve seen consolidation in the business, there’s been an opportunity for smaller guys to come in.”
But that proliferation of craft brewers, vintners and distillers makes it tricky to determine just what to put on the shelves and in the coolers.
That takes a combination of listening to customers and suppliers when it comes to bringing in new items. Ultimately, of course, the customer makes the final decision.
And, while the Mullens believe they’ve been able to keep their business profitable and relevant because of employee housing, community involvement and sponsorships, it’s people who ultimately make or break a business.
“Any business relies on people,” Mullen said. “It’s a partnership with employees, consumers and wholesalers.”